About the festival and its names
Also known as the Festival of Freedom, the seven-day Passover holiday
(eight days in the Diaspora) commemorates the Exodus of the Children of
Israel from Egypt in (purportedly) the 13th century BCE, and their redemption
from slavery. The name Pesah (translated Passover) derives from the
Hebrew word pasah (passed over) and refers to the sparing of
the houses of the children of Israel during the tenth plague, the killing
of the firstborn.
term pesah is used in the Bible solely with respect to the
sacrifice of the paschal lamb, which took place on the eve of the Exodus,
the 14th of Nisan (Exodus Ch. 12).
(Passover) is also called the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Hag ha-Matzot);
matzah is eaten throughout the holiday in remembrance of the bread baked in
haste by the Israelites as they left Egypt; Jewish law prescribes that no
leavened bread may be owned or consumed throughout the holiday.
Beginning on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan, Passover is the second
of the three major pilgrimage festivals when the Israelites were enjoined
to make to offer as a sacrifice a tithe of their produce, which was to be
eaten in Jerusalem. The agricultural aspect of the festival is connected with
the spring season (Pesah is also called the Holiday of Spring) and
the beginning of the barley harvest.
celebration of the barley harvest found expression in ancient times in
the offering of the omer a sheaf of newly harvested
barley in the Temple on the second day of the festival. Only after
offering the omer and the appropriate accompanying sacrifice
were the pilgrims permitted to eat the grain of the new harvest (Lev.
The story of Israel's enslavement and subsequent liberation is retold
annually at the ritual meal known as the seder (order), with the central
narrative and liturgy found in a text called the haggadah (recounting).
The injunction to retell
the tale of the Exodus appears in Exodus 13:8 and makes use of the verb
"v'higgade-ta" (and you shall tell) on which the word haggadah
(literally the "telling" of the Passover story) is based. The term haggadah
has come to refer, by extension, to the manuscript or book which contains
the liturgical and literary content of the seder.
In the Diaspora, the seder is held at home on the first
two nights of Pesah, while in Israel only on the first night. The
seder began as a rabbinic version of the 1st-century Greco-Roman
ritualized meals called symposia, and gradually developed a larger and
larger narrative accompaniment, which became fixed in the haggadah.
While the haggadah,
one of the most frequently illustrated
and reproduced Jewish texts from the Middle Ages, consistently conveys the message
of freedom and liberation, many editions have been altered over time to reflect
today contain the entire text as tradition has preserved it, while liberal
Jews, particularly Reform, have adapted the text, replacing some of the
older readings with other material. The Kibbutz movement has produced
haggadot with socialist/secular themes, Freedom haggadot
from the cold war period strengthened solidarity with Soviet Jewry, and
women's haggadot, more recently, have incorporated feminist
ideals in a Jewish literary context.
special "seder plate" contains symbolic reminders of the sacrificial
service in the Temple (roasted shankbone and roasted egg), foods that remained
uneaten. Also on the plate are symbolic foods which are eaten as part of the
ritual meal: haroset, a sweet paste made from wine, fruits, and
nuts, symbolizing the mortar from which the Israelites made bricks; karpas,
greens dipped in salt water, symbolizing the green of new life mixed with tears
of slavery; and potatoes, harvested from the earth like greens and introduced
in countries where spring was late and/or greens were unavailable.
Also part of the ritual meal are eggs, signifying
rebirth and eternal life, a final piece of matzah (afikoman) which
concludes the meal, and four cups of wine, indicating God's saving presence
four times in Jewish history. A talmudic dispute regarding a fifth cup, symbolizing
deliverance at the end of time, led to the custom of filling but not
drinking a fifth cup, subsequently called "Elijah's cup."
Elijah is, according
to tradition, the mevasser (announcer, heralder), he who
will announce the coming of the Messiah. The door is thus opened to welcome
the harbinger of salvation and consolation.
In the home
dietary laws requiring the eating of matzah on the first night, also forbid
the eating of any hametz (leaven) throughout the holiday. The rabbis
added extra stringency to these regulations, forbidding the presence of the smallest
amount of leaven in a particular food, and requiring the use of special utensils
which never came into contact with leaven. The house is therefore scrubbed and
special care is taken to remove all bread items from the home; special Passover
dishes and pots are removed from storage to replace the usual sets during the
course of the festival.
A pre-Pesah ceremony, bedikat hametz
(checking for leaven) and bi'ur hametz (burning the hametz) is
performed in the home to ensure that all hametz has been removed.
To make sure that "there
be no leaven found in your houses" (Exodus 12:15), the rabbis instituted
a ceremonial search (bedikat hametz) for leavened substances,
which takes place after dark on the eve of 14 Nisan. All nooks and crannies
are examined (sometimes by candlelight) and swept out with a feather.
As this is a formal religious ceremony, a blessing is recited as part
of the ritual.
So that the blessing not be in vain, it has become customary in many communities
to hide small pieces of bread, for which the children then search. The
following morning, the ceremony is concluded with bi'ur hametz
(burning the hametz), also accompanied by a blessing. The
appropriate prayers and blessings may be found in any standard siddur
The first two nights (one in Israel) and the last two nights
(one in Israel) of the festival are welcomed with lighting of festival candles
and the recitation of the appropriate blessing.
atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid-shanu be'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu
le-hadlik ner shel Yom Tov (when the
festival falls on Shabbat, the concluding words are "ner shel
Shabbat v'Yom Tov").
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified
us with Your mitzvot and has commanded us to kindle light for
The Shehe'heyanu prayer, thanking
God for the gift of life and having brought us to this season, is recited
on the first night.
atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'hecheyanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the
Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling
us to reach this day.
hittin (literally, "wheat money") were historically given to
the poor of every community before Pesah. Today, one customarily makes a charitable
In the synagogue
A prayer for dew is recited on the first day of the festival, marking the
end of the winter season and the beginning of spring. On Sabbath which falls
on Pesah, Song of Songs is recited in Ashkenazi synagogues; the rabbis
read this romantic book as an allegorical expression of the bond established
at the Exodus between God and the children of Israel. The special Hallel (Psalms
of praise) prayers are also read in the synagogue.
The concept of hametz (leavened food) forbidden on Pesah, includes
food made of the grains wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. Thus such foods
as cookies, crackers, cakes, cereals, breads, cereals and liquids made from
these grains or their liquid are forbidden. Permitted are meat, fish, fowls,
and all fruits and vegetables, fresh packages of coffee, tea, sugar and salt.
In different communities, recipes making use of special matzah meal/flour
or potato flour have produced very special festive dishes.
reading and study
Naomi. Celebration: The Book of Jewish Festivals (Jonathan David,
Donin, Rabbi Hayim Halevy. To be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance
in Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1972).
Greenberg, Rabbi Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (Summit
Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Jason
Goodman, Philip, ed. Jewish Holiday anthologies (JPS, 1970, 1992).
Jacobs, Louis. The Book of Jewish Practice (Behrman House, 1987)
Kitov, Eliyahu. The Book of Our Heritage (Feldheim, 1978).
Klagsbrun, Francine. Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture around
the Year (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996).
Knobel, Peter. Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year.
Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays
(Adama Books, 1985).
Schauss, Hayyim. The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to their History and Observance
(Schocken Books, 1996).
Strassfeld, Michael. The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (Harper
& Row, 1985).
Waskow, Arthur. Season of our Joy: A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal
(Beacon Press, 1990).
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