©msl2000 - 2010

The Jewish Passover


Huge thanks to Liv Goldstein who has given of her time and concern to write this..



The Jewish Calendar has twelve months with names that derives from the Jewish exile in Babylonia. Every month has its own special days. The holiday of Passover comes in the month of Nissan (March/April according to the Gregorian calendar). Jewish New Year comes in the month of Tishrei (September/October), but Passover is also the beginning of a new year, because when God took the Jews out of Egypt, he commanded them "This month shall be to you the first of the months…"

The holiday has five different names, because there are so many important ideas to remember about this event.

  • Passover, which tells you that God passed over the homes of the innocent to destroy only the wicked. It teaches us that there comes a time of reckoning, and God separates the good from the bad.
  • Pesach refers to the Paschal lamb. The lamb was one of the Egyptian gods. In order to be saved, the Jews had to slaughter a lamb as a symbol of renouncing the way of life and the religion of those among whom they lived.
  • Z’man Cheruteinu, the time of Jewish liberation, is the third name of a holiday whose central theme is freedom.
  • Chag Ha-matzot, the holiday of the unleavened bread, stresses how the move from slavery to freedom can almost instantaneous. There wasn’t even time for the bread to rise. Change for the better can come in the blink of an eye, just as it did for the Jews who ended up eating matzo (unleavened bread) because their freedom came so quickly. It was originally an agricultural holiday, celebrating the harvest.
  • Chag Ha-Aviv, the holiday of spring, does not only identify when Passover occurs, but also adds an additonal message explaining why redemption occurred when it did. The spring of nature is paralleled by the spring of God’s concern for His people and for the world. The hey idea of the holiday, as of spring, is rebirth.


Passover is observed for seven days in Israel and for eight days in the Diaspora. A holiday with so many names and such important messages needs a very special service. This service is too important even for the synagogue, so it is observed in the holiest sanctuary of all, in the home. It involves those people most responsible for carrying on the tradition, the children. It has a fixed order, which is why it is called Seder (literally "order"). It has its own prayer book, Haggada, the most widely reprinted book in Jewish history. Christians know this meal as the Last Supper. That was the meal Jesus partook of with his disciples before his execution by the Romans. For Jews, it is probably the ritual celebrated by more of its people than any other.

In Israel, the first and seventh days of Passover are celebrated as full holiday. The days in between are half holidays. In the Diaspora, the first two and last two of the days are full holidays.

For the Jewish homemaker Passover is a time for cleaning the home thoroughly, to be sure that no leavened bread is in the house. Also everything that can get sour and utensils that has been in contact with such food is prohibited during Passover. The Book of Exodus (13:7) specifically mandates that on Passover "no leaven shall bee seen in all your borders". The obligation to eat matza on Passover is stated several times in the Bible:

    • Exodus 13:7 "Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten."
    • Exodus 12:18 "In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread."

After water is added to one of the grains for making matza, the dough is kneaded and shaped, placed in the oven and removed, all within eighteen minutes.

Although a food may be kosher during the year, any product that is fermented or can cause fermentation may not be consumed on Passover. Likewise, all pots, pans, dishes and utensils that may have been in contact with such food must be cleansed and purged (koshered). All that cannot be purged must be set aside during the holiday.

All food items whose suitability for Passover is questionable must be certified by a rabbinic authority.

The Seder is a family home service and meal. Before the Seder, at the usual candle lighting time, the homemaker lights the holiday candles and recites the regular holiday blessings. The blessings can be found in most Haggadot. The Haggada is the prayer book of the Seder. It details the procedures of the evening, recounts the dramatic story of the Exodus from Egypt, and includes selections from the Book of Psalms plus a variety of festive songs. The Haggada in its original form was introduced 2500 years ago.

Three matzot are placed on the Seder table to remind the Jewish people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Another popular interpretation is that the three matzot represent the three classes in Jewish community: Priests, Levites and Israelites. It is also eaten to remind us about the bread of suffering that the ancestors ate in Egypt.

The Seder tray (or plate) is placed on the table. It has six compartments to hold the symbolic Passover foods:

  • Karpas, a green vegetable such as parsley, symbolizing spring and rebirth.
  • Haroset, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine, and spices, symbolizing the mortar that the slaves made for bricks in Egypt.
  • Maror, bitter herbs, (for example horse radish), symbol of the bitterness of slavery.
  • Beitzah, a hardboiled, unshelled, roasted or browned egg, a reminder of the regular festival sacrifice brought in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.
  • Zeroah, a roasted bone, usually a shank bone, symbol of the Pasach lamb.
  • Salt water, symbol of the tears of the Jewish ancestors who cried for God’s help and were answered.

Before the formal Seder meal, a dish of sliced, diced or hardboiled eggs is served. Each participant takes some egg on a spoon and dips it in salt water. The egg is a reminder of the holiday sacrifice brought in Temple times.

To involve children in the proceedings of the evening, four questions were designed to be asked of the leader. Generally, the youngest child at the Seder asks the questions. If children are not present, anyone may recite them.


Why is this night different from all other nights? I have four questions to ask about this.

    1. Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matza, but on this night we eat only matza?
    2. Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
    3. Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?
    4. Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?

Answer from the leader:

Your questions are well stated, and they will be answered in the course of the Seder we celebrate tonight to commemorate the deliverance of our ancestors from ancient Egypt, the house of bondage.

Traditionally, on Sabbaths and holidays two cups of wine are used at mealtime. On Passover two more cups are added, and all four cups are consumed during the course of the Seder. A popular interpretation is that they stand for four different expressions used by God in connection with the release of the Israelites from bondage: I shall bring forth, deliver, redeem, and take out.

At the conclusion of the Seder meal a special goblet, known as the Cup of Elijah, is filled with wine. In Jewish tradition, Elijah the Prophet represents the person who will usher in the Messianic Age, a time when peace will prevail throughout the world. Elijah is a welcome guest at every Seder and, to demonstrate that fact, at a specific time during the Seder service the front door of the house is opened to bid him welcome.

At one point during the Seder the leader breaks off a piece of the middle matza that sits on the Seder tray and hides it in a napkin or bag. Children look for it, and if they find it, the leader must ransom it by promising a gift. This hidden matza is called afikomon, a Greek word meaning "dessert". It is the last of the foods eaten at the Seder meal, and a Seder cannot continue until each participant has had a piece.

The seder plate is removed from the table before the afikomon is eaten, and it is now time for a regular meal (with food kosher for Pesach).

Haggada also contains a riddle in poor Aramaic, supposedly made in the 15th century, the Chad Gadja. It tells a bout a little kid (goat) and is generally regarded as a parable, describing incidents in the history of the Jewish people, with some reference to prophecies yet unfulfilled. It is unclear why this can be found in the Haggada, but it could be to keep the interest of the children. It starts like this: "One only kid, one only kid, which my father bought for two zuzim; one only kid, one only kid. And a cat came and devoured the kid….."

The last pages of the Haggada consists of the thirteen questions about the numbers one to twelve ("Who knoweth one? I, saith Israel, know One: One is the Eternal, who is above heaven and earth (… ) Who knoweth Thirteen? I, saith Israel, know thirteen: There are thirteen divine attributes, twelve tribes, eleven stars, ten commandments, nine months preceding childbirth, eight days preceding circumcision, seven days in the week, six books of the Mishnah, five books of the Law, four matrons, three patriarchs, two tables of the covenant; but One is the Eternal who is above heaven and earth."

By this time it is getting late, and the smallest children have probably fallen asleep at the table.