Passover is the weeklong Jewish festival in the spring that commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery and the Exodus from Egypt.
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The epic tale that is recounted each year during the celebration of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) first appears in the Five Books of Moses – the Torah – in Exodus 1-15. There we read how Israelites who had been welcomed into Egypt toward the end of Genesis after suffering from famine in their own land, found themselves enslaved after a new pharaoh, “who knew not Joseph,” ascended to the throne.
After centuries of enslavement under steadily worsening conditions, God sends a savior from among the Hebrews to secure their release: Moses.
Moses negotiates with a very stubborn Pharaoh, who relents and agrees to release the Israelites, but only after he and his people are struck by 10 divine plagues.
During the week of Passover, leavened bread is forbidden and unleavened matzo is eaten instead, in memory of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt: they did not even wait for their bread to fully rise before baking it. And for good reason: even after the 10th plague, the slaying of the Egyptian first-born, Pharaoh again changed his mind, and sent his army to stop the departing Israelites.
The escape was realized only because God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that the Hebrews could pass through on dry land. After their passage the Lord then caused the water to crash down and destroy the pursuing Egyptians.
The holiday takes its name from a miracle: the angel God sent to slaughter the Egyptians' first-born sons “passed over” the homes of the Hebrews, who had been instructed to sacrifice a lamb and use its blood to mark the lintels of their doorways.
This occurred on the night between Adar 14 and Adar 15, which, we read in Exodus 12, is a day that “shall be unto you a memorial,” to be commemorated “throughout your generations” as a “feast to the Lord.” And thus it is done.
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The Passover festival lasts seven days (eight outside of Israel), the first and last of which are full holidays, with the same restrictions on work that apply during the Sukkot and Shavuot festivals.
Exodus 12:15 instructs the Hebrews that “Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread,” and also that “ye shall put leaven away from your houses.” This order is the basis for the intense house-cleaning that precedes Passover, when Jewish families work to remove from their quarters a wide variety of foods that have been determined by rabbinical tradition to fall into the category of hametz (leavened food).
Different communities have different customs regarding what is forbidden, most notably Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, with the latter permitted to eat legumes. But Ashkenazim consider beans, rice, corn and other foods in that category to be hametz.
Forbidden products that can’t practically be destroyed are to be "sold" contractually to a non-Jew for the length of the holiday. They can remain in the house but not be touched by their original Jewish owners, who then automatically retain ownership of them when the holiday ends.
A story told over thousands of years
The morning before the holiday begins, on Adar 14, a ritual search of the house is conducted and the final hametz is burned.
The festival itself begins that night with the celebratory meal, the seder. The seder can go on long into the night: the story of the Passover miracles is retold for children and adults alike in some detail, and many rituals are performed before the food is served, and again after the meal.
The word “seder” means “order,” and refers to the strictly organized way the event unfolds year after year, according to a text set down in the Haggadah (“telling”). This too is instructed in the Torah, where it says, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8), although the Aramaic text of the Haggadah was compiled much later, during the early centuries of the Common Era.
The Haggadah ascribes all responsibility for the Exodus and its attendant miracles to God, and does not mention Moses even once.
In the Christian gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples is presented as a seder meal, although the seder as we know it only came into existence in the centuries following Jesus’ death. The Last Supper and the Crucifixion are said to have taken place when Jesus came to Jerusalem for the start of the Passover holiday, when Jews traveled from around the Land of Israel to the Temple to make the required paschal sacrifice.
In Christian tradition, Jesus becomes the “lamb,” and his sacrifice comes to take the place of the offering made in the Temple.
Coming as it does at the start of spring, Passover also has meaning as an agricultural holiday, marking the start of the barley harvest in ancient Israel. On the second night of Pesach a special offering was made in the Temple of an “omer” – an ancient measurement equivalent to a sheath of grain – of newly cut barley. Each night for the next seven weeks, until the day before Shavuot, a special prayer is said, called the counting of the omer. With Shavuot begins the wheat harvest.
But the connection between Passover and Shavuot is also spiritual. Passover marked the physical liberation and rebirth of the Israelites from bondage. Forty-nine days later, they gathered at Mt. Sinai, where – according to Talmudic tradition -- Moses received the Torah – the law – from God. Thus the physical rebirth is quickly followed by a spiritual one, in which, says Jewish tradition, all the laws that define what it means to be Jewish were delivered to the Israelites by way of Moses.