Pesach (Passover)
The Festival of Freedom and Redemption


The Meaning of Pesach

For us Jews, time and history are, in isolation, without meaning. What matters is the Jewish vision of a world redeemed, a world in which our highest ethical ideals are met, a messianic world. And so we relive our Jewish experience of redemption year after year to remind ourselves not so much of our connection to the past, but of our goal for the future. Our people's Exodus from Egypt is our paradigm for redemption. Passover reminds us that redemption is real, the liberation is on-going, and that the possibility of salvation is always here.

The second book of the Torah (Shemot, in Hebrew; Exodus, in English) recounts the story of our people's liberation from bondage and redemption through divine intervention. Here we are instructed to removed all leaven from our houses (Exodus 12:15) and eat unleavened bread at this season (Exodus 12:18), as well as to commemorate the pascal sacrifice each year. Today, we fulfill these precepts through the seder meal and service.

The Exodus is, religiously-speaking, not an event of history, dead and buried. It is the present. It is the struggle of Jews in the former-Soviet Union to regain their Jewish roots, denied them by a hostile government for two generations. It is their courage to teach and learn about Judaism after more than 7 decades of deprivation and persecution. For them, the Exodus is now. The struggle to leave slavery and degradation to find freedom and dignity is the story of their lives.

The Exodus is the on-going struggle of Ethiopian Jews to make a life for themselves in Israel and to be reunited with relatives left behind. Ethiopia is still home -- albeit an unfriendly and dangerous one -- to a few thousand Jews. Many more feel they were carried away from their Egypt, their House of Bondage, on eagles' wings to Eretz Yisrael. Israel is their Promised Land and God's promise of freedom and dignity has been fulfilled.

The Exodus is now for us -- we who enjoy freedom and dignity in this country. But not everyone in this land enjoys the blessings of freedom and dignity. Not all enjoy the prosperity and abundance which seem to surround us. One needn't look very far to find someone who is homeless, someone who lacks adequate medical care, someone who seek employment to support a family. This is not the Promised Land for thousands upon thousands for whom it should be just that.

Many are enslaved not by physical bonds, or even economic bonds, but by bonds of memory and emotion. Slavery comes in many forms, and to these forms of enslavement, the message of Passover speaks loudly, as well. Redemption is the promise for all people.

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Symbols of the Season

Each year we gather with family and friends to relive the Exodus from Egypt. We do not merely retell the story, we relive the event, spiritually. As the Haggadah tells us: In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as having come out of Egypt. To remember the bitterness of slavery, we evoke tears by eating maror (bitter herbs). To taste our "tears" we dip the greens in salt water. We conjure up in ourselves the feelings of degradation our ancestors must have endured in the work imposed upon them when we, ourselves, "build with mortar", a concoction of applies, nuts, and wine we call charoset. We recall the Ten Plagues upon Egypt and symbolically diminish our joy for the agony experienced by the Egyptians... And then -- having relived the redemption our ancestors experienced -- we open our doors to admit Elijah, the prophet who will herald the messianic age, the age of ultimate peace, freedom, tolerance; a time when everything we cherish most and everything to which we, as a society, aspire, will come to fruition. If we have heard well the message of the seder, then we understand that the redemption of the past -- our ancestors' Exodus from slavery and degredation, to freedom and dignity -- is a paradigm, a model, a guarantee, that future redemption is possible.

