Passover, the most significant Jewish holiday

Passover, the most significant Jewish holiday

The Passover Story in a Nutshell

As told in the Bible, after many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, God saw the people's distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: "Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me." But despite many warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed God's command. God then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation, God visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborns. While doing so, God spared the children of Israel, "passing over" their homes — hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh's resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land.

The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as God's chosen people. In ancient times, the Passover observance included the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, which was roasted and eaten at the Seder on the first night of the holiday. This was the case until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the 1st century.


How Is Passover Celebrated?

Passover is divided into two parts: the first two days and last two days (the latter commemorating the splitting of the Red Sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and kiddush and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. Israelites don't go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices. They cook and carry outdoors. The middle four days are called Chol Hamoed, semi-festive "intermediate days," when most forms of work are permitted.


No Chametz

To commemorate the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, and don't eat — or even keep in our possession — any chametz from midday of the day before Passover until the conclusion of the holiday. Chametz means leavened grain — any food or drink that contains even a trace of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelled or their derivatives, and which wasn't guarded from leavening or fermentation. This includes bread, cake, cookies, cereal, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages. Almost any processed food or drink can be assumed to be Chametz, unless certified otherwise.

Ridding our homes of Chametz is an intensive process. It involves a full-out spring-cleaning search-and-destroy mission during the weeks before Passover, and culminates with a ceremonial search for Chametz on the night before Passover, and then a burning of the Chametz ceremony on the morning before the holiday. Chametz that cannot be disposed of can be sold to a non-Jew (and bought back after the holiday).


Matzah

Instead of Chametz, we eat matzah—flat unleavened bread. It is a mitzvah to partake of matzah on the two Seder nights (see below for more on this), and during the rest of the holiday, it is optional. It is ideal to use handmade shmurah matzah, which has been zealously guarded against moisture from the moment of the harvest. You can purchase shmurah matzah here.


The Seders

The highlight of Passover is the Seder, observed on each of the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a fifteen-step family-oriented tradition and ritual-packed feast. The focal points of the Seder are: Eating matzah. Eating bitter herbs — to commemorate the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites.

Drinking four cups of wine or grape juice — a royal drink to celebrate our newfound freedom. The recitation of the Haggadah, a liturgy that describes the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the fulfillment of the biblical obligation to recount to our children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover. It begins with a child asking the traditional "Four Questions."


Why Passover Is Important

Passover, celebrating the greatest series of miracles ever experienced in history, is a time to reach above nature to the miraculous. But how are miracles achieved? Let’s take our cue from the matzah. Flat and unflavored, it embodies humility. Through ridding ourselves of inflated egos, we can tap into the miraculous well of divine energy we all have within our souls.


When Is the Seder?

The Seder feast is held on the first two nights of Passover (just the first night in Israel), after nightfall. Note: The Jewish calendar date begins at the sundown of the night beforehand. Thus, all holiday observances begin at sundown on the secular dates listed, with the following day being the first full day of the holiday.  Jewish calendar dates conclude at nightfall. The first two days of Passover (from sundown of the first date listed, until nightfall two days later) are full-fledged, no-work-allowed holiday days. The subsequent four days are Chol Hamoed, when work is allowed, albeit with restrictions. Chol Hamoed is followed by another two full holiday days.

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