One of the major Jewish holidays and my personal favorite, Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) celebrates the Israelites exodus from Egypt, renewal, freedom, and family. Passover is rich in tradition and symbolism and speaks to the Jewish soul.
At one point in biblical times, the Israelites had been most welcome in Egypt as they had helped end a lengthy famine. As time went on and Pharaohs changed, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and, in the time of Moses, they were no longer welcome.
Moses appealed to the Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave. The Pharaoh refused many times, thus God sent 10 plagues – locusts, frogs, boils – upon the Egyptians. The tenth plague was the killing of the Egyptians’ first-born sons. The Egyptians finally allowed the Israelites to leave.
Because they didn’t have time to allow their bread to rise before departing, the Israelites baked their bread without letting it rise. Today we remember and call this unleavened bread matzah. Before Passover, all leavened foods are removed from the household for the eight days.
But the Passover Seder is not just about the exodus from Egypt but rather about all exiles. The pattern of accepting and then dispelling Jews has repeated itself throughout history and continues even today.
The Passover tradition has been celebrated since biblical times. It is important to note that in the painting of The Last Supper, Christ and his disciples are celebrating Passover.
Passover – which begins on the evening of April 20 this year – is celebrated over an eight-day period with the Seders, the ritual service and meal, taking place on the first two nights. The Seder consists of the service, in a book called the Haggadah. The purpose of the Seder is the retelling of the story of the Israelites exodus, passing the story from one generation to the next. It combines history, songs, prayers, and, of course the dinner.
On the table is the Seder plate, yet another way of teaching the story of Passover. The matzah is a reminder that the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise in their hurry to leave Egypt. The person leading the Seder breaks the matzah, called the Afikomen, and hides it so the children can hunt for it later and receive a reward.
The Seder plate includes a roasted shank bone, representative of one of the two sacrifices brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The roasted egg, the second sacrifice, is a symbol of mourning as the Temple was destroyed and of the hope that it will be rebuilt. Bitter herbs and horseradish remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Parsley is dipped in salt water representing tears. And charoses, made of grated apples, finely chopped nuts, honey, spices, and red wine, is a reminder of the bricks the Israelites were forced to make in Egypt.
During the Seder, the participants drink four glasses of wine, symbolizing the freedom from exile. Also fingers are dipped in the wine 10 times, reminiscent of the 10 plagues.
One highlight of the Seder is the four questions, another opportunity to include the children. The youngest child sings the four questions, asking why this night is different from all other nights, and an adult answers these questions.
Throughout the Seder, there are many opportunities for everyone to participate, and everyone usually has their own favorite parts and favorite songs.
While the meal differs from family to family, it usually includes gefilte fish, somewhat like a French quenelle, served with horseradish, chicken soup with knelach (a wheat-free dumpling), and brisket.
Celebrating the journey from slavery to freedom, many families today incorporate historical and modern journeys to freedom, everything from environmental issues to the rights of all individuals to be free.
If you ever are invited to a Seder, definitely go and share this celebration of freedom with us.