On the seder plate are found six items. First the zeroah (roasted shankbone), commemorating the pascal sacrifice (korban pesach), which was made the night our ancestors fled Egypt, and which was made each year after that on the 15th day of Nisan, for many generations. (Vegetarians might choose to use a roasted beet in place of the shankbone. This suggestion was made by Rashi, the great biblical commentator, on the basis of a passage in the Talmud, Tractate 114b.) Many Israelis use a chicken wing to signify God's "outstretched arm" because the Torah tells us that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a "strong hand and an outstretched arm." In addition, there is a beitzah (roasted egg), which also symbolizes a passover sacrifice (the korban chagigah) which each Jew would offer up at the Temple in Jerusalem during the periods of the First and Second Temples. The egg used on the seder plate can be roasted along with the shankbone. The egg has also come to symbolize the new life of our people in freedom, as well as the rebirth of springtime. Next, you will find karpas, (a green vegetable), such as parsley, which symbolizes spring and new life. During the course of the seder service, the karpas will be dipped into salt water, symbolizing the tears of suffering shed by our enslaved ancestors. For the maror (bitter herbs) you can use horseradish root (some use romaine lettuce). Charoset is a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, and wine which, to the eye, resembles the mortar used by the slaves in the construction with bricks in Egypt. However, its taste is sweet freedom, thus symbolizing the redemptive transition from slavery to freedom. Some seder plates contain a sixth compartment for chazeret (another type of maror). You can use romaine lettuce for this. [To see a photo of a seder plate created and used by inmates in Terezin, click here.]

In addition, there is a ceremonial plate of three matzot (matzahs), with a cover, for the table. The matzah is also referred to as lechem oni (the bread of affliction) and recalls the episode in the story of the Exodus in which the Israelites, lacking time to raise their dough properly on the night of their escape from bondage, baked the unraised dough into flat, hard cakes, called matzot. Matzah is made with only flour and water, in a such way that there is no possibility for the dough to rise: Once the flour has touched water, it must be in the oven within 18 minutes. Matzah Sh'murah (guarded matzah) is a special kind of matzah which has been prepared with great care: it has been watched from the time the wheat was harvested and threshed, through the baking process, to insure that the wheat never came in contact with water.

Wine, our symbol for joy, is another important part of the ritual of Pesach. The Haggadah instructs us to drink four cups, corresponding to the four promises of redemption in Exodus 6: 6-7. For those who do not consume alcohol, sparkling grapejuice is an excellent substitute and the blessing applies to it.

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What we eat and what we don't eat

Passover is also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for the Torah instructs us to removed all leavened food from our homes and eat unleavened bread (matzah) in commemoration of the Exodus. Chametz is any leavened food from which we abstain during the days of Passover (the 14th through the 20th or 21st of the Hebrew month of Nisan; some Jews keep Passover for seven days, as the Torah prescribes and some keep it for an extra eighth day). What constitutes chametz? Wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye are the five grains which are removed from the home and not consumed during Pesach. In addition, Ashkenasic rabbis classified kitniyot (rice, millet, corn, and legumes) as inedible by minhag (custom) under the principle of ma'arit ayin (one should avoid the appearance of violating a commandment); some Jews do not eat kitniyot during Pesach and some do. Some Jews feel that there is value in observing the customs of those who came before; others feels that the restriction of kitniyot is overly burdensome, especially given that it is not instructed in the Torah, and does not enhance their observance of Pesach.

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Haggadah for families

I have written a Haggadah for families with young children, or for those who are new to holding seders, which you are welcome to use for your seder. The Haggadah has Hebrew, illustrations, and songs. Click here to go directly to the Haggadah text. Click here for a PDF version.

(To see facsimile of illuminated version of Dayenu from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, click here.)

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How to prepare for a seder

Is it a lot of work to prepare a seder? That depends upon how you view it. There is certainly a fair amount to do in preparation, but it need not be construed as odious "work." For many, it is part and parcel of the religious experience of Pesach, the experience of redemption and liberation. If you approach the tasks in this way, you too will find that the message of Pesach is one of great meaning for your entire life. The most important thing to do is gather people with whom to share the holy day. It is fine to have a seder as a family, but even more fun to share it with others. What is more, surely there is someone in your community who is alone on Pesach and would welcome an invitation.

