March-April Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Passover?

Passover (“Pesach” in Hebrew) is the first of the three pilgrimage festivals, and commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, as described in the Book of Exodus. 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.

Coming as it does at the start of spring, Passover is also an agricultural holiday, marking the start of the barley harvest in 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. Passover is thus a celebration of spring and of the rebirth of the Jews as a nation.

When is Passover?

Passover falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (corresponding roughly to April) and lasts for seven days. Like Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, Pesach lasts seven days (eight outside Israel), with its first and last days being holy days.

Passover 2015 – April 3 – April 10

Passover 2016 – April 22 – April 29

Passover 2017 – April 10 – April 17

Passover 2018 – March 30 – April 6

Passover 2019 – April 19 – April 26

How do we observe Passover?

Exodus (12:15) instructs the Hebrews that “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread,” and also that “you must put leaven away from your houses.” This order is the basis for the intense house-cleaning that precedes Passover, when all hametz (leavened food) is removed from the house.

During the entire festival, one refrains from eating bread, and by inference, any other foods that have the potential to ferment. This tradition recalls the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt, with not enough time to allow their bread to rise sufficiently.

The holiday kicks off with a scripted celebratory meal, the Seder (literally "order"). The script of the meal is contained in a book called the Haggadah (“the telling”), which dictates the evening’s proceedings.

Central to the Seder is the retelling of the story of how the Israelites, who had been welcomed into Egypt after suffering from famine in their own land, found themselves enslaved under a new pharaoh. After centuries of enslavement under steadily worsening conditions, God orders Moses, who was raised in Pharoah’s house, to secure their release. 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. Moses himself is not mentioned at all in the Haggadah. Instead, the story is told in the study text chosen for the meal.

The Seder includes symbolic foods meant to evoke the circumstances of the Exodus and a text to learn in a communal setting. The earliest source prescribing the order of the Passover Seder is in the Mishnah, however, the Haggadah itself came into being only during the time of the Talmud, probably in the 3rd or 4th centuries CE. 

The most famous part of the Haggadah is the Four Questions, which is usually sung by the youngest child at the Seder. Taking their cue from the four different explanations of Pesach in the Torah, the sages suggested that each explanation could be paired with a particular type of questioner: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

However, structurally, the central part of the Haggadah—and of the Seder—is the text set apart for learning in a family setting. This text is known as “Parashat Arami Oved Avi” (“My father was a wandering Aramean") and is taken from the declaration which the bringer of First Fruits to the Temple would recite aloud. Why this particular text? Because it is a history lesson in miniature: it encapsulates a thousand years of Jewish history from the days when our ancestors were nomads, through the adventures and misadventures in Egypt, the miraculous deliverance, and the triumphal entry into the promised land. However, the happy ending: “And He brought us to this good land—A Land flowing with milk and honey” was thought too painful to say by the Babylonian exiles, and so it doesn’t appear in most contemporary versions of the Haggadah. (Recently, some in Israel have begun re-inserting the missing phrase in their Haggadot).

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

The meal ends with the afikoman—a specially assigned piece of matza—which is set aside at the beginning of the meal. There are two main variations on this custom: Either the afikoman is hidden 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, and are bribed with gifts to return it. Either way, the tradition appears to have evolved as a way of keeping the kids awake throughout the meal, as one of the main precepts of the holiday is to recount the story to one's children.

In addition to the Seder, the Passover liturgy includes the recital of Hallel in the synagogues. After the first day of the Passover holiday, prayers for rain are formally terminated, and the prayer for dew inserted into the daily prayer instead.

What do we eat on Passover?

Passover is famously defined in terms of what we don’t eat: for the full eight days of the festival, we refrain from eating any food with leavening. The need to work around this constraint has given rise to a whole cuisine of Kosher for Passover meals. Different communities have different customs regarding what is forbidden, most notably Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, with the latter permitted to eat legumes ("kitniyot"). But Ashkenazim consider beans, rice, corn and other foods in that category to be chametz.

The Seder itself features many symbolic foods, including matzah, or unleavened bread. Today’s matzah is mostly made by machine, but many families use special hand-made shamura (“guarded”) matzah for the Seder. Other symbolic foods include green vegetables to symbolize spring, and haroset—a mixture of dates, nuts, honey, and more—to symbolize the mortar used in Egyptian building projects. Hazeret, or bitter herbs, usually takes the form of a spicy dip made of horseradish. Hard-boiled eggs in salt water are also eaten to symbolize the animal sacrifices that were discontinued after the Second Temple’s destruction. Some consider the salt water as symbolic of the tears of enslavement, while others see it as a symbol of the salt added to the sacrifice.

Passover Reading