An introduction to the Jewish Passover
As a Christian, it helps to understand the Jewish Passover celebration, especially since it plays out the Bible several times, including Jesus and the Disciples’ Last Supper. Unlike our Christian Christmas celebration, Passover is deeply rooted in the Bible with a single intent – to celebrate God’s gift of freedom to the Jewish nation. Each step of Passover is a means to educate, and remind, Jews of their Biblical story.
Passover is a significant Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt as documented in the Biblical story of the Exodus. It falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nisan, which marks the first month of the Hebrew year.
|Hebrew Month||Modern Day Equivalent|
|Nisan (Passover month)||March/April|
One of the three biblically ordained pilgrimage festivals, Passover is celebrated for seven days in the Land of Israel and for eight days among many Jews in the Diaspora. The holiday is also known as Chag HaMatzot, the feast of unleavened bread (matzah) and is mentioned in the Bible as such.
Is Passover mentioned in the Bible?
The verb “Passover” (Hebrew: “pasàch”) is first mentioned in the Torah’s account of the Exodus from Egypt. The commonly held assumption is that it means “He passed over” in reference to God “passing over” or “skipping” the houses of the Hebrews during the final of the ten plagues of Egypt.
God “passes over” the homes of the Hebrews
In the Book of Exodus, the ancient Israelites are depicted as being enslaved in Egypt. Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, appears to Moses in a burning bush and commands him to confront Pharaoh. To demonstrate his power, Yahweh inflicts a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians, culminating in the tenth and final plague, which results in the death of the first-born children. Exodus tells us:
“About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt – worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.”
According to the Book of Exodus, in preparation for the tenth and final plague of Egypt, God commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites to mark a lamb’s blood over their doors so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” them and spare them from the death of the firstborn.
The term “Pesach” may also refer to the lamb or goat designated as the Passover sacrifice (called the “Korban Pesach” in Hebrew).
The Passover lamb
The biblical regulations for the observance of Passover require that all leavening be disposed of before the beginning of the 15th of Nisan. An unblemished lamb or goat, known as the Korban Pesach or “Paschal Lamb”, is to be set apart on 10th Nisan and slaughtered at dusk as 14th Nisan ends in preparation for the 15th of Nisan when it will be eaten after being roasted. The lamb is to be eaten “that night”, 15th Nisan, roasted, without the removal of its internal organs, with unleavened bread known as matzo, and bitter herbs known as maror. Nothing of the sacrifice on which the sun rises by the morning of the 15th of Nisan may be eaten, but must be burned.
According to Judaism, Passover sacrifices can only be performed in a specific place, which is Jerusalem. The biblical commandments regarding Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread emphasize the importance of remembrance.
Biblical references to Passover
Exodus 12:14 commands that Passover should be kept as a feast to the Lord and be remembered throughout generations. Exodus 13:3 repeats the command to remember, and Deuteronomy 16:12 instructs people to remember that they were once bondmen in Egypt and to observe and follow the statutes.
In 2 Kings 23:21–23 and 2 Chronicles 35:1–19, King Josiah of Judah restored the celebration of Passover to a standard not seen since the days of the judges or the days of the prophet Samuel. Ezra 6:19–21 records the celebration of Passover by the Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon after the temple had been rebuilt.
Some of these details are corroborated, and to some extent amplified, in extrabiblical sources. The removal of the leaven is referred to in the Elephantine papyri, an Aramaic papyrus from 5th century BCE Elephantine in Egypt. The slaughter of the lambs on the 14th is mentioned in The Book of Jubilees, a Jewish work of the Ptolemaic period, and by the Herodian-era writers Josephus and Philo.
The English term “Passover”
The English term “Passover” first appeared in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and later in the King James Version as a literal translation of the Hebrew term.
Date and duration of Passover
In Israel, Passover is a seven-day holiday, known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, with the first and last days celebrated as legal holidays and as holy days involving holiday meals, special prayer services, and abstention from work. The intervening days are known as Chol HaMoed (“Weekdays of the Festival”).
Jews outside the Land of Israel celebrate the festival for eight days. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews usually celebrate the holiday over seven days.
The modern date representing Nisan 15 varies. In 2009, for example, Nisan 15 on the Jewish calendar used by Rabbinic Judaism corresponds to April 9. On the calendars used by Karaites and Samaritans, Abib or Aviv 15 (as opposed to “Nisan”) corresponds to April 11 in 2009.
