Passover: Jews commemorate the Exodus with seders, matzo & prayers

Silver pewter cup with matzo crackers on white cloth with blue letters in Hebrew

A cup of wine and matzo for Passover. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 3—Jewish families around the world begin one of the most important holiday periods of the year, recalling the ancient liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus. After having forced the ancient Israelites into slavery for many years, the Pharaoh of Egypt refused to obey God, and the consequential 10th plague was, quite literally, the occasion of the famous Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children with the exception of the children in Jewish families, whose homes were passed over.)

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is one of the most universal expressions of Judaism. The Passover period of 2015 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 11.

Want more on Passover food traditions? You’ll enjoy Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column—with a recipe, of course. In a second FeedTheSpirit column, Bobbie describes the fascinating custom of scouring the house to remove every scrap of “chametz” before Passover—and she adds another recipe (and this one is gluten free)!

This year, holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton and Jewish scholar and author Joe Lewis are collaborating on our coverage. Next, here is …

JOE LEWIS ON PASSOVER

Passover is about skipping: “When I see the blood, I will skip over you” (Ex. 12:13). The Hebrew root for the word “skip” is P-S-Ch. It’s used for a limp (Lev. 21:18 and 2 Samuel 4:4), for wavering between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21) and for hip-hop dancing of a pagan sort (1 Kings 18:26; Robert Graves suggests that bird-like strutting was a feature of ancient ritual dance). But as any dancer knows, you have to know what to skip and what to stress.

So don’t skip on the preparations: a zealous spring cleaning to clear leaven from the house, and careful transfer of ownership of remaining leaven to someone who’s not Jewish.

Don’t skip the food: you give up pasta, flour, bread and edible breakfast cereal, but there are lots of ways to prepare matza (or matzah) from matza balls to matza bagels. There must be at least a hundred varieties of matza kugel, and if you only serve 99 at your seder, what’s wrong with you?

Plate with six compartments for egg, lettuce, bones, red sauce and pate

The Seder Plate contains symbolic items at the Passover seder table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Don’t skip through the Hagadah (some people spell it with two gs or one h): although we’ve been reading the same book for centuries so some of us have it memorized; and although our true obligation is to discuss what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be free, rather than to read our service by rote; and although everybody is hungry before the Seder meal and a little tired and tipsy after it; and although it’s late and the kids will be unmanageable the next day; someone is sure to say—with good reason—“We mustn’t skip this next part.”

Don’t skip services. Every day of Passover is a special day in the synagogue, with extra sections added to the daily morning service, so you wouldn’t want to miss it.

But don’t go overboard! What happens if a little rodent should bring some leaven into the house, our sages asked in the Mishnah, the ancient compilation of Jewish tradition (Pesachim 1:2). Ah, they answer, if you worry about these possibilities that are beyond your control, there’s no end to it.

To Passover there is an end: after nightfall on the eighth day, the festival is over and we resume our usual diet.

STEPHANIE FENTON ON PASSOVER

Our long-time holidays columnist reports on the many ways men, women and children experience these festivals and milestones. This year, she spotted these news items and resources:

A Supreme Court justice recently penned a feminist reading of the Passover story, released by the American Jewish World Service and presented as something that could be used during the Passover seder. (Washington Post reported.) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of three women currently sitting on the United States Supreme Court, has more recently become known as the Notorious RBG—though her focus on gender equality is anything but new. The short essay, entitled “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover,” highlights five imperative women of the Exodus story, including Moses’ mother, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sister.

Cook up memories with Australian Jewish Holocaust survivors, as is detailed in this recent story by ABC. After learning the heroic stories of three brave survivors, cook up the recipes—they’re included in the story. Passover cakes and more, along with videos of the inter-generational families, add depth of connection to Passover and the seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com, My Jewish Learning and Wikipedia.

PASSOVER AT A GLANCE

Following Moses, the Jewish people left Egypt so quickly that, tradition says, the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—so Passover breads are unleavened.

Prior to the start of Passover, all chametz (leavened grain) is removed from the house. The removal of chametz can be an intensive and precise ritual—and it’s a lot of fun if parents involve young children in the final hunt for chametz. Matzah (unleavened bread) is eaten at the Passover seder and throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through a recitation of the Haggadah.

Passover lasts for seven days in Israel, and eight days outside of Israel. During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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