Why Do Jews Celebrate Passover?
Can You Say "Pesach?"
Passover (or the Hebrew word, Pesach, with the hard, guttural-sounding “ch,” like in the names Bach and Rachmaninoff), is an eight-day festival commemorating the story of Moses leading enslaved Jews out of ancient Egypt. The Exodus is the second of the five books of Moses narrated in the Torah—also known as the Old Testament.
Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan (also spelled Nissan), lasting through the 22nd of that month on the Hebrew calendar. Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar one, meaning that each month begins and ends with a new moon, the dates change yearly as they coincide with the 12-month secular calendar.
Passover is commemorated with a Seder (pronounced “say-dur”) on the first and second nights of the eight-day observance. The modern-day Seder is actually derived from several biblical verses where the Israelites are commanded to observe and remember the night when they were released from bondage (Exodus 13:3-8).
Jews in Bondage
The Israelites, also called the Children of Israel, had been enslaved to the Pharaohs of Egypt for generations—at least 400 years. Moses was called upon by God to lead the Children of Israel out of bondage but when the Pharaoh would not release the slaves, God inflicted 10 plagues upon the lands of Egypt; (1) blood instead of water in the river Nile, (2) frogs, (3) gnats or lice, (4) flies or gnats, (5) diseases on livestock, (6) skin boils, (7) hail and thunder, (8) locusts, (9) darkness and (10) the slaying of the first-born in families (both humans and animals).
Because the plagues affected both the Israelites and the Egyptians, the first-born of Israel were told to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts so that the “angel of death” would “pass over” the Jewish homes. When the Pharaoh’s first-born son was killed as a result of the tenth plague, he acknowledged “the power of Moses’ God” and set the Israelites free.
Historic opinions vary as to the actual dates of the Passover and the Exodus; some estimate the Passover took place sometime between 1210 and 1313 BCE, others say it occurred on the 15th day of the month of Nisan/Nissan in the year 2448 “after the creation of the world.” Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, free from the bondage of their Egyptian oppressors, left Egypt with Moses, who led them through the desert toward the Promised Land. Pharaoh later changed his mind about allowing freedom for the slaves and sent his army after them.
When the army cornered the Israelites against the Red Sea, Moses, with God’s power, stretched out his staff and parted the Red Sea into walls of water and a dry strip of land so that the Children of Israel could pass through it. When the final Jew was across the sea and with the Egyptian army on their heels, Moses withdrew his staff, “and the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them” (Exodus, 14:28).
Wandering in the Wilderness
Moses led the Children of Israel across the desert toward Mount Sinai. When God summoned him to the mountain (to give him the Ten Commandments; a stone tablet of laws for the Israelites to follow), Moses stayed there for “40 days and 40 nights;” the longest time he had ever been away from the others.
When the Israelites thought Moses had abandoned them in the harshness of the wilderness, they asked his brother, Aaron, to craft a golden calf which would be idolized as their god. Moses returned to his people and saw them idolizing the golden calf. He then became very angry, throwing down and shattering the stone tablets of laws which included “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus, 20:3).
After Moses destroyed the calf, he invited the Israelites who believed in God, including the sons of Levi, to stand by his side. Upon the word of Moses, the Levites killed about three thousand men who had sinned against God (Exodus, 32:26-28).
God replaced the stone tablets but decided that those who did not believe in him, especially after all of the miracles they had seen, would not enter the Promised Land. This generation was left to wander in the desert for 40 years before their children were led into Canaan by Joshua, not Moses. Because he disobeyed God by trespassing at the waters of Meribah, where he later died, Moses could see it but was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The Passover Seder
The Passover Seder is a ceremonial dinner that takes place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday. The service is identical for both nights and commemorates Passover and The Exodus. Families and friends read from a Haggadah; a booklet that relates the story of The Exodus and guides the participants through the rituals of the Passover service.
The Seder begins with a young child asking “why is this night different from all other nights?” in the form of the Four Questions (Mah-Nishtanah). The Mah-Nishtanah (usually sung in Hebrew) asks:
- Why is it that on other nights during the year we eat bread or matzo but on this night we eat only matzo?
