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.

The 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).

Pesah (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.

The 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. 23:10-14).

The seder
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 contemporary issues.

Orthodox haggadot 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.

A 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

The 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 (prayerbook).

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.

Barukh 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 festival.)

The  Shehe'heyanu prayer, thanking God for the gift of life and having brought us to this season, is recited on the first night.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'hecheyanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu laz-mahn ha-zeh.
(Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day.

Other customs

Ma'ot hittin (literally, "wheat money") were historically given to the poor of every community before Pesah. Today, one customarily makes a charitable donation (tzedakah).

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.

Traditional foods
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

Black, Naomi. Celebration: The Book of Jewish Festivals (Jonathan David, 1989).
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 Books, 1988).
Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Jason Aronson, 1989).
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. (CCAR, 1983).
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).

NISAN Table of Contents




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend