The Passover

In the last week of March, Jews around the world will be celebrating one of the most important religious festivals in Judaism – the Passover or the Pesach. Beginning on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, the festivals lasts for seven to eight days and commemorates the story of the Exodus mentioned in the Hebrew bible.

The Story Behind the Passover

The story in the Hebrew bible goes that there was a tyrannical pharaoh in ancient Egypt who enslaved the Israeli population and killed their firstborn sons by drowning them in the Nile. One day, God commanded Moses to go to the pharaoh and ask him to free the Israelites. Despite repeated appeals by Moses, the pharaoh refused to do so. God punished him by sending down one plague after another, afflicting the Egyptian population. The tenth and final plague was the killing of the Egyptian firstborns. The Israelites were asked to mark their door frames with the blood of a lamb so that the avenging angel would recognize it as an Israeli household and “pass over” it. (This is where the name of the holiday comes from.) Unable to take any more, the Egyptians convinced the pharaoh to let the Israelites go. The Israelites fled their homes immediately, not waiting for their bread to leaven. This was followed by a series of events spanning forty years and culminating in the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland of Canaan.

The Passover Celebrations

"The Israelites were asked to mark their door frames with the blood of a lamb so that the avenging angel would recognize it as an Israeli household and “pass over” it."

Today, the Passover is celebrated to remember the story of the Exodus, and as such, has many ritual observances related to the experiences of the ancient Israelites. The festival itself is divided into two parts – the full-fledged holidays are the first and the last two days are for the Passover. During those days no work is done. Instead, special prayer services are held and delicious meals are enjoyed by the family. The four days in between are the intermediate days, when most types of work are permitted. These are some of the important rituals observed during the festival:

  • Prohibition of Chametz:

    Chametz is leavened grain. As the Israelites fled their homes with only unleavened bread as provision for the journey, Jews do not eat or even own any food or drink that has been fermented for the duration of the holiday.

  • Eating of Matzah:

    Matzah is flat unleavened bread. This special type of bread is eaten during the Passover instead of regular bread, especially during the Seder feast.

  • The Seder:

    On the first two nights of the holiday, Jews partake of a special ritual meal called the Seder. This meal includes many special types of food and traditions that encourage conversation about the Exodus. Some examples are bitter herbs that symbolize the bitter treatment the Israelites endured at the hands of the pharaoh, matzah or unleavened bread, and reclining on cushions throughout the meal to symbolize the freedom enjoyed by the Israelites after the Exodus. Children play a special role during this meal as well. The youngest member is supposed to ask four questions about the Exodus to their father. Children also play a game where they hide or search for a hidden piece of the matzah, and the winner usually receives a prize.

  • The Recitation of the Haggadah:

    The Haggadah is a book that narrates the story of the Exodus. Jews recite from this book during the Seders to fulfil their obligation of retelling the story of the Exodus to their children.

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