Passover is one of the most important holidays celebrated by Jews throughout the world.
If you’ve been invited to a Passover Seder but you’ve never been to one, traditions vary from household to household, but there are some basic you’ll want to know.
Perhaps you’ve watched the classic movie ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told” and think you know the story, but it’s impossible to tell the official version, in one paragraph.
Here’s my “Cliff Notes of Passover and the Passover Seder” for the quickest explanation possible.
Feel free to share it!
When Is Passover Celebrated?
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.
What is the Story of Passover and Why do Jews Celebrate it?
Ok…here’s the quickest version possible:
Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.
Jews follow specific rituals of Passover to remember and remember honor the freedom that our ancestors won.
A newer interpretation also includes that we retell the story to remind ourselves that until all people are free, we are still slaves.
The leader of the family starts the seder by asking everyone to open their Haggadahs. This is a book that guides you through the story of Passover.
According to the story, told in any variation of the “Hagaddah” (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.
As you can imagine, G‑d was not happy that his commandments weren’t being acknowledged so ten plagues were sent down to Egypt (including wild animals, boils, hail and locusts).
The plagues destroyed everything from the Pharoah’s livestock to their crops.
So Why is this Holiday Called Passover?
I’m getting there….
But it wasn’t over yet for Pharoah. 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 the Children of Israel were spared because their houses had been marked, so death “passed over” their homes.
This is why the holiday is called Passover.
Well, Pharoah had enough and gave in and freed the slaves (actually they were chased out of Egypt).
600,000 adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.
But they left in such haste that didn’t have time to bread for the journey.
As they trudged to freedom walking in the hot sun the dough they brought baked into unleavened “flatbreads” that they called Mazzah or Matzoah (there are other spellings).
Matzoh is a mainstay of many homes all year long, but it has special significance on Passover, due to the flight out of Egypt!
The Seder Table, Basic Traditions:
There are some important items you will see on a seder table, the most important Matzoah (discussed above).
Everyone drinks wine or grape juice (four cups to celebrate the freedom of the Jews and their flight from Egypt).
You will see a bowl of chopped nuts and apples mixed with some sweet wine (charoset) symbolizing the bricks and mortar used by the Israelites to make bricks while enslaved in Egypt.
Apart from Charoset that you’ll eat (delicious!) and on the Seder plate, there are other items on the seder plate with specific significance. These are explained in the Hagaddagh but here they are:
You’ll see a lamb shankbone (it commemorates the paschal (lamb) sacrifice made the night the ancient Hebrews fled Egypt.
There is an egg (usually hard boiled) to celebrate rebirth, and a lot of other things open to your interpretation.
Karpas is a green vegetable, usually parsley to symbolize Spring (again, a bit of interpretation might occur).
Chazeret or bitter herbs are usually symbolized as horseradish. Also to show the bitterness of the life of the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
There will also be a small bowl of salt water to symbolize the tears and sweat of enslavement. Many people begin the seder meal by dipping the parsley and a hard boiled egg in a personal bowl of salt water, some also eat a bit of horseradish with a bit of the charoset.
The Four Questions and the Reading of the Hagaddah
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. It takes a long time.
There will be songs to sing in-between (not everyone does this).
In many modern seders, there is a leader to keep things moving, but everyone takes turns reading the Hagaddah.
If the family is very observant the seder may be done entirely in Hebrew (usually there is an English translation alongside the Hebrew).
For others, as in my family, only the four questions and the most important parts were read (and then we ate a lovely meal)!.
When there are children at a seder, it’s a way to teach them about a very important part of Jewish culture and religion.
We have discussed matzah but on the seder plate or on a special plate with a cover, there will be three pieces.
When the seder begins the top piece is shared by all at the table.
Another piece is “hidden” somewhere in the house, and the child who finds it (later after the seder ends) get money or a prize.
What really happens during a seder has to do with family traditions and how religious the family is.
One woman I know sings the Star Spangled Banner before the meal (this is not an official part of any seder).
No matter what, there is reading or some or all of the Hagaddah and note of the seder plate for this isn’t your ordinary meal.
Most Jews leave an empty seat or a cup of wine left for Elijah (hoping s/he will come). Often they’ll keep the door open for Elijah
Be sure that if you bring something it is “Kosher for Passover” and definitely doesn’t have bread or wheat (You’ve already read why).
In fact, observant Jews don’t eat bread or any leavened grain items for the full eight days/ They clean their entire house of these items before Passover, using special dishes and implements just for Passover during this time so no bread crumbs remain.
Most Jews leave an empty seat or a cup of wine left for Elijah (hoping s/he will come). Often they’ll keep the door open for Elijah.
One more important thing to note about Passover is that, like the old Levy’s Rye Bread advertising line: you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it. Jews traditionally invite
Jews traditionally invite people who don’t have a seder of their own to attend, and non-Jews to join them. This isn’t to convert anyone, but just to enjoy good food, wine, companionship, and to hear the ancient story told, one more time, this year.