- Why is it that on other nights we eat all kinds of herbs but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
- Why is it that on other nights we do not dip herbs even once, but on this night we dip twice?
- Why on other nights do we eat sitting or reclining but on this night we eat while reclining?
Eating breads and cakes made with yeast is prohibited during the eight-day Passover holiday). Matzo (pronounced maht-sa and also spelled matzah or matza; plural is matzos or matzot (maht-zoht)) is unleavened bread. When the Jews were getting ready to flee Egypt, they did not have time to let their breads rise so they baked them into hard, flat crackers (matzot) in the hot sun.
Bitter herbs are eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. Dipping green vegetables is a reminder of how very hard the slaves worked and that spring… new life… is here. Leaning on a pillow is a reminder that freedom means relaxation.
Six special foods are placed on a Passover Seder plate to commemorate the holiday:
- “Maror” (this is pronounced 'muh-roar')—the “bitter herbs” such as horseradish or sharp-tasting lettuce—symbolize the harshness and bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
- “Chazaret” (hard, guttural “ch”; cha-za-ret)—may be a piece of romaine lettuce or root vegetable with a bitter-tasting stem—signify the bitterness of bondage.
- “Charoset” (hard, guttural “ch”; cha-row-set) is a mixture which can be made of raisins, nuts, figs, and dates or a recipe of apples, cinnamon, walnuts, and sweet wine. It symbolizes the mortar spread between the bricks that Jewish slaves used to build Egyptian structures.
- “Karpas” (car-pahs) is a green vegetable (such as parsley, scallions or celery) that is eaten after being dipped into salt water. It symbolizes tears shed by the enslaved Jews. The Karpas may also be used while counting the 10 plagues, as part of the Seder service.
- “Zeroa”—a roasted (shank) lamb bone—symbolizes the lamb offered as a sacrifice on the eve of the Exodus. The shank bone is not eaten.
- “Beitzah” is a hard-boiled egg roasted to symbolize the festival sacrifice made at the temple in Jerusalem. Hard-boiled eggs are eaten during the Passover Seder.
During the Seder, prayers, and songs are sung in both Hebrew and English. Four glasses of wine (or grape juice) are served throughout the ceremony, and a piece of matzo called the Afikomen is hidden for children to find at the end of the service.
Every Jewish household has its own way of celebrating and commemorating the Passover.
Growing up in the Cleveland, OH area, we spent those celebrations with my paternal grandparents, along with many aunts, uncles, and cousins. I can still remember my Grandma Mary making gefilte fish; she ground the whitefish with some kind of utensil and shaped it into loaves. Matzo ball soup was always simmering in a huge pot, and she made a special kind of cake (without yeast or flour, of course) that I actually liked. As one of 13 grandchildren, rather low in rank, I sat at the "kids' table" because there were so many of us. We all took turns reading passages from the Haggadah, and when it was time to find the afikomen, I never had much of a chance against my older brothers and cousins. But it was OK because Grandpa Hymie always had a little something for us younger kids.
I miss my grandparents.
Cherish your holiday memories, whatever they may be.
Upcoming Celebration Dates for Passover
All Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the evening before the actual day (or beginning of several days encompassing the holiday; Passover/Pesach, Chanukah, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur, for examples). Thus, Passover begins at sunset on:
- 2019: Friday, April 19th. The first day is Saturday, April 20th.
- 2020: Wednesday, April 8th. The first day is Thursday, April 9th.
- 2021: Saturday, March 27th. The first day is Sunday, March 28th.
- 2022: Friday, April 15th. The First day is Saturday, April 16th.
- 2023: Wednesday, April 5th. The first day is Thursday, April 6th.
- 2024: Monday, April 22nd. The first day is Tuesday, April 23rd.
- 2025: Saturday, April 12th. The first day is Sunday, April 13th.
- 2026: Wednesday, April 1st. The first day is Thursday, April, 2nd.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Teri Silver