Obama Passover seder
Passover seder at the White House on March 29, 2010. Photo by AP
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Passover is a major Jewish holiday, which takes place on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. In Israel it lasts for seven days, and abroad for eight.

The Passover holiday, called Pesach in Hebrew, has two main themes: spring – and freedom.

Historically, there were actually two distinct holidays: Pesach, a holiday related to animal sacrifice; and Hag Hamatzot, an agricultural holiday related to the beginning of the harvest. The two holidays merged together as early as biblical times. During this process, the holiday was given its national-historical overtones – connecting it to the supposed exodus from Egypt. Later, when the practice of animal sacrifice was discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple, the holiday of Passover began to take the form we are familiar with today.

The celebration actually starts before the holiday itself, with some extreme spring cleaning. Its purpose, beyond hygiene, is to rid the house of every last crumb of chametz – leavened bread. Traditionally, one is supposed to search the house for chametz using candlelight.

Once the house is clean, a large meal is prepared. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora of varying levels of religiosity assemble round the table and enjoy a scripted holiday meal.

The Haggadah

A Passover Haggadah from Vienna, 1930. Photo by Reuters

The script of the meal is contained in a book called the Haggadah (“the telling”), which dictates the evening’s proceedings.

The Haggadah wasn’t written by any one person or group. Rather, it evolved over the centuries, beginning in the years after the destruction of the Second Temple and to this very day.

While the major parts of the Haggadah remain the same, variations arose based on culture, local tradition and the like. As for the evolution of the book still taking place – there has been a virtual explosion of versions in recent generations, including versions for feminists, for the LGBT community, and so on. There are even versions for atheists that leave the Lord entirely out of the process.

The major objective of the evening is to retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. This is traditionally believed to have taken place in 1,313 B.C.E.

Most of the Haggadah is in Hebrew, though some parts are in Aramaic. It tells the story of the Exodus, with foods serving as props.

The story

"Departure of the Israelites", by David Roberts, 1829. Photo by Wikimedia

The story begins with the children of Israel being enslaved in Egypt for 210 years. The impetus for change is evil Pharaoh decreeing that all Jewish boys are to be killed at birth.

One such newborn is taken by his mother, placed in a little boat and set adrift in the Nile, to save him from certain death. An unnamed Egyptian princess finds the baby and names him Moses. The Bible says this is because “Moshe” is related to the verb ma-sha, which denotes drawing something, as from a river – though Moshe could well be an Egyptian name meaning “boy,” which would make more sense since presumably the princess spoke no Hebrew.

Moses grows up in court, gets into mischief – specifically, murders a guard abusing an Egyptian slave. He then flees to the desert, where God speaks to him, taking the form of a burning bush.

God orders Moses to lead the People of Israel out of Egypt. At first he refuses, but finally relents. Moses goes to the Pharaoh and famously tells him: “Let my people go.” But, we are told, God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and the Egyptian leader refuses to release the slaves.

Ten plagues are inflicted on the Egyptian people, one by one, each following a fresh refusal by Pharaoh to release the Hebrew slaves. In order, the plagues are: Turning the water of the Nile into blood; an infestation of frogs; an infestation of fleas; an infestation of wild animals; a livestock epidemic; an epidemic of boils afflicting humans; a destructive storm of hail mixed with fire; an infestation of locusts; three days of darkness; and, last and most terrible, the death of the firstborn.

To protect themselves from this final plague (the text doesn’t explain how the Israelites weathered the other calamities), the Israelites are told to slay a lamb and mark their doorposts with blood so that their households would be spared. And after the 10th plague, Pharaoh relents and agrees to release the slaves, with their property.

The slaves leave in haste, before Pharaoh can change his mind, not waiting for their bread dough to rise. This is given as the reason for not eating leavened bread on the eight days of Passover, in memory of their hasty flight.

The Jews make their way to the Red Sea, which miraculously opens before them, allowing them to cross. In the meantime, Pharaoh indeed changes his mind and sends his soldiers to retrieve the newly emancipated slaves. The Egyptian soldiers are just about to catch up to them at the other side of the Red Sea when the water rushes back, drowning the entire Egyptian army – but the Israelites are saved, having all made it to the opposite shore.

Back to the Seder

Since then, according to tradition, Jews have told the story every year at Passover. It isn’t a merely textual experience: parts of the Haggadah are sung, and there are actions, too. For example, when reciting the list of the 10 plagues, the participants dip a finger in their wine and let one drop touch their plates for each plague. The suffering of the Jews in bondage is expressed through eating sandwiches made of unleavened bread – matzot – with horseradish and charoset, which was a kind of sweet Roman salad dressing and today consists of some combination of apples, nuts and sometimes other dried fruits and spices.

Passover with the extended family. Photo by Dreamstime

Other symbolic acts include drinking four cups of wine, reclining rather than sitting up (leaning to the left, of course!). This is an emulation of the way free-born Roman citizens ate their meals, and is meant to reflect the fact of our freedom.

Some green vegetables are eaten, usually celery, symbolizing spring.

Hard-boiled eggs in salt water are eaten too, though it isn’t at all clear what this is supposed to symbolize. Some believe it symbolizes the animal sacrifices that were discontinued after the Second Temple’s destruction.

All in all, reading and acting out the Seder takes about an hour before the main meal is reached, depending on how much you skip. That tends to vary from family to family.

After the Seder meal and prayers, some songs are sung, including “Echad Mi Yodea,” a cumulative song with 13 verses. The meal ends with the afikoman – a specially assigned piece of matza – which is set aside at the beginning of the meal, and the eating of which closes the meal.

There are two main variations on this custom: Either the person leading the Seder hides the afikoman for the children to find, at which point they get presents, eat their matza and are sent to sleep; or the children steal the afikoman, are bribed with gifts to return it, the afikoman is eaten and all go to sleep.

The tradition of the afikoman is a late addition to the holiday. It was probably invented as a contrivance to keep the kids awake throughout the meal, as one of the main precepts of the holiday is to recount the story to your children. The textual basis of this tradition is in the Mishna, where the rabbis say that at the end of the seder there is no afikoman – the Greek term for “after meal entertainment” or “dessert.”

This concludes the Seder.

During the rest of the Passover holiday, observant Jews eat matza instead of bread (if you never ate matza, imagine a cross between cardboard and a saltine cracker). Nonobservant Jews may continue with their lives as usual, though in Israel this is not easily done as, by law, the stores don’t sell bread or any other products containing wheat or barley. And yes, that includes beer.