Pesach (Passover) is arguably the most important Jewish holiday. Beginning at sundown on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan (that’s April 18th for us this year) and lasting through the 22nd, Pesach marks the evening in which the angel of the Lord fell upon Egypt and killed the first born of every home without lamb’s blood on the lintel post. This is the event that broke the will of pharaoh and the children of Israel were freed from decades of bondage in Egypt. Their subsequent trek to Mount Sinai would mark their birth as a people and a nation as they took a covenant with God and entered History.
The celebration of Pesach is both intensive and fun. This is a time when the Jewish people remember the bitter labors of slavery and the sweet release of freedom by the hand of God. First and foremost in the household preparation of Pesach is the elimination of chametz in the home. Chametz is leavened grain, so this means anything containing yeast or wheat must be systematically cleansed from the home. Why? Because these people left Egypt in such a hurry that the bread they prepared for the trip didn’t have time to rise. Therefore, they brought only matzah.
Matzah, by the way, should make its way into every kitchen. You can make anything with this stuff.
Anyway, the children of Israel (some estimate about 600,000 strong), led my Moses, bolted out of Egypt and, apart from being chased by pharaoh and crossing the Reed Sea (notice I said Reed. It was the Reed, not the Red Sea), it was a straight shot to the base of Mount Sinai where they received the Law and established their Covenant with God.
How is Pesach celebrated?
There are some general guidelines, however portions of the holiday week differ depending on your faith community and/or family tradition. No Pesach is complete though, without two items: the seder plate and the Haggadah.
The seder plate is a culinary symbol in which each type of food represents something different about Jewish identity. Each person has a plate of their own and participates in the ritual consumption of all but the zeroa. Seder plates contain the following:
- Zeroa— This can be a lamb or chicken bone with most of the meat removed. This represents the sacrifices made to the Temple before its destruction. It is the only item not eaten.
- Beitzah— A hard-boiled egg that represents the festival offering.
- Maror— Horseradish and romaine lettuce used as bitter herbs dipped in the charoset. This represents the bitter reality of slavery.
- Charoset— this is a paste made of apples, walnuts, wine, and pears. The consistency represents the mortar and bricks manufactured by the Jews during slavery.
- Chazeret— romaine lettuce and horseradish used in the matzah-maror sandwich containing the bitter herbs, two pieces of matzah, and meat introduced by the sage Hillel.
- Karpas— a vegetable, commonly onion or potato, dipped in salt water at the beginning of the seder ritual. The action of dipping represents luxury while the salt water represents the tears of slavery. The Hebrew letters of the word also create an acronym for a phrase that means “six-hundred thousand worked at breaking labor.”
- Wine, though not part of the seder plate, is also enjoyed. Traditionally each participant drink four roughly 3 oz. glasses at designated times during the ritual as spelled out by the Haggadah.
Participating in the seder involves a 15-step process that includes specific ways in which to eat each of the items (except the zeroa), as well as accounts from the Exodus retold by the Haggadah. If Pesach then is a retelling/reenactment of the night before the Exodus, then the Haggadah is the “script” from which the story is told.
Everyone, including children, are involved in this event which include the iconic Four Questions typically asked by a child. The exchange goes as follows:
“Father, I will ask you four questions. What makes Passover night different from all other nights of the year?”
In order, the responses are:
1) On all nights of the year we do not [need to] dip even once, but on Passover night we dip twice! The first time, we dip karpas in salt water, and the second time, bitter herbs in charoset paste. 2) On all nights of the year we eat chametz or matzah, but on Passover night we eat only matzah! 3) On all nights of the year we eat various vegetables, but on Passover night we eat bitter vegetables! 4) On all nights of the year we eat either sitting upright or reclining, but on Passover night we all eat while reclining!
Asking questions is an important part of learning in general and Jewish learing in particular. In Judaism, active debate, dialogue, and questioning isn’t seen as a negative or disrespectful act but a pious one that show the intent of a hungry spirit/mind. The Haggadah then becomes the guide for older generations to share the story of Pesach and the Exodus (an important mitzvah, by the way) with others–especially children.
The Pesach celebration typically lasts until and beyond midnight on the first night and, in some cases, the first two and last two evenings of the holiday week. Pesach is a very detailed holiday so I won’t go into everything here, but the seder plate and Haggadah give you a good start. I used chabad.org for most of my information and preparation for this wonderful event. I will make another post tomorrow about my personal Pesach experience in my home this evening.
As we contemplate the Pesach holiday, some of us as goyim (Gentiles or non-Jews), I’d like for you to imagine what the first Pesach must have been like. Regardless of whether you believe the literal account of the Torah (supernatural plagues and events), what is evident is that an entire people was born from the event. What would human history be like without the Jews? Try and imagine life without them. Can’t? Maybe I can help…
- The Jewish people are (many believe) responsible for the development of monotheism as we know it today. Are you a monotheist? Hug a Jew.
- Further. Are you a Christian or a Muslim? These faiths are branches of the same tree which roots itself in the person of Abraham–the first Jew.
- Enjoy science, philosophy, and literature? One of my favorite authors is Michael Chabon. There are countless others, many of whom are involved in the arts and media today. Why? Jews are expert storytellers; they’ve had excellent training via the rabbinic tradition of interpretation and recitation. Their knack for science stems from an active imagination and the divine encouragement to question and explore the world around them. Famous Jewish scientists include Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, and Carl Sagan.
There are more, but listing them all would be exhausting. Plus, it’s more fun listening to Adam Sandler–another famous Jew–do it for us.
P.S. I know, I know it’s the “Chanukah Song,” but you get the point.