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From Slavery to Freedom

The Story of PASSOVER ("Pesah")

The Passover Holiday

The Jewish holiday of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, which is thought to have occurred about 3,300 years ago. It is celebrated for 7 days (or 8 in the Diaspora) from the evening of the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan, which used to be the first month of the year in the Jewish calendar. Passover is called Pesah (Pesach or Pessah) in Hebrew. The final "h" is a guttural sound, somewhat like Scottish "loch."  

According to tradition, the Jews were made slaves in Egypt, about 1700 BCE or earlier, and were freed under the leadership of Moses. Pharaoh refused to let the Jews leave Egypt, but was forced to do so by a series of divinely inflicted plagues. The last plague struck every first born child in Egypt. According to the bible, the Lord told Moses to tell the Jews to put the blood of a lamb on the doorways of their houses, so the angel of death would know that their house was to be spared, and "pass over" it. Hence the name Passover.

After the last plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Jews go, but he changed his mind and chased after them. The Bible relates that the Lord parted "Yam Suf," possibly the Red Sea, to allow the Jews to escape, and then closed the passageway, drowning Pharaoh's army.

Passover is a spring holiday, a holiday of renewal and of freedom, and may actually have replaced an older holiday of the vernal equinox. The story of Passover was taken up by the African slaves in the United States, and became symbolic of deliverance from slavery by the might of the Lord.

While the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, Jews celebrated Passover by coming there to make the Passover sacrifice. A lamb was sacrificed to commemorate the blood of the lamb used to mark Jewish homes against the plague.

The week of Passover opens with a festive ritual meal, called the Seder (meaning "order" - see below), at which, originally, the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed was eaten. Some believe the last supper of Jesus Christ  was  a Passover Seder, commemorated by Christians on Maundy Thursday during Easter. After the destruction of the temple, the Seder meal evolved into an educational vehicle for teaching children not only about the history of the holiday itself, but also about the fundamentals of their religion and national identity. Accordingly, the Seder ritual includes passages of history unrelated to the story of Passover, educational devices such as the four questions asked by children ("Why is this night different from all other nights") educational songs, and numerous references to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem. Jews give thanks to Lord for providing the bountiful land of Israel, pray to the Lord to restore them to Zion and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and conclude the Seder with the wish:  Next Year in Jerusalem.

The Seder ritual is contained in a book called the Haggadah (or Hagada). Haggadah means "telling," from the Biblical injunction to "Tell thy son" of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  The Haggadah is written in Hebrew and Aramaic.  Formal and widely accepted written versions of the Haggadah approximating its present form were apparently first produced about 300 CE.  Though European (Ashkenazi) and Oriental (Sephardic) Jews were separated by geography and culture, all Jews use nearly the same Haggadah. The version in use today is close to that of Rav Amram Gaon, who headed the Babylonian (in what is now Iraq) Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) of Sura between 856-876 CE.

During the week of Passover, Jews eat only unleavened cracker-like bread (singular Matza, plural Matzoth) made from special flour that has been stored so that no yeast cells or other leavening agents could get into it. The Matzoth commemorate the unleavened bread that Jews had to bake in a hurry when leaving Egypt. Beer is forbidden, as are any cakes or foods that might contain yeast. Wine and spirits are not forbidden. In fact, it is a commandment to drink four cups of wine with the festive Passover meal, the Seder. Ashkenazi Jews also do not eat any foods that contain beans or rice.

 The Passover Seder

Passover opens with a festive meal, the Seder, in which prayers, educational material, and  historical stories and songs are intermixed with the eating of ritual foods in a fixed order.   

Seder Foods

There are symbolic foods that must appear in every Seder (sometimes with substitutes) often on a special Passover plate:

  • Matzah: Unleavened bread similar to a cracker described above.

  • 'Haroseth: A sweet mixture of crushed nuts, apples, cinnamon, and honey, which symbolizes the mortar the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used in constructing buildings for the Pharaoh. The initial 'H is guttural, like the "H" in "Pesah."  Anyone can prepare this simple and delicious food.

  • Egg: A hard-boiled egg is used to symbolize life and rebirth.

  • Maror: This is usually very bitter horse-radish that symbolizes the hardships of slavery (sometimes lettuce is substituted)!!!

  • Karpas: Usually a boiled potato (sometimes lettuce or another vegetable). The symbolic meaning of this vegetable is not clear. Some say it symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people.

  • Z'ro'a: This meat, sometimes represented as a shank bone, symbolizes the Paschal lamb sacrificed.

  • Salt Water: The egg and the potato are dipped in salt water, symbolizing both the tears of oppression as well as of joy in freedom.


    Passover: Illustration from a Haggadah

    The Seder Service and Meal

    Following is an outline of the Seder service and meal. Some of the customs are explained differently in different traditions, but all of them are part of the Haggadah for all Jews:

    Kaddesh: Sanctification - This is a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

    Rechatz: Washing - Ritual washing of the hands without a blessing.

    Karpas: Vegetable - A vegetable is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery.

    Yachatz: Halving  One of the three matzoth on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

    Maggid: The Story - A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This includes the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings, answered by the adults.  At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

    Ritual eating - Symbolic foods are eaten with appropriate blessings: Matza, Maror, and a sandwich composed of Matza, Maror and 'Haroset, following the custom of Rabbi Hillel.

    Shulhan Aruh: Dinner - The festive meal.

    Tzafun: The Afikomen - The matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive.

    Barech: Grace after Meals - The third cup of wine is poured, and grace after meals is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any day. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk.

    Elijah's Cup - The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to arrive on Passover to herald the Messiah. The door is opened for a while at this point. Supposedly, this custom was initiated during the Spanish inquisition, when Jews celebrating Passover in secret opened the door to make sure that spies were not listening.    

    Hallel: Praises - Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.  

    Nirtzah: Acceptance - A song or chant stating that the Seder has been executed and completed properly and hoping that it is acceptable is recited. It concludes with the wish "Next Year in Jerusalem" or in Jerusalem, "Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem," referring to restoration of the temple with the coming of the Messiah.

    The evening is ended with a number of songs or chants, modeled on medieval folk and drinking songs  that were apparently in existence at long ago as the 9th century.

    Modern connotations - In the United States, the story of Passover and the exodus from slavery had a special significance for African slaves, and spirituals commemorated the freeing of the slaves. The Seder in Jewish American homes often includes the chanting of spirituals. For the Labor Zionist movement, Passover has special significance because of the issues of social justice and respect for the lot of the oppressed, and for all Zionists, the pledge of "Next Year in Jerusalem" and the dedication of the holiday to national freedom make it an important holiday.

    More information about Passover: Passover, Seder Haggadah Ha Lachma Aniah, Ma Nishtana Nirtzah

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