The Passover holiday (in Hebrew, Pesah) celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Jews are commanded to tell the story as if it had happened to them personally and not as a mere historical event, in order to emphasize the importance of our hard-won and precious freedom.
Preparations for Passover
The period preceding Passover is marked by extensive preparations and several special ceremonies. The most important of these concerns the removal of hametz, i.e. any food product that contains leavened wheat, oat, barley, rye, or spelt products. In keeping with the biblical command in Exodus 12:19 and 13:7, Jews will, before Passover, thoroughly clean their homes to remove any crumbs or bits of food. This cleaning culminates in a ritual candlelight search for hametz in one's home, accompanied by a special blessing and the renunciation of formal ownership over any remaining hametz. The hametz collected during the search is then burned on the morning before Passover. While certain types of dishes and utensils can be made kosher for Passover, many Jews will have separate sets of dishes and utensils solely for use during Passover.
In the absence of leaven, Jews will eat specially prepared unleavened bread, or matzah, on Passover. Many Jews will also eat products made with matzah "flour" - unleavened bread that has been finely ground. Matzah dates back to the Exodus, where the Jews, not having had time to wait for dough to rise before leaving Egypt, journeyed into the desert with unleavened bread.
Unleavened bread, or matzah (Photo by Roman Siagev)
The Seder and the First Day of Passover
On the evening of Passover, after festive evening prayers, families eat a special ceremonial meal known as the Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The guide for the Seder is detailed in a book known as the Haggadah, literally "narration," which relates the story of the Exodus from Egypt. A plate placed on the Seder table contains several special foods: a roasted egg, symbolizing the special sacrifices which were brought in the Temple; a roasted shank bone, recalling the special Passover lamb offered and eaten in Temple times; a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon known as haroset, symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used to make bricks; sprigs of parsley and lettuce, symbolizing spring; a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; and salt water, recalling the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Three sheets of matzah - marking the division of the Jewish people into priests (cohanim), Levites and the common people - are also placed on the table.
During the course of the Seder, the Ten Plagues are recalled. When each of the Plagues is mentioned, each participant dips a finger into his/her cup of wine and removes a drop; even though the Jews were oppressed in Egypt, we are reminded that we must not rejoice over the Egyptians' suffering. Our cups of wine cannot thus be full.
One of the more popular Seder customs for children concerns the afikoman, a special piece of matzah that is the last food eaten during the Seder. The head of the household customarily hides the afikoman somewhere in the house, and the children then search for it. Once found, the afikoman is "ransomed," since the Seder cannot continue until the afikoman is eaten. This helps to keep the children focused on the seder and to pique their curiosity regarding the entire Passover epic.
In the morning, festive prayers, including a prayer for dew during the spring and summer, and special readings will figure prominently in synagogue services.
The Intermediate Days of Passover
While the intermediate days of Passover are not full public holidays, special prayers and readings are recited in the synagogue. Schools will remain closed, as will many businesses. Newspapers will be published.
Jewish tradition maintains that the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army occurred on the seventh day of Passover, but even though Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, Jews nevertheless do not rejoice over the death of the Egyptians in the sea and only an abridged version of Hallel (Psalms 113:118) - a holiday prayer - is recited after the first day of Passover.
From the first day of Passover, Jews keep a nightly count of the 49 days (seven weeks), until one day before the holiday of Shavuot. This count commemorates the Temple offering of the omer, or sheaf of new grain, in keeping with the Biblical injunction of Leviticus 23:15-16.