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Home » Festivals » The Passover (Pesach) | Gold Menorah

The Passover (Pesach)

Written by Zev on March 19, 2009 – 12:00 pm -

Passover seder plate with charoset, parsley, roasted bone, roasted egg and bitter herbs (maror)

Passover, otherwise known as the spring festival, celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from captivity and slavery by the Egyptians. According to Jewish law, Passover begins on 15 Nisan, lasting for seven days in Israel and eight for Jews living in the Diaspora.The literal translation for Passover or Pesach in Hebrew derives from when God when slewing the first-born (Exodus 12: 23) as the last of the eight curses imposed upon the Egyptians to passed over the houses of the children of Israel. In modern times, within the Diaspora, the festival came to be known as Passover, although many Jews refer to the festival as the Hag Ha-Matzot, meaning ‘the Festival of Unleavened Bread’.

This is what typifies Passover for most Jews, the fact that eating leavened bread (hametz) is forbidden, and eating only unleavened bread (matzah) is allowed during the entire duration of the festival. (Exodus 23: 15; Leviticus 23: 6; Deuteronomy 16: 16).

As part of Halakhich law, on the night before Passover begins (14 Nisan), every Jewish home must be thoroughly searched and any hametz removed from the house. Many observant Jews observe the tradition of carrying out a last minute token search for hametz using a candle and feather to brush away any last crumbs that may have been overlooked. A prayer is then offered declaring any hametz that may have been overlooked be rendered void.

In modern Israel, it has become common practice for a non-Jewish person to make a ritual purchase of all hametz stored in the country’s warehouses, as Israel imports all her wheat. At the end of the festival, the hametz is sold back to the country, at a token profit.

Preparing of matzah must be carried out under the rules of kashrut and under the strictest of supervision. In Israel, there are many specialist bakeries that produce only Matzot, as they keep all year round. Special care is required to be taken, whilst the dough is being kneaded and whilst it is being baked. The supervisory ritual, known as shemirah is to prevent the dough from fermenting so that it doesn’t rise. As is the case with many other aspects of Judaism, there are arguments as to what stage the shemirah should begin.

The fact is that many find eating matzah hard to bear and desist from eating bread altogether for the duration of Passover, apart from a single piece that is obliged to be eaten during the Li’l Haseder (Seder night) ritual which takes place on the first night of Passover. Jewish people in the Diaspora hold two Seders, on the first and second nights of Passover.

Passover is one of the most enjoyable, family orientated festivals in the Jewish religion and celebrating Seder together with families and friends is the highlight of their religious year.

Seder in Hebrew means order, and when used to describe the service and festive meal held on the first (and second) nights of Passover, maintaining the order or sequence of events holds great significance. A special prayer book known as the Haggadah acts as a program for the evening, laying out in considerable detail the order of the event as they are supposed to happen.

A literal translation for the word Haggadah is “telling” ‘, and indeed, the Haggadah tells the story of the Jews coming out of Egypt and their need to pass on the story of their Exodus into the desert and their subsequent freedom for generations to come.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Talmud mentions the story of the Exodus, no formal Haggadah was printed for thousands of years. Today the Haggadah exists in around 2,000 formats containing not only specific instructions on how the Seder table be laid out as well as how the service be conducted.

Most importantly, the Seder table should be bedecked with a white tablecloth, on which should be placed the various artifacts that are the focal points of the service. First of all, a set of candlesticks with lit candles lit should be placed on the table, beside the Seder plate. The Seder plate is where all the foods that need to be eaten during the service should be placed, each with their own special significance. These are:

  • Matzot: Unleavened bread, three in number, representing that when the Jews went out of Egypt, they had no time to wait for their bread dough to rise. The Matzot are placed on a special plate and covered with a specially embroidered Matzah cover.
  • Maror: These are bitter herbs, representing the bitter and tough lives of the Hebrew slaves.
  • Charoset: This is a paste made from apples, almonds and wine, to remind Jews of the mortar used to build the Pyramids with a sweet taste to represent the sweetness of freedom.
  • Salt Water: This represents the tears of the oppressed Hebrews.
  • Parsley: To dip in the salt water.
  • A Roasted Bone: This is to represent the Paschal lamb that was slaughtered during the days of the Temple when Passover was first celebrated.
  • A Roasted Egg: This represents a reminder of the festival offering

Once the father of the Seder has inspected the table and made sure that all is in order, then the Seder can begin.

First of all Kiddush (benediction) over the first cup of wine is taken. Anyone at the table, who has passed the age of bar mitzvah, is allowed to drink wine at the Seder table.

The next stage is to break the middle slice of Matzah into two parts, with one half being set aside as the afikoman (dessert). The parsley on the Seder plate is then dipped into the bowl of salt water and passed around by the “Ab Haseder” (father of the Seder) to be eaten.

Passover (Pesach) Matzah and Kiddush Cup

The next stage is when the youngest person at the table (who has been Bar mitzvah) is allowed to ask the “Four Questions” Usually this segment of the service is treated very lightly, with the person who has been given the task of asking these questions suffering from stage fright and being egged on by the rest of the family and friends around the table. The questions basically ask” why is tonight different from all other nights” and pertain to the sudden change in circumstances of Jewish people during their Exodus from Egypt. The four questions are answered by the guests in a light hearted and frivolous manner but in strict accordance with what is written in the Haggadah.

After the four questions have been safely completed, Grace before meals is then recited over the remaining Matzot where everyone in attendance has to partake of their token piece. The last ritual to be observed before dinner is eaten is to dip the Maror into the Haroset which is then passed around the table to be eaten.

Once the meal has been enjoyed, and all those who contributed have been duly complemented, the service resumes. First step is the search for the afikoman, the half matzah that has been taken away surreptitiously by the “Ab Ha Seder” and hidden. The child who succeeds in finding the afikoman gets a prize, with the runners up also been awarded various consolation prizes.

As the service begins to wind down, grace after meals is recited and a third cup of wine partaken of.
The “Ab ha Seder ” also fills a cup of wine which is set on the table in anticipation of the arrival of the prophet Elijah, who according to Jewish legend, is supposed to visit every Jewish home on Seder night. The front door of the house is left open so that Elijah can enter and throughout history many small children have promises them that they will never take their eyes of Elijah’s glass in case they miss the prophet’s visit.

In recent years, a new ritual for the Passover Seder has begun to be observed. The ritual of pouring a cup of water to honor the memory of Miriam the Prophetess and the role she played in the Exodus from Egypt as part of a long line of contributions that women have made to Jewish culture.

To round of the Seder a hearty rendition of the Hallel along with other hymns of thanksgiving take place while the fourth and last cup of wine is drunk. As the wine and the warm and friendly family atmosphere around the table take full effect, the family home is filled with the sound of singing, especially the two favorite hymns” Had Gadya’ “and “Achad ani Yodeah.”

In the Diaspora it is traditional for Jewish people to celebrate two consecutive Seder nights, while in Israel it is common practice to hold another, yet much more muted, Seder on the night before Passover is due to finish.

In Israel, Jews influenced by those who have immigrated to Israel from Morocco mark the end of Passover with a fabulous feast known as Mimouna

Depending on the spring weather, Mimouna is celebrated either indoors or outdoors, where the sweetest of tidbits are served to the sounds of oriental music, and singing and dancing continue into the early hours to celebrate the end of one of the most joyous and significant festivals on the Jewish calendar.

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