Removing all leaven (chametz)
Leaven, known in Hebrew as chametz (ḥamets), is produced by combining grains with water and allowing it to stand. During Passover, the consumption, possession, and ownership of chametz is forbidden according to Halakha. However, yeast and fermentation are not inherently prohibited, as demonstrated by the requirement of wine during Passover. Chametz does not include baking soda, baking powder, or similar products, as these leaven by chemical reaction rather than biological fermentation. Pancakes, waffles, and bagels made with baking soda and matzo meal are considered permissible, while those made with yeast or sourdough are prohibited.
The commandments in the Torah regarding chametz during Passover include removing all chametz from one’s home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover, and it may be used up, thrown out, or given or sold to non-Jews. Refraining from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover is also required, as is the prohibition of possessing chametz in one’s domain, such as in a home, office, car, etc.
Before the holiday, observant Jews engage in an intense housecleaning process to remove every trace of chametz, or leavening, from their homes. Jewish law requires the elimination of olive-sized or larger quantities of leavening from one’s possession, but most housekeeping goes beyond this. Even the seams of kitchen counters are thoroughly cleaned to remove traces of flour and yeast, however small.
Containers or implements that have touched chametz are stored and not used during Passover. Some hotels, resorts, and cruise ships undergo a thorough cleaning before Passover to make their premises “kosher for Pesach” to cater to observant Jews.
Search for leaven
On the night before Passover, Jews conduct a formal search known as Bedikat Chametz in their homes to remove any possible remaining leaven or chametz. Talmudic sages instructed that a search for chametz be made in every place where it may have been brought during the year, including homes and places of work. If the first Passover Seder falls on a Saturday night, the search is conducted on the preceding Thursday night as chametz cannot be burned during Shabbat. The Talmud states that the search for chametz be conducted by the light of a candle and is done at night. Although the final destruction of chametz is done on the next morning, the blessing is made at night because the search is both in preparation for and part of the commandments to remove and destroy all chametz from one’s possession.
Blessing for search of chametz and nullification of chametz
Before beginning the search for chametz, a special blessing is recited by the head of the household. If multiple people or family members participate in the search, only one person typically recites the blessing with the intention of including everyone present. The blessing goes,
“Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us concerning the removal of chametz.”
The search is usually conducted by the head of the household with the rest of the family, including children, under their supervision. It is customary to turn off the lights and use candlelight to conduct the search with a feather and a wooden spoon. Candlelight effectively illuminates corners without casting shadows, and the feather can dust crumbs out of their hiding places. The wooden spoon is used to collect the crumbs and can be burned the next day with the chametz. Many contemporary Jewish-Orthodox authorities permit using a flashlight.
Traditionally, 10 small morsels of bread or cereal, smaller than the size of an olive, are hidden throughout the house the night before Passover. This is done to ensure that some chametz will be found during the search on the following day, which is the morning of the 14th of Nisan.
After the search is concluded, all the small pieces of chametz are safely wrapped up and put in one bag or place to be burned the next morning. At this point, the following statement is made:
“Any chametz or leaven that is in my possession which I have not seen and have not removed and do not know about should be annulled and become ownerless like the dust of the earth.”
It is believed that this statement nullifies any remaining chametz that was not found during the search.
Morning of 14th of Nisan
Fast of the Firstborn
On the day before the first Passover seder, firstborn sons are traditionally commanded to celebrate the Fast of the Firstborn, which commemorates the salvation of the Hebrew firstborns. According to Exodus 12:29, God struck down all Egyptian firstborns while the Israelites were spared. Synagogues often conduct a ceremony marking the completion of a section of Torah learning, called a siyum, right after morning prayers. The celebratory meal that follows cancels the firstborn’s obligation to fast.
Burning and nullification of leaven
On the morning of the 14th day of Nisan, any leavened products that remain in the householder’s possession, along with the 10 morsels of bread from the previous night’s search, are burned. This is known as s’rayfat chametz. The head of the household then recites the declaration of biyur chametz, which declares any chametz that may not have been found to be null and void, “as the dust of the earth.” If additional chametz is found in the house during the Passover holiday, it must be burnt as soon as possible.
Not eating matzah from sunrise until sunset (day before Passover)
On the day before Passover, even Kosher for Passover matzah cannot be consumed all day. Some individuals even practice this restriction up to 30 days before.
