Pesach, Passover - Exodus from Egypt after generations
Why do we celebrate Passover (Pesach)?
Passover (Pesach) 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, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday.
The primary observances of Pesach are related to the Exodus from
Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus,
Passover (Pesach) 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. See Extra Day
of Holidays for more information. Work is permitted on the intermediate
days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred
to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.
What does Pesach mean?
The name "Pesach" comes from the Hebrew
root Peh-Samech-Chet , meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt
or to spare. It refers to the fact that G-d "passed over"
the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt.
In English, the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is
also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in
the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Chag
ha-Aviv , (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth , (the Festival of
Matzahs), and Z'man Cherutenu , (the Time of Our Freedom).
What are the Traditions of Passover (Pesach)?
1. Removal of chametz.
Probably the most significant observance related
to Pesach involves the removal of chametz (leaven) from our homes.
This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were 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
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. Orthodox
Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and
legumes (beans) as if they were chametz. All of these items are commonly
used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion.
Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot."
We may not eat chametz during Passover (Pesach);
we may not even own it or derive benefit from it. We may not even
feed it to our pets or cattle. All chametz, including utensils used
to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew (they
can be repurchased after the holiday).
The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in
preparation for Passover (Pesach) is an enormous task. To do it right,
you must prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing
everything down. After the cleaning is completed, the morning before
the seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is undertaken,
and any remaining chametz is burned.
The grain product we eat during Passover (Pesach)
is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour
and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews
made for their flight from Egypt. There are many inventive ways to
use matzah. It is available in a variety of textures for cooking:
matzah flour (finely ground for cakes and cookies), matzah meal (coarsely
ground, used as a bread crumb substitute), matzah farfel (little chunks,
a noodle or bread cube substitute), and full-sized matzahs (about
10 inches square, a bread substitute).
2. The Fast of the Firstborn.
The day before Pesach is the Fast of the Firstborn,
a minor fast for all firstborn males, commemorating the fact that
the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final
3. A special family meal.
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for
traditional Jews outside Israel), there is a special family meal filled
with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This
meal is called a seder , from a Hebrew root word meaning "order,"
because there is a specific set of information that must be discussed
in a specific order.
The Pesach Seder
The text of the Pesach seder is written in a book
called the Haggadah. The content of the seder can be summed up by
the following Hebrew rhyme:
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
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 afikoman (see below).
5. Maggid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach.
This begins with the youngest person asking Four Questions, a set
of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation
in the seder. Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why
is it different?), which are the first words of Four Questions. This
is often sung.
The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types
of people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details;
the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing
so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who
is unable to ask, who doesn't even know enough to know what he needs
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: Blessing over Grain Products
The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products
used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horse-radish),
and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror
is dipped charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine,
which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their
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 charoset.
11.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. Roast chicken or
turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket.
12. Tzafun: The Afikoman
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert,"
the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions
relating to the afikoman. 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.
13. Barech: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after
meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said
on any Shabbat. 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 Pesach to do this. The door is opened for a
while at this point for Elijah.
14. Hallel: Praises
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup
of wine and it is drunk.
15. Nirtzah: Closing
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish
that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the
Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various
hymns and stories.
Why do we drink four cups of wine at the Seder?
Passover celebrates one of the most important events in Jewish history: our freedom. That's why the Passover story begins with the story of our Exodus from Egypt . The Bible tells us that the Children of Israel went out of Egypt in the spring. So Passover, of course, is celebrated during the spring.
Passover has many names. In Hebrew, the word for Passover is Pesach (or Pesah ). No one knows what the word Pesach really means. Some people say it comes from the Hebrew word 'pasha', which means “to skip” because God, as you read in the story of Passover, “skipped” over the Jewish houses to save the Jewish firstborn children.
There are at least four names for Passover: Holiday of Spring ( Chag ha Aviv ), Holiday of Matzah ( Chag ha Matzot ), Season of our Freedom ( Zeman Cherutainu , pronounced Chey-roo-TAY-noo) and the Holiday of Paschal Offering ( Chag ha Pesach ).
Each name tells us about a different way of understanding the holiday. Each name emphasizes a different theme. But no matter what name it's called, Passover makes it possible for us to recall this event in Jewish history.
In many homes the end of Purim marks the beginning of the month-long period of preparation for Pesah-Passover, the spring holiday beginning on the fifteenth of Nisan , celebrating the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt . The preparation includes buying Pesah foods and ridding the home of all bread, cakes, and other hametz — leaven. In Ashkenazi households, kitniyot — corn, rice, beans, and other legumes — are not eaten because they are sometimes ground into flour and used to make bread.
Matzah is bread that has not risen, and we eat it on Pesah to remind ourselves of the Jews' great rush to leave Egypt . They didn't wait for the bread they were baking to rise. There is a custom not to eat any matzah from Purim until Pesah to create a craving for it.
Central to the celebration of Pesah is the seder, the ceremonial meal on the first two nights of the holiday. The word “seder” means order, and there is a definite order to the seder rituals.
At the seder each participant should celebrate as if he or she just became free. At the seder we recline as we eat the matzah and drink the wine. Reclining is a symbol of freedom and this is how royalty ate, and at the seder each of us is a king or queen. It is also a custom to pour wine for others but not for ourselves, because members of the royal family do not serve themselves.
On the seder plate in the middle of the table are the karpos (a vegetable), haroset (an edible mortar-like mixture), maror (bitter herbs), beitzah (a roasted egg), and zeroah (a roasted shank bone). The vegetable used for karpos is usually parsley, celery, or a baked potato. During the seder the karpos is dipped in salt water or vinegar, symbolic of the tears the slaves shed.
