Passover 101: Slavery, Freedom, Matzah and More
Passover 2012 is celebrated for eight days beginning on the evening of Friday, April 6th and ending at dusk on Saturday, April 14th. Some Jews, particularly Conservative and Orthodox Jews, hold seders on the 18th and 19th, and conclude Passover after eight days, at sundown on April 14. Others, particularly Israeli and Reform Jews, hold one seder on first night of the holiday and conclude Passover after seven days, at sundown on the 13th.
Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. The Biblical book of Exodus tells the story of the ancient Hebrews, settled in Egypt for generations since Jacob's family reunited with Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis. While in Egypt, the Jews grew in number, which made the ruling Pharaoh fear a revolt. Pharaoh first enslaved the Jews, but when that didn't help, he commanded all the midwives who delivered Hebrew babies to kill any newborn boys.
Things started to change when two rebel midwives saved the baby Moses. He grew up to be a leader of the enslaved Hebrews, and he became God's representative when God began casting plagues upon the Egyptians. During each plague, Pharaoh bluffed that if God stopped, Pharaoh would free the Jews. It took ten plagues before the Jewish people were able to leave. The tenth plague brought the story full circle, with the death of all the Egyptian firstborn. On the night when God killed the firstborn, He spared the Jews by passing over their homes. This is how the name Passover is explained.
We are told to remember and celebrate this occasion in every generation as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. But how?
To recall the Passover story, we come together at a seder the first two nights of the holiday (some people observe just one seder). At the seder (literally, order, after the 14 steps in the ritual) we retell the story of the Jews being freed from Egypt from a book called the Haggadah (literally "the telling"). (Need a Haggadah? Download JewishBoston's free, editable one).
During the seder we also focus on six symbolic foods from the seder plate that help us tell the story of the exodus. These include bitter herbs, lettuce, parsley, charoset, a shankbone, and an egg. Bitter herbs, maror, remind us of the bitter time of slavery. Parsley or celery, karpas, dipped in salt water, represent the tears and hardships in Egypt, but the green leaves also remind us that springtime is here. Charoset, chopped apples and nuts, symbolize the mortar of the bricks used by the Jews while working. The shankbone, zeroah, reminds us of the paschal lamb sacrifice made at the Temple. Finally the egg, beitzah, a symbol of another sacrifice at the Temple, signifies our sadness over the destruction of the Temple, but also we see the egg's roundness to symbolize renewal.
To further remind us of our ancestors' history and commemorate the occasion as if it was us being freed, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread, matzah, during the holiday. As the Jews rushed out of Egypt, their bread did not have time to rise, so we commemorate that by avoiding foods made from the five grains that leaven: barley, wheat, spelt, oats, and rye. Jews from Eastern Europe, Ashkenazim, also avoid eating kitniyot—rice, beans, peanuts, and corn—foods whose flour can be confused with those of the five grains.
Since we can't eat chametz, leaven, during Passover, the holiday really begins much earlier when people begin cleaning their house of any bread. By the eve of Passover, our houses must be cleared and beginning the afternoon, we no longer eat chametz. One traditional way to clear chametz is by selling it to someone who isn't Jewish. There is also a custom to conduct a search for chametz throughout your house (bedikat chametz) and burning the remaining pieces found (biyur chametz) before renouncing any chametz that may be left (bittul chametz).
Passover also offers us the opportunity to look ahead to the future of the Jewish people. On the second night of the holiday, we begin counting the days until Shavuot, the day we were given the Torah on Mount Sinai. Counting these forty nine days is known as the Counting of the Omer.
Passover invites us to celebrate a variety of themes, most importantly our redemption from slavery. In the Haggadah we read as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. We are thankful that we and our ancestors are no longer slaves under Pharaoh. However, it can be easy to become slaves in other ways nowadays: to our work, our technologies, our habits. During Passover, we have an opportunity to put all of that aside. Our obligation now is to take time to be thankful and to rejoice that we are free.
Whether you're hosting a seder, hoping to find one to attend, or just looking to improve the taste of matzah, JewishBoston has the resources you need. Learn about our free, downloadable Haggadah, check out the events in the area, or try your hand at some of our delicious kosher for Passover recipes.
Photo is from Flickr under Creative Common license; please click on the image for source.