Separate kosher for Passover utensils and dishes
During Passover, observant Jewish families typically use complete sets of serving dishes, glassware, and silverware that have never come into contact with chametz (leaven) for use only during Passover, due to the Torah injunction not to eat chametz. Under certain circumstances, chametz utensils can be immersed in boiling water to purge them of any traces of chametz that may have accumulated during the year. Similarly, ovens may be used for Passover either by setting the self-cleaning function to the highest degree for a certain period of time or by applying a blow torch to the interior until the oven glows red hot (a process called libun gamur).
Table set for the Passover Seder
The Passover celebration begins with a special meal called a Seder. Jewish families typically gather for the seder dinner on the first night of Passover, which lasts two nights. The meal is held with fine china and silverware to show its importance. The Seder includes the eating of symbolic foods, such as matzah, bitter herbs, and charoset, which represent different aspects of the Passover story.
The Hebrew word seder means “order” or “arrangement” and refers to the specific order of the ritual. During the Seder, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold through a series of prayers, songs, and readings from the Haggadah, a special Passover text. The Haggadah divides the seder into 15 parts representing the 15 steps in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Levites stood during Temple services.
- Kadesh – The first step of the Seder is the Kiddush, where the leader recites the blessing over a cup of wine. This is a special cup of wine, set aside specifically for the Seder.
- Urchatz – The leader then washes their hands, but without reciting the usual blessing. This is done to symbolize the purity and cleanliness required for the Seder.
- Karpas – A small piece of vegetable, usually parsley, is dipped in salt water and eaten. This is meant to symbolize the tears shed by the Jewish people during their time in slavery.
- Yachatz – The middle matzah on the Seder plate is broken in half, and the larger half is set aside to be the Afikoman. The Afikoman is a piece of matzah that is hidden during the Seder and is later found and eaten as a dessert.
- Maggid – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is told, usually by reading from the Haggadah. The Haggadah is a special book that tells the story of the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom.
- Rachtza – The hands are washed again, this time with a blessing. This is done to symbolize the importance of cleanliness and purity during the Seder.
- Motzi – The leader recites the blessing over the matzah. Matzah is an unleavened bread that is eaten during Passover to symbolize the Jewish people’s haste in leaving Egypt.
- Matzah – Everyone eats a piece of Matzah.
- Maror – Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, are eaten to symbolize the bitterness of slavery. This is a reminder of the hardships faced by the Jewish people during their time in Egypt.
- Korech – A sandwich is made of matzah and bitter herbs. This is meant to symbolize the sweetness that can be found even in the midst of bitterness.
- Shulchan Orech – A festive meal is served. This is a time for families and friends to come together and enjoy a delicious meal in celebration of Passover.
- Tzafun – The Afikoman, which was set aside earlier, is eaten as a dessert. This is a fun and exciting part of the Seder, as children often search for the hidden Afikoman.
- Barech – Grace after meals is recited. This is a time to thank God for the food that has been enjoyed during the Seder. The second cup of wine is drank.
- Hallel – Psalms of praise are recited. This is a time to give thanks and praise to God for the freedom that the Jewish people have found. The third cup of wine is drank.
- Nirtzah – The Seder concludes with the hope that next year, the Jewish people will be able to celebrate in Jerusalem. This is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for freedom and a better world for all people. The fourth cup of wine is drank.
The seder includes questions, answers, and unique practices that aim to engage and spark the interest of the children at the table. For example, Kiddush is recited before the blessing over bread, which is different from the traditional procedure for all other holiday meals. The children are encouraged to ask questions and participate in discussions about the Exodus and its aftermath and are rewarded with nuts and candies. They are also prompted to search for the afikoman, the piece of matzo that is the last thing eaten at the seder. Audience participation and interaction is encouraged, making the seder a lively and animated affair that can last long into the night.
Maror (bitter herbs) is a symbol of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Exodus 1:14 tells us:
“And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of labor in the field; any labor that they made them do was with hard labor.”
Four cups of wine
During the seder meal, it is a Rabbinic requirement for both men and women to drink four cups of wine. According to the Mishnah, even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink.
The four questions and participation of children
Children play a vital role in the Passover seder. As per tradition, the youngest child is prompted to ask questions about the Passover seder, starting with the phrase “*Mah Nishtana HaLeila HaZeh*” (Why is this night different from all other nights?). These questions prompt those gathered to discuss the significance of the symbols present in the meal.
