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Passover - Pesach: History & Overview

Pesach, or Passover in English, is one of the best known Jewish holidays, as much for its connection to Jewish redemption and the figure of Moses as for its ties with Christian history (the Last Supper was apparently a Passover seder).

Special Foods
The Seder


Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu’ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. The primary observances of Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery as told in the biblical Book of Exodus from chapters 1 to 15.

Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. Work is permitted on the intermediate days, referred to as Chol Ha-Mo’ed.

The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach which is based on the root “pass over” and refers to the fact that G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt during the last of the ten plagues. Passover is also widely referred to as Chag he-Aviv (the "Spring Festival"), Chag ha-Matzoth (the "Festival of Matzahs"), and Zeman Herutenu (the Time of Our Freedom).

Many of the Passover observances still held were instituted in chapters 12 to 15 of the Exodus story in the Torah. Probably the most significant observance involves the removal of chametz (leavened bread) from homes and property. Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water (Ashkenazic Jews also consider rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes as chametz). The removal of chametz commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the “puffiness” (arrogance, pride) from our souls.

In fact, Jews are not only prohibited from eating chametz during Passover, but they may not own or derive any sort of benefit from it either, including using it to feed pets. This important stipulation requires Jews to sell all remaining leavened products before Passover begins, including utensils used to cook chametz.

The grain product we eat during Passover in place of chametz is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is traditionally viewed as the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. Matzah is also referred to as Lechem Oni (Bread of Affliction).


The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. To do it right, most Jews spend several days and even weeks scrubbing down their kitchens, thoroughly cleaning the insides of stoves, fridges, and ovens, and covering all surfaces with foil or shelf-liner that came in contact with chametz during the year.

On the night before the holiday begins (14th of Nissan), a formal search of the house is undertaken - this is called B'dikat Chametz (Searching for Leavened Bread). A custom to disperse ten pieces of chametz throughout one's house before the search is widely followed and the actual search is ceremonially done with a candle and a feather (though most people today use a flashlight and dustpan).

After the search, a small paragraph is recited to nullify any additional chametz which could not be found: "All leaven or anything leavened with is in my possession, which I have niether seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered naught and ownerless as the dust of the earth."

The morning before Passover begins any remaining chametz in one's possession must be burned, a commandment called Biyur Chametz (Burning of Leavened Bread). Today, many towns will establish a community site where a large bonfire is created and all the residents come to destroy their chametz. Once destroyed, the paragraph said the night before (about nullifying chametz which was not found) is again recited.

The day before Passover is also a fast day for firstborn males, commemorating that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague. Many men do not fast on this day because they attend a celebration of the completion of the Talmud which allows the fast to be broken.

Special Foods

While Passover is unusual for the obligation to remove all chametz, there is still a great deal of foods unique to the holiday.

Click on the following link to find information and recipes for meals and food on Passover.

The Seder

On the first night of Passover (first two nights outside of Israel), Jews are commanded to have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called the Seder, which is a Hebrew root word meaning “order.” It is the same root from which we derive the word “siddur” (prayer book).

The Seder, however, is no ordinary holiday meal - there is a specific set of tasks that must be completed and information that must be covered in a specific order. To correctly follow the process, the text of the Passover seder is written in a book called the Haggadah.

The content of the seder is summed up in fourteen parts:

Kaddesh (Sancitifcation), Urechatz (Washing), Karpas (Vegetable), Yachatz (Breaking),
Maggid (
The Story), Rachtzah (Washing), Motzi Matzah (Blessings),
Maror (
Bitter Herbs), Korech (Sandwich), Shulchan Orech (Dinner),
Tzafun (
Dessert), Barech (Grace), Hallel (Song), Nirtzah (Closing)

Now, what does that mean?

1. Kaddesh: Sanctification

The word is derived from the Hebrew root Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning holy. This is a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

2. Urechatz: Washing

A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.

3. Karpas: Vegetable

A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

4. Yachatz: Breaking

One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

5. Maggid: The Story

A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise son, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked son, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple son, who needs to know the basics; and the son who is unable to ask, the one who doesn’t even know enough to know what he needs to know. At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

6. Rachtzah: Washing

A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.

7. Motzi Matzah: Blessings over Grain Products and Matzah

The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah. A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.

8. Maror: Bitter Herbs

A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is eaten with charoses, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.

9. Korech: The Sandwich

Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoses (we don’t do animal sacrifice anymore, so there is no paschal offering).

10. Shulchan Orech: Dinner

A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal.

11. Tzafun: The Afikomen

The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as “dessert,” the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.

12. Barech: Grace after Meals

The third cup of wine is poured, and grace after meals is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Sabbath. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Passover to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but historically because Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of Christian babies in matzah (the Blood Libel), and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that we weren’t doing anything unseemly).

13. Hallel: Praises

Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.

14. Nirtzah: Closing

A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.

Source: Judaism 101

Photo of Exodus public domain, Wikimedia.