Cleaning Out chametz

Pesach begins before the sun sets on the 15th of Nisan. It begins with cleaning. In the weeks before Pesach we clean out the chametz (foods with leavening), for we do not eat or possess them on Pesach. This tradition is kept to varying degrees: Some Jews physically remove all chametz (this is a good time to eat down your opened reserves and give away sealed food to your nearest homeless shelter); others pack up the chametz and store it in their basements, garages, or at the home of a non-Jewish neighbor. In keeping with the tradition of not even possessing chametz on Pesach, many Jews symbolically "sell" their chametz on Pesach; this can be arranged through many synagogues by adding your name to their list. Pantries, drawers, and cabinets are cleaned out, vacuumed, and restocked with Passover foods. Children can help with the cleaning and, if you present it positively and approach it cheerfully, it can be a lot of fun.

Bedikat Chametz (Search for the chametz)

On the night before the first seder, or early the next morning, after all the chametz has been removed, hide a few small piles of crumbs around the house for the children to find. Give each child a wooden spoon and a feather. I recommend doing this at night, and supplying each child with a candle or flashlight, as well (depending upon age and safety considerations!). The children hunt for the last crumbs of chametz. These are then burned outside, using the flame of a candle, while the following formula is recited:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us us to burn all chametz.

It is then customary to recite this formula, which disowns all unfound and unseen chametz:

All the chametz in my possession which I have not seen and have not removed shall be nullified and be ownerless as the dust of the earth.

Setting Your Table for the Seder

The first time you prepare for a seder, it seems like a lot of work. Don't let that stop you. It seems easier and simpler each time.

  1. Use your best tablecloth and dishes, for Pesach is a very special holy day. Many Jews keep separate dishes and flatware for Passover, in order to enhance the separation of chametz from non-chametz.
  2. Everyone will need a plate, flatware, a water glass, a wine glass, and a Haggadah. The Haggadah is the prayerbook used for the seder. (You can click here for a Haggadah I wrote for families with young children which you are welcome to use.)
  3. In addition, you will need a seder plate with shankbone, egg, charoset, parsley, maror, and chazeret (you can use celery). A shankbone can be obtained from a butcher. Roast it in your oven with the egg for about 1/2 hour. (Some people roast a hard-boiled egg until it is burned.) Charoset is easy to make: chop up apples and combine with chopped nuts and sweet wine. Marror is bitter herbs; many supermarkets carry this in their produce sections just before Pesach. If you cannot obtain the natural root, use jarred horseradish, which can usually be found in the dairy case. It is nice to have a pretty seder plate for these items, but any plate will do. If you have children, ask them to decorate a paper or styrofoam plate for you with pictures of the seder symbols.
  4. Small dishes of salt water (for dipping the parsley).
  5. A plate with 3 matzot (matzahs) on it and a cover over it.
  6. A wine cup reserved for Elijah, and wine for everyone. The seder service has us drink four cups of wine. If you have people attending who do not drink alcohol, I recommend sparkling grape juice, which is available in many supermarkets. It's a lovely, festive alternative.

The Order of the Seder Service

The word "seder" means "order" and the seder service has 15 components. Click here to see a listing of the 15 parts of the seder service.

The Seder Meal

If you like to cook, you'll love this. If cooking is not your favorite thing to do, I have three suggestions:

  1. Enlist your company to help by bringing parts of the meal. Most people expect to come to a seder with food; they will probably ask what they can bring.
  2. Cook in advance and freeze. There are many foods which actually taste better if cooked in advance, such as brisket. Others, such as chicken soup (and even matzah balls!) freeze beautifully.
  3. Use shortcuts. Buy jarred gefilte fish and potato kugel mix. It's okay. It's not "cheating." There is no rule in heaven that says you have to cook until you drop. Do what you enjoy and what gives the holy day greater meaning for you and your family.

The "standard" menu for seder is:

Most of us overestimate and overcook. Maybe that's part of the tradition, too! If you are vegetarian, choose foods that are especially festive and enjoyable to you. For recipes, call a friend; people love to be asked for their recipes. Alternatively, check out a Jewish cookbook from your local library.

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Books for children about Pesach

There is a wealth of excellent children's literature about Pesach, its customs and traditions, and its meaning. Click here to read through an annotated list of Jewish children's books for Pesach.