The questions asked by the child are:
- Why is this night different from all other nights?
- On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
- On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?
- On all other nights, we do not dip [our food] even once, but tonight we dip twice?
- On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline?
During the seder, it is common for the leader and other adults to use prompted responses from the Haggadah, which emphasizes the importance of discussing the Exodus from Egypt. The story is recounted through various readings, prayers, and stories, often with households adding their own commentary and interpretation.
The Afikoman is an important element of the Seder, especially for engaging children. During the Yachatz portion of the Seder, the leader breaks the middle matzo into two pieces, setting aside the larger portion as the afikoman. Many families use the afikoman as a way to keep children alert and engaged during the Seder by hiding it and offering a prize for its return. Alternatively, children are sometimes allowed to “steal” the *afikoman* and demand a reward for its return. In either case, the afikoman must be eaten during the twelfth part of the Seder, Tzafun.
After the Hallel, the fourth glass of wine is consumed, and participants recite a prayer that culminates in the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem!”. This is followed by several lyrical prayers that elaborate on God’s mercy and kindness, and express gratitude for the survival of the Jewish people throughout a history of exile and hardship.
The Hallel prayer is included in the daily Passover service. It is recited in its entirety on the first day(s), as well as on Shavuot and all of Succot. For the rest of the holiday, only half of Hallel is recited.
Counting of the Omer
Starting on the second night of Passover, which is the 16th day of Nisan, Jews begin the Counting of the Omer. It’s a nightly reminder of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which is 50 days away. After the evening prayer service, men and women recite a blessing and count the day of the Omer. For example, on the first night, they say, “Today is the first day in the Omer”; on the second night, “Today is the second day in the Omer.” The counting also involves weeks. For example, the seventh day is commemorated, “Today is the seventh day, which is one week in the Omer.” The eighth day is marked, “Today is the eighth day, which is one week and one day in the Omer,” and so on.
One possible explanation for the Counting of the Omer is to show the connection between Passover and Shavuot. At the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews achieved physical freedom but it was only the start of a process that culminated with the spiritual freedom they gained when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Another explanation is that the newly-formed nation needed time to learn their new responsibilities regarding Torah and mitzvot before accepting God’s law. The difference between the Omer offering, which was a measure of barley typically used as animal feed, and the Shavuot offering, which was two loaves of wheat bread meant for human consumption, symbolizes the transition process.
Seventh day of Passover
*Shvi’i shel Pesach* is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the seventh day of Passover. It has special prayer services and festive meals. Outside the Land of Israel, it is celebrated on both the seventh and eighth days of Passover. The holiday commemorates the day the Children of Israel reached the Red Sea and witnessed both the miraculous “Splitting of the Sea” and the drowning of all the Egyptian chariots, horses, and soldiers that pursued them.
Pesach Sheni is a holiday mentioned in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers. It falls on the 14th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar and serves as a make-up day for those who were unable to offer the pesach sacrifice at the appropriate time due to ritual impurity or distance from Jerusalem. Breaking bones from the second Paschal offering or leaving meat over until morning is prohibited, just as on the first Pesach night.
Today, Pesach Sheni is a very minor holiday and is not widely observed outside of Orthodox and traditional Conservative Judaism. There are no special prayers or observances required by Jewish law. The only change in the liturgy is that in some communities, Tachanun, a penitential prayer omitted on holidays, is not said. It is customary, but not required, to eat just one piece of matzo on that night.
• Plastic bags conceal leavened foods that cannot be consumed during Passover in a Jerusalem supermarket via Wikimedia Commons by Daniel Case with usage type - GNU Free, April 13, 2009
• Handmade Shmura Matzo used at Passover Seder via Wikimedia Commons by Yoninah with usage type - Creative Commons License, April 19, 2011
• Festive Seder table with wine, matza and Seder plate via Wikimedia Commons by Gilabrand with usage type - GNU Free, April 15, 2007
• 3 types of maror horseradish mixed with cooked beets and sugar, lettuce leaf, whole horseradish root via Wikimedia Commons by Yoninah with usage type - Public Domain, May 10, 2006
• Early 15th century Haggadah manuscript via Nahum Goldmann Fellowship with usage type - Public Domain, circa 1430