Passover, a holiday of freedom, is celebrated for eight days in the diaspora. During Passover, we relive the miraculous Exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt.
We eat matzah to remind us that the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, the dough they prepared for their bread did not have enough time to rise. As a result, they had to eat this unleavened flat bread, or matzah.
"Remember this day on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand, no leavened bread shall be eaten." (Exodus 13:3) All products containing hametz, or leavening ingredients, are forbidden during the days of Passover.
The story of Passover is told in the Torah in the Book of Exodus. King Pharaoh of Egypt enacted many decrees to enslave the Jews—one of the cruelest of which was that all Jewish baby boys would be killed and thrown into the Nile river. A Jew named Yocheved was desperate to save her infant son's life, and put him in a basket that she floated down the Nile river. Pharaoh's daughter heard the baby's cries and rescued him from the river. The Princess named the child Moses, which means "taken from the waters," and she raised him as her own son.
Moses grew up as an Egyptian prince in the house of Pharaoh. He fled to the land of Midian after killing an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Jewish slave. In Midian, Moses married Tzipporah, one of the Midianite priest's daughters, and tended his father-in-law's flock. In the desert, God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush that miraculously was not consumed by the fire. God told Moses that he and his brother Aaron had been chosen to go to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and urged him to free the slaves. Pharaoh refused, and God brought 10 devastating plagues upon the people and the land of Egypt. Each plague was preceded by a warning, and after each plague, Moses and Aaron begged Pharaoh to let the Jews go. However, it was only after the last plague, when Pharaoh's firstborn son was killed, that Pharaoh finally relented and freed the Israelites.
The holiday is called Passover because during the last plague, God passed over (in Hebrew, pesach) the homes of the Israelites and struck down only the firstborn Egyptians.
A Seder is held on the first two nights of Passover. The Seder, which means "order," is a festive meal during which we read from the Haggadah, a book of blessings, rituals, stories and songs of praise which recount the Exodus from Egypt. Many different rituals help us relive and experience the story of Passover. These symbols and rituals are intended to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and of the great joy of our liberation. It is said in the Haggadah that each person must feel as though he or she actually was liberated from the slavery of Egypt. At the Seder, participants are supposed to lean on pillows and recline in their chairs. In the ancient world, reclining while eating was a sign of freedom.
Highlights of the Seder
The Maggid is the most important element in the Seder—telling the story of the Exodus. It is during the Maggid portion that the youngest person at the Seder asks the Four Questions of Mah Nishtanah, or "Why is this night different from all other nights? Why on this night do we only eat matzah instead of bread, why on this night do we eat bitter herbs, why on this night do we dip our vegetables twice and why on this night do we lean on our left side?" These questions provide us with the opportunity to talk about the specific miracles that occurred in Egypt and to observe the mitzvah of recounting the story of Passover to future generations. The answers to these questions are discovered during the Avadim Hayeenu paragraph, "We Were Once Slaves."
The Four Sons
The Haggadah tells the story of four types of sons—one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple and one who does not even know how to ask questions about Passover. These sons symbolize different types of Jews and their different levels of knowledge about and commitment to Judaism. Each should be told the story of Passover according to their own level of understanding.
The Spilling of the 10 Drops of Wine
While we thank and praise God for the miracles that occurred, we are also sensitive to the plight of the Egyptians who were punished with God's ten plagues. For this reason, we spill 10 drops of wine for each of the 10 plagues. The spilling demonstrates an awareness of the suffering of our enemies. As Jews, we are taught not to delight in the pain and sorrow of others, even our enemies, and we therefore empathize with their pain.
The Four Cups of Wine and Elijah's Cup
The rabbis say that during the Seder, it is incumbent upon everyone who is able to do so to drink four cups of wine. The four cups parallel the four expressions of redemption that God promised the Jews in the Book of Exodus (6:6-7). A fifth cup of wine is filled towards the end of the Seder for the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit every house on the night of Passover and drink from this cup. According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Elijah will announce the arrival of the Messiah.
The afikomen is the larger half of the middle matzah that is put aside until the end of the meal. The afikomen is the last item eaten at the Seder and it is customary to play a game where the children "steal" the afikomen from the adults and hold it for ransom. The Seder cannot end until the afikomen is eaten. This game helps the children stay awake during the long Seder.
The Seder Plate
A Seder plate is used to display five important foods that are used during the Seder. They are:
Karpas—parsley, symbolizing spring and rebirth
Maror—bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery
Charoset—A mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine that symbolizes the mortar that the slaves made for bricks in Egypt
Zeroah—a shankbone, symbolizing the Passover sacrifice
Beitzah—hard-boiled egg, symbolic of the festival sacrifice offered by each Jew going to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Cleaning for Passover and Selling Hametz
It is forbidden to eat, use or own any hametz (leavened products), such as bread or pasta, during the eight days of Passover. Before Passover, it is customary to thoroughly clean one's house to ensure that all of the hametz is removed. Many people pay careful attention to their kitchen and use special Passover pots, pans, dishes and silverware.
During this time, it is also customary to sell one's hametz to fulfill the commandment of not owning any leavened products. This transaction is known as mechirat hametz—the selling of hametz—and can be done through a rabbi. After Passover, the hametz is bought back and returned to its rightful owner.
Search, Nullification and Burning of Hametz
On the evening prior to the start of Passover, a member of the household conducts the search for the hametz. A candle and a feather are used to search every corner of the house to ensure that a thorough cleaning for Passover has been completed.
The next morning, all of the remaining hametz is taken and burned to symbolize that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of removing the hametz from our homes. Finally, we say the kol cha-mira again to nullify any hametz that might still be in our homes.
The theme of hospitality and caring for the poor surrounds Passover. In order to ensure that every person is able to partake in a Seder and have enough for Passover food, we collect Maot Chitim, literally "money for bread," to be distributed to the needy for Passover.
Kosher for Passover Foods
It is customary to eat only foods specially labeled "Kosher for Passover." Questions regarding specific foods should be directed to one's rabbi.