As the Jewish communities in Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are preparing for the holiday, BK Reader is taking a look at the Passover celebration, its origin and traditions.
The eight-day festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year the holiday will be celebrated beginning sundown today, Wednesday, April 9, and will continue until sundown next Wednesday, April 16.
Passover (in Hebrew: Pesach) commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The holiday originated in the Torah, where the word pesach refers to the ancient Passover sacrifice (known as the Paschal Lamb); it is also said to refer to the idea that God “passed over” (pasach) the houses of the Jews during the 10th plague on the Egyptians, the slaying of the firstborn. The holiday is ultimately a celebration of freedom, and the story of the exodus from Egypt is a powerful metaphor that is appreciated not only by Jews, but by people of other faiths as well.
After many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, God saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth my people, so that they may serve me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed God’s command. God then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.
At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), God visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, God spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai.
The Passover celebration is divided into two parts. The first two days and last two days (the latter commemorating the splitting of the Red Sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and kiddush and holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. Observers don’t go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices, but they are permitted to cook. The middle four days are called Chol Hamoed, semi-festive “intermediate days,” when most forms of work are permitted.
To commemorate the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, observers of the holiday don’t eat any chametz — leavened grain — from midday of the day before Passover until the conclusion of the holiday.
Ridding the homes of chametz is an intensive process. It involves a full-out spring-cleaning search-and-destroy mission during the weeks before Passover and culminates with a ceremonial search for chametz on the night before Passover, and then a burning of the chametz ceremony on the morning before the holiday. Instead of chametz, observers eat matzah—flat unleavened bread.
The highlight of Passover is the Seder, observed on each of the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a fifteen-step family-oriented tradition and ritual-packed feast.
The focal points of the Seder are:
• Eating matzah;
• eating bitter herbs—to commemorate the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites;
• drinking four cups of wine or grape juice—a royal drink to celebrate the newfound freedom;
• the recitation of the Haggadah, a liturgy that describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the fulfillment of the biblical obligation to recount to the children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover.