What It Is:
Passover, or Pesach, celebrates the Jewish exodus out of Egypt, aided by the Ten Plagues. The word “Passover” refers to the fact that the homes of Jews were passed over during the 10th plague, which caused the death of all Egyptian first-born males.
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 79 percent of Jews attend a Passover seder, making it the most commonly observed holiday among Jews.
“Passover is one of the pinnacles of the Jewish year,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Paul Steinberg, author of the award-winning book “Celebrating the Jewish Year.” “It was the really definitive event of Jewishhood and led to our freedom and the responsibilities that come with freedom.”
What to Do:
Removing chametz (bread, grains and other leavened products) from the home takes place on the evening of the 14th of Nisan (March 28), and it is burned the next morning. The search for chametz in the home is thought to symbolize the removal of any “puffiness” or arrogance, and its thoroughness might have inspired spring cleaning.
The Passover seder, which comes from a Hebrew root word meaning “order,” is a family event that takes place at home on the evening of the 15th of Nisan (March 29). However, some groups organize communal seders that are open to the public.
During the seder, each person reads from a copy of the haggadah, which sets the order for the seder to recount the Jews’ liberation from Egypt. The seder is designed to include children and to transfer the faith and history to them. At one point, the youngest person at the table asks four questions, which lead into the story of the Exodus. Steinberg describes the haggadah as the “first sort of curricular guide designed to entice and stimulate children.”
The seder plate holds symbolic foods, some of which will be eaten at a particular time. The boiled egg symbolizes the festival sacrifice that was brought to the Temple, while the shank bone represents the lamb for the Passover sacrifice.
Two types of bitter herbs are used to symbolize the bitterness of slavery, typically horseradish and romaine lettuce. Another vegetable, usually parsley, is dipped into saltwater (which represents tears) or vinegar. Charoset, which is often made from chopped apples, finely chopped almonds, sweet and dry wine, and cinnamon, symbolizes the mortar Jews used during slavery.
Matzah is used as a reminder that Jews had to leave in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is used throughout the seder, but some of it is left for the afikomen — a piece of matzah that either children or adults hide and which must either be found or negotiated back.
One new seder tradition is to add an orange to the seder plate. Feminist students in the 1980s suggested adding bread crust to the seder plate to symbolize the exclusion of women and homosexuals. Instead, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth, chose a tangerine because it didn’t violate Passover dietary restrictions. The idea caught on.
Another added tradition is to place a cup filled with water to symbolize Miriam’s Well, the legendary source of water for Israelites in the desert. There is no concrete way to incorporate Miriam’s
Cup in the seder, but some start with it at the beginning, to show the seder is inclusive of everyone. Some people have everyone pour some water from their cups into Miriam’s Cup to show that everyone plays a role.
“A Different Night – The Family Participation Haggadah” by Noam Zion and David Dishon (Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997). Features pictures, comics and games as well as a leader’s manual. “Anyone can find a way to participate,” Steinberg said.
“Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” by David Arnow (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004).
For more secular families, there is “The Liberated Haggadah: A Passover Celebration for Cultural, Secular and Humanistic Jews” by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2006).