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The History Behind 7 Passover Traditions

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Passover is nearly here, which means millions of observing Jews all over the world will be ridding their pantries of all leavened breads and gearing up for a seder — or maybe two.

In 2023, Passover begins at nightfall on April 5 and ends on April 13. The Jewish holiday is centered around the retelling of the Biblical story of the Jewish people being freed from slavery in Egypt. Every family has its own Passover rituals, which may reflect family tradition or the denomination of Judaism (some are more orthodox, others less traditional).

If you’re new to this observance — maybe you have been invited to your first Passover seder, or maybe your church has decided to host one in advance of Easter — here’s a Passover primer for all your questions including the history behind it, what a seder is and why people don’t eat leavened bread during the holiday.

Why is Passover celebrated?

Passover commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus — where God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The celebration of Passover is prescribed in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament (in Judaism, the first five books of Moses are called the Torah). The holiday is often celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel), and incorporates themes of springtime, a Jewish homeland, family, remembrance of Jewish history, social justice and freedom — including recognizing those who are still being oppressed today. All of these aspects are discussed, if not symbolically represented, during the Passover seder.

Whether or not the Exodus actually happened remains unclear, and it continues to be a mystery that still confounds biblical scholars and archeologists alike.

Elon Gilad, who writes about history and language, told Haaretz that Passover traditions are actually the result of merging of two ancient festivals celebrating spring, one of nomadic origin and one from villages.

“Not only does our modern Seder wildly diverge from the Passover of old: during antiquity itself the holiday underwent radical changes,” Gilad writes.

When is Passover?

Passover takes place in early spring during the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, as prescribed in the book of Exodus. Exodus 12:18 commands that Passover be celebrated, “from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.”

Because the Hebrew calendar does not match up with the Gregorian calendar, the date of Passover (along with other Jewish holidays) changes every year.

Passover dates for 2023 are April 5 through April 13.

What is a Haggadah?

A Haggadah is a book that’s read during the seder that tells the story of Passover. The Hebrew word “Haggadah” means “telling,” and according to My Jewish Learning, Haggadot date back to the Middle Ages.

In contemporary Passover celebrations, relevant political or social justice themes have been incorporated into the seder. For example, Rabbi Arthur Waskow published the “Freedom Seder” in 1969, which discussed the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. And while there are myriad Haggadot to choose from to fit nearly all religious, age-specific, political or even satirical needs, the retelling of the Exodus is a key fixture in a Haggadah, along with the reading of the 10 plagues, the asking of the four questions, and explaining various Passover rituals, some of which date back 2,000 years, according to My Jewish Learning.

What is the Passover story?

In the (very) basic Passover storyline, the Pharaoh is fearful that there will be too many Jews living in Egypt so he institutes slavery and demands that male Jewish babies be killed. Baby Moses is saved by his mother, who floats him in a basket down the Nile river, where he is found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. After killing a slave master, Moses flees into the desert, and encounters a burning bush of God revealing himself to Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Jews out of slavery.

Moses goes to the Pharaoh and asks that he let the Jews go free from Egypt. Each time the Pharaoh says “no,” God sends a plague down on Egypt (darkness, lice, boils, cattle disease, etc.). The tenth and final plague is the most drastic: the killing of the first born by the so-called angel of death. In order to protect their first-born children, the Israelites marked their doors with lamb’s blood so the angel of death would pass over them. Thus the name Passover, which is “pesach” in Hebrew. The Israelites were ultimately freed from slavery and wandered the desert for 40 years before making it to the promise land.

What is a seder?

The Hebrew word “seder” translates to “order,” and the Passover seder is a home ritual blending religious rituals, food, song and storytelling. Families hold a seder on the first and sometimes second night of Passover.

It is fundamentally a religious service set around a dinner table, where the order in which participants eat, pray, drink wine, sing, discuss current social justice issues and tell stories is prescribed by a central book called the Haggadah.

What are some key symbols of the Passover seder?

On Passover seder tables, you may see a partitioned plate containing small amounts of specific food.

This is the seder plate, and each food is symbolic for an aspect of Passover: A roasted shank bone represents the Pescah sacrifice, an egg represents spring and the circle of life, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, haroset (an applesauce-like mixture with wine, nuts, apples, etc.) represents the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt, karpas (or greens, often parsley) to represent spring.

Also placed on the table are three pieces of matzah — a cracker-like unleavened bread — that represent the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, and salt water to represent the tears of the slaves. At your seat, you may see a specific wine glass (or kiddish cup). The Torah commands that (at least) four symbolic cups of wine be consumed during the Passover seder.

There may also be one or two extra kiddish cups at your table: One is a cup of wine for the prophet Elijah whose spirit visits on passover. In some families, a cup of water is set out for Moses’s sister Miriam. This new feminist tradition symbolizes Miriam’s Well, which provided water for the Israelites in the desert; it also symbolizes the importance of women during the Exodus.

On the chairs, you may see pillows. This is because on Passover you are supposed to recline at the table as a symbol of being free.

Don’t worry if you can’t keep this all straight. Because Passover is a retelling of a story to new generations, and due to the seder’s prescribed order, the Haggadah does a pretty good job explaining many key elements and symbols as you read along. There is even a specific section of the seder called the four questions, where the youngest person at the table asks about the different Passover symbols and the elders explain.

What are traditional Passover foods?

In addition to eating the foods represented on the seder plate (with the exception of lamb, which is not eaten) a Passover meal — that breaks up the two halves of the seder — is served.

The meal’s menu will differ depending on family tradition. Traditional dishes include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, beef brisket, chicken and potatoes. Traditional Sephardic (Mediterranean and Spanish) Passover foods reflect a Mediterranean spin on the Passover dinner.

Why don’t Jews eat leavened bread during Passover?

Not featured during the meal are leavened foods made of grain known as “chametz.” Chametz is prohibited during Passover, so you won’t find any pasta, cookies, bread or cereal at the seder. (More traditional Jews will completely clean out any foods containing chametz from their home.)

This has to do with the story of Passover: After the killing of the first born, the Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go. But in their haste to leave Egypt, the Israelites could not let their bread rise and so they brought unleavened bread. This specific dietary requirement is spelled out in Exodus 12:14, “You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.”

To commemorate this, Jews do not eat leavened bread for eight days. While all Jews are required to abstain from chametz, Ashkenazi Jews are also prohibited from eating rice, corn or legumes – known as “kitniyot.” while Sephardic Jews eat kitniyot during Passover.

Any bread-like substance (cakes, dumplings, etc.) found at the seder will be made by combining matzoh meal, some sort of fat, and eggs to remain kosher for Passover.

If you want to bring something for the host, pick up an item from the kosher for Passover section of your supermarket, or stick to a bottle of kosher wine or flowers.

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