Passover: Jews gather ’round the seder table, share stories and history

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 22: Jewish families around the globe sit down to seder tables and remember the ancient, biblical story of freedom as Passover begins.

Recalling the liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus, Passover is so named because of the 10th plague of ancient Egypt, which was, quite literally, a Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children, but passed over the homes with Jewish children.) The Seder meal, undertaken after sunset, may also be attended by non-Jews or friends of Jews. The meal is replete with centuries-old rituals, stories, readings, songs and lively discussions. The Passover period of 2016 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 30.

Want fresh Passover recipes and more? Check out Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column, which features a mouthwatering take on charoset (plus a timely explanation of Passover’s annual date on the calendar).

Think Passover isn’t rooted in real food? Think again! A second FeedTheSpirit column features a guest columnist who grew up as a Jew on a sheep farm—and offers a real-food perspective that seamlessly links traditional perspectives with today’s most relevant issues.

Invited to a seder and not sure what to do? Learn about all of the Jewish holidays, what a seder looks like and so much more with Michigan State University’s recent release, 100 Questions & Answers about American Jews.


In the weeks and months before Passover, Jewish families meticulously clear their homes of any type of leavened grain, known as chametz. The removal of the final chametz can even be made into a fun ritual game, for which children often get involved. For the Passover meal, many Jews may cook with a separate set of cooking utensils and host dinners with a “clean” set of dishes—that is, items that are put aside especially for Passover and have never come into contact with chametz. Any leavened grains in the home may be temporarily sold to non-Jewish friends or neighbors.

According to tradition, the Jewish people left ancient Egypt to follow Moses once they had been freed. They left in such a hurry, however, that the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—and, thus, Passover breads are unleavened. Called matzah, the unleavened bread is consumed throughout Passover. In Israel today, Passover lasts seven days; outside of Israel, Passover is eight days.

Passover seders—typically, the most attended events of the Jewish year—last several hours or more. Table settings, foods served and even the ceremonial prayers used are precise and carefully selected. During the seder, the story of Exodus is commemorated through readings from the Haggadah. Multiple food courses are served during the meal, and children enjoy many of the songs and activities.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day, the omer—a unit of measure—begins being used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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

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 …


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?

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.


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, the Jewish Virtual Library,, My Jewish Learning and Wikipedia.


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.