Each spring, typically around the end of March or beginning of April (depending on the Hebrew calendar), Jews the world over celebrate Passover. This 8-day holiday commemorates the freedom and exodus of the Jewish slaves who fled Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II. After more than 200 years of slavery, Moses asked the Egyptian King Pharaoh to free the slaves. Each time he refused, a plague was set upon the Egyptians. The tenth and final plague was the slaying of the first born, but the Jewish homes were “passed over,” which is how Passover, or Pesach, got its name. Pharaoh finally released the Israelites who fled to the desert and ultimately accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, thus creating the Jewish nation.
Passover is the only Jewish holiday celebrated with a home service, called a Seder, a lavish meal filled with symbolism and tradition. In America, we have 2 seders; each on the first 2 nights of Passover. The holiday continues for six more days, during which special dietary laws are observed. All leavened foods and certain grains and cereals are forbidden in remembrance of how the Jewish ancestors left Egypt quickly, before the bread dough had time to rise.
“Passover is a wonderful holiday because it includes the whole family,” says Jane Moritz, owner of ChallahConnection.com. “During the Seder everyone in the family gets an opportunity to ask questions and discuss our history. It mixes fun with meaningful tradition and opportunities to learn.”
The Seder Plate
A special plate with 6 symbolic items is the focus of the Seder table.
- A roasted Shank bone, typically lamb, represents the special sacrifice that took place the eve of the exodus
- A hard-boiled egg, represents the coming spring as well as new life
- Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, signifies the bitterness of slavery
- Charoset (pronounced Ha-ro-set), a mixture of apples, nuts and wine, resembles the mortar and brick Jews made as slaves under Pharaoh
- Parsley and a small dish of saltwater represent the tears of the Jewish slaves
- Matzo, symbolizes the bread of affliction as well as the result of too-little time to let the dough rise for bread
Seder means order, and the story of Passover is read from the Hagaddah, a book that recounts the story in a special order. Everyone in the family takes part reading and re-enacting the important events that took place so long ago. Throughout the Seder, and as the story of the exodus is told, there are many prayers, explanations of symbolism, and opportunities for discussion and questions. Some of the traditions are designed to arouse the curiosity of the children and keep them interested in the long Seder, and in learning about their heritage. Special foods, activities, blessings and fun songs make the meal interesting and meaningful.
“Since we’re limited in what we can eat, I’m always on the lookout for wonderful Passover food items and desserts for home, to bring to a Seder or to ship nationwide,” says Jane. “We have fantastic kosher and non-kosher items this year, including Israeli wine, delicious cookies, cakes and candies, and an imported charoset that’s perfect for the Seder table.”
Making the Seder Yours
While there is a specific order to celebrating Passover, families find ways to create some of their own traditions and special touches. Depending on where your family is from, or what denomination you are, there are variations on the service and how foods are prepared. More information on Passover and Passover recipes can be found at www.aish.com and www.urj.org.