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The name Pesach is derived from the Hebrew word pasach, which means “passed over,” which is also the source of the common English name for the holiday. It recalls the miraculous tenth plague when all the Egyptian firstborn were killed, but the Israelites were spared.
The story of Passover originates in the Bible as the telling of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah recounts how the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt by a Pharoah who feared them. After many generations of oppression, God speaks to an Israelite man named Moses and instructs him to go to Pharoah and let God’s people go free. Pharoah refuses, and Moses, acting as God’s messenger brings down a series of 10 plagues on Egypt.
The last plague was the Slaying of the Firstborn; God went through Egypt and killed each firstborn, but passed over the houses of the Israelites leaving their children unharmed. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah relented and let the Israelites leave.
Pharoah then regretted his decision and chased the Children of Israel until they were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. But God instructed Moses to stretch his staff over the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted, allowing the Children of Israel to walk through on dry land. The waters then closed, drowning Pharoah and his soldiers as they pursued the Israelites.
The Torah commands an observance of seven days of Passover. Many Jews in North America and all Jews in Israel follow this injunction. Some Jews outside of Israel celebrate Passover for eight days. The addition of a day dates back to 700-600 B.C.E. At that time, people were notified of a holiday’s beginning by means of an elaborate network of mountaintop bonfires. To guard against the possibility of error, an extra day was added to many of the holidays. Today, a dependable calendar exists, allowing Jews to know when holidays start and end. However, the process remains ingrained in Jewish law and practice for some Jews living outside of Israel today.
Along with Sukkot and Shavuot, Passover is one of the Shalosh Regalim, or Three Pilgrimage Festivals, during which people gathered in Jerusalem with their agricultural offerings in ancient times. There are several mitzvot (commandments) unique to Passover, which are evident in the customs and rituals of the holiday to this day: matzah (the eating of unleavened bread); maror (the eating of bitter herbs); chametz (abstention from eating leaven); b’iur chametz (removal of leaven from the home); and haggadah (participation in the seder meal and telling the story).
The seder is the centerpiece of any Passover experience. A seder is an elaborate festive meal that takes place on the first night(s) of the holiday of Passover. Family and friends join together to celebrate. The word seder literally means “order,” and the Passover seder has 15 separate steps in its traditional order. These steps are laid out in the Haggaddah, the book used during the seder. Many congregations hold a community seder during at least one night of Passover. There are also synagogue services held during the first day(s) of the holiday.
Six Parts of the Seder Plate
The Roasted Egg is symbolic of the festival sacrifice made in biblical times. It is also a symbol of spring – the season in which Passover is always celebrated.
Lettuce is often used in addition to the maroras a bitter herb. The authorities are divided on the requirement of chazeret,so not all communities use it. Since the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” uses the plural (“bitter herbs”) most seder plates have a place for chazeret.
The Shankbone is symbolic of the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck as a substitute. Vegetarian households may use beets.
Apple, nuts, and spices ground together and mixed with wine are symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures. There are several variations in the recipe for charoset. The Mishna describes a mixture of fruits, nuts, and vinegar.
Parsley is dipped into salt water during the seder. The salt water serves as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery. The dipping of a vegetable as an appetizer is said to reflect the influence of Greek culture.
Bitter Herbs (usually horseradish) symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. The maror is often dipped in charoset to reduce its sharpness. Maror is used in the seder because of the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.”