Haroset , the mortar-like mixture, reminds us of the bricks the slaves were forced to make. Eating maror , the bitter herbs, reminds us of the bitter taste of slavery. Romaine lettuce and freshly ground horseradish are used.
The beitzah , roasted egg, reminds us of the Temple sacrifice offered on the holidays, and the zeroah , the roasted shank bone, of the special Pesah offering.
We drink four cups of wine or grape juice at the seder symbolizing the four promises of redemption in the Book of Exodus (6:6-7). A fifth cup of wine, Elijah's cup, is on the table too, for the prophet who — according to legend — visits every Jewish home on Pesah. Many people use only red wine at the seder, a reminder of the blood the Jews spread on their doorposts before the last of the ten plagues, the death of the first-born sons. The sons of Egypt died, but God spared the sons of the Jews with the blood on their doorposts. Red wine is also a reminder that Pharaoh killed Jewish children and bathed in their blood, a supposed cure for leprosy.
Observance of Passover has taken a number of forms through history. This evolution is partly seen in the Torah text itself. It is discussed as a springtime festival, a barley harvest festival, and a time to bring sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem . Different references to Passover in the Torah as well as knowledge of other ancient rituals that took place at the same time of year indicate that there may have been several origins of the Pesach festival. The ancient Israelites took what was originally one or more separate Canaanite spring holidays and imbued them with a heightened significance when they made Pesach a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt .
We now view commemoration of the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage as identical to the celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Leviticus (23:5-6), however, there seems to be a distinction between the two festivals. The "Lord's Passover" falls at dusk on the 14th day of the first month, Nisan (referred to in Torah as the month of "Aviv"). The Festival of Unleavened bread fell on the 15th day of the same month. In Exodus 13:4 and Deut. 16:1, the New Moon is given as the memorial day for the Exodus.
Setting aside, slaughtering, and eating a paschal lamb was introduced as a celebration of the festival. The Hebrews were commanded to take a lamb for each household on the 10th of the first month ( Nisan ). The unblemished male lamb in its first year was kept until the 14th day and then killed at eve. This ritual was reminiscent of ancient pagan rituals that took place at this time of the year. Nisan was the month when sheep gave birth and sacrifices were made at the full moon on the 15th of the month.
Passover also falls at the time of the beginning of the spring harvest. Leviticus 23:10-16 discusses the omer [a certain measure] of new barley that was brought to the Temple on the second day of the festival. At this time of year, the first sheaf of newly cut barley was offered up as a sacrifice. It has been suggested that the elimination of hametz (leaven), which Jews undertake before Passover, may have originated as a precaution against infecting the new crop. Thus, Hag ha-Matzot (the feast of unleavened bread), which is a name for Passover, may have originally carried this agricultural meaning. Hag ha-Aviv , or Spring Festival, is another name for the festival of Pesach. A number of remnants of the springtime origins of Pesach remain, as in the prayer for dew, and the counting of the Omer that bridges two different spring harvest periods.
The first Pesach observance, mentioned in Numbers 9:5, took place at Sinai. The first observance in the "holy land" is mentioned in the book of Joshua (5:10-11). The children of Israel kept the Passover in Gilgal on the 14th of Nisan, and ate unleavened bread the next day. It is believed that the turmoil of the Judges period that followed Joshua was not conducive to observance of Pesach. Revival of the holiday probably occurred under Samuel in the 11th century BCE.
With the building of the Temple in Jerusalem , the observance of the festival changed. The Temple was the focal point for the " shelosh regalim ", the Pilgrim Festivals, and it provided a place for carrying out the Pesach sacrifice. Observance of the festival waxed and waned in subsequent periods. Historians believe that after the return from Babylonian exile and the beginning of the second Temple period, at the end of the sixth century BCE, the festival was restored to prominence. The nature of the Pesach observance necessarily had to radically change after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when animal sacrifices ceased.
A that time, Pesach was transformed from a mostly communal, public festival to one centered in the home. A Talmudic tractate devoted to the festival, Pesachim, suggests that home observance of Pesach began prior to the destruction of the Temple . Chanting of Hallel (psalms of praise), which accompanied the slaughtering of the paschal offering began to be practiced during family feasts when the paschal lamb was eaten in private homes throughout Jerusalem . The home seder as we know it today was meant to be a retelling of the Exodus story in response to questions posed by children. These exact wording of the questions changed over time, until they became the four questions beginning " Mah nishtanah " (what is different?) that we know today.
A book called the Haggadah (from the Hebrew root "to tell") that serves as the liturgy and guidebook for the seder is an amazing pedagogic instrument that developed over time. The first documented evidence of parts of the Haggadah is found in the Mishnah (edited ca. 200 CE). The arrangement of the table, the psalms, benedictions, and other recited matter of today coincide substantially with the program laid down in the Mishnah. Midrashim (commentaries) were added and most of the version we now have was completed by the end of the Talmudic period (500-600 CE). Evidence of the wide acceptance of the Haggadah was its inclusion in Rav Amram's siddur (prayerbook) in the eighth century CE.
The Haggadah began to be copied as a separate book in the 12th century. Medieval additions to the Haggadah include piyyutim (liturgical poems) and readings in response to the persecution suffered at that time. (Blood libel accusations at Passover time even led to a rabbinic ruling that white wine be used at the seder lest red wine be mistaken for blood.) Pesach has been one of the favorite subjects of Jewish artists through the centuries, and they have created beautiful illuminated Haggadot. There are wonderful examples of these from Prague , Amsterdam , and Venice during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The tradition of adding to and adapting things in the Haggadah and the seder has continued. Among them are additions like the Matzah of Hope, which was a reminder of the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Miriam's Cup, which was added by women who sought to add a female perspective to the festival. By giving the festival contemporary significance, each generation of Jews has performed the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus while reliving the event itself.
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