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The ABC's of Passover

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Updated on Dec 22, 2010

Passover is a complex celebration grounded in the tradition of thousands of years—and sadly, many people have little more knowledge of the origin and practice of this fascinating holiday than Charlton Heston’s booming, bronzed Moses, or the vague notion that Jews only eat flatbread for a week each spring. But there’s so much more to it than that, and Jewish and non-Jewish children alike can appreciate an overview of its rich symbolism and their special place in it: Chag Same'ach!

A is for Account . . . the Origins of Passover

Passover, or Pesach, is celebrated on account of the Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt. The festival is a commemoration of the Exodus, when, according to Jewish tradition, God visited his wrath upon the Egyptians with a series of plagues for their enslavement of the Israelites. The tenth of these plagues was the killing of all firstborn sons, but God instructed the Children of Israel to mark their doors with the blood of a spring lamb in order that the avenging angel might “pass over” them—from this event we get the term “Passover”. Guidelines for the holiday’s commemoration are set forth in Leviticus, though commandments to observe the Passover appear elsewhere in the Torah.

2009 is the Jewish year 5769, and Passover occurs from sunset on April 8th to nightfall on April 16th. Jews reckon this date as the 15th of Nisan, the first of the twelve regular Hebrew months, and their Pesach festival coincides with the first full moon.

B is for Bread . . . but Not the Leavened Kind!

Passover is the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, a 7-or 8-day holiday, and the two first days of celebration are the ones most familiar in popular culture. These two days are the Passover Seder, during which certain dietary restrictions are followed. Prior to Passover, the home is carefully cleansed of chametz, or yeast foods. All chametz must be sold, used or given away. This is because at the time the Jews were freed from their Egyptian captivity, they left so quickly they had to bake their unleavened dough into hard crackers as they fled through the desert. There is another spiritual connotation to this act as well—leavened bread is “puffed up”, and the removal of chametz from the home is akin to the removal of pride from a person’s soul. Matzah is the flatbread that Jewish celebrants use today as part of their Seder meal in place of the forbidden chametz.

The traditional Passover Seder is steeped in symbolism. The table is laid with the Seder plate, which holds a roasted shankbone or chicken neck (a reminder of the sacrificial lamb), a hardboiled egg (emblematic of a temple sacrifice), bitter herbs and a bitter vegetable (indicative of the suffering of the Jews under their enslavement), a paste of apples, wine and nuts (a representation of the mortar used by the Jews during their toil) and a vegetable dipped in salt water (to symbolize tears). After the Fast of the Firstborn on the morning prior to Passover, this Seder plate is prepared in a ritual that involves blessings, hymns, and recitations. Four cups of wine are served during the meal to correspond with different parts of the ritual and commemorate the four times God promised the Israelites to free them from captivity. A place is also customarily set for the prophet Elijah, whom the Jews believe will usher in the Messiah during a Pesach celebration.

C is for Children . . . an Important Part of Passover

Children play an important role during Passover celebrations. In some families, children (under the direction of their parents) lead the search for the chametz the night prior to Passover. During the subsequent Seder, children ask four questions about the ceremony that call to mind the reason behind these important traditions and educate the next generation in their observance. The answer to these questions (beginning with, “Why is tonight different than all other nights?”) leads to the recounting of the Haggadah, or the Exodus story. Finally, children are central to the afikomen, or “dessert”, following the Seder. In this custom, a broken piece of matzah is hidden in the house—this is the afikomen. Children are released at some point in the meal with the instruction to find the afikomen in return for a reward. Only when the afikomen is found can the Passover Seder be completed.

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