Passover for Dummies, the Cliff Notes Version
By Alison Blackman Dunham
This is the first night of Passover. It’s one of the most important holidays celebrated by Jews throughout the world. The 8 day holiday is celebrated in early Spring although the dates move around, anywhere from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan.
For those who are interested and don’t know the story of Passover, it’s almost impossible to tell it in one paragraph. So here is my version of the “Cliff Notes Version of Passover and the Passover Seder” for anyone who just needs the quickest explanation possible. Feel free to share it!
Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Jews follow specific rituals of Passover to remember and honor the freedom that our ancestors won.
According to the story, told in a book called a “Haggadah” (Maxwell House used to make a version we used), the Israelites were slaves to the Egyptian pharaohs, who badly mistreated them for decades. G‑d (Jews never spell out her name completely) seeing the injustice sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “let my people go so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d was not happy about this, so she sent ten horrible plagues (a few were wild animals, boils, hail and locusts) destroying everything from the Pharoah’s livestock to their crops. At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), G‑d levied the worst and last of the 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn but she spared the Children of Israel, “passing over” their homes (that is why the holiday is called “Passover:). Finally Pharoah gave in and freed the slaves (well, actually, she chased them out of Egypt). They had to leave in such a hurry they didn’t have time for the bread they baked for the journey, to rise (we call this unleavened bread “Matzoah”). 600,000 adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.
Depending upon how religious you are, and your family traditions, you will take Passover traditions more seriously, or less seriously, but most Jewish people will either create or attend at least one special celebratory meal, called a seder. This is not an ordinary meal. For starters, there is no bread served at a seder (some observant Jews don’t eat bread or any leavened grain items for the full eight days, and clean their entire house of these items before Passover, using special dishes and implements just for Passover during this time). Even mildly observant Jews will put out a Seder plate which has on it, some items of special significance relating to the Passover story above, including a lamb shank, bitter herbs, salt water, charoset (mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon), hard boiled eggs, etc. There is a cup of wine left for Elijah (hoping he will come) and often an open door for him. Everyone drinks wine or grape juice (four cups to celebrate the freedom of the Jews and their flight from Egypt). A piece of Matzoh is hidden and the children in the family will look for it. When they find it they get a prize. The youngest child (or person) gets to start off a traditional part of the seder by asking Why is this night different from all other nights?” The seder leader replies by asking what differences they notice. The youngest person then replies that there are four ways in which they notice a difference about Passover. For some, the entire Haggadah, is read detailing just about everything you ever wanted to know about the story of the Exodus from Egypt. For others, as in my family, only the four questions and the most important parts were read. In the seder I’ll be attending tonight at a dear friend’s house, we’ll all take turns reading pieces of a Haggadah. When there are children at a seder, it’s a way to teach them about a very important part of Jewish culture and religion.
One more important thing to note about Passover is that, like the old Levy’s Rye Bread tag line, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it. Jews traditionally invite non Jews to join them at seders, not to convert them, but just to enjoy good food, wine, companionship, and to hear the ancient story told, one more time, this year.