What is Passover (Pesach) and how is it celebrated?

Pesach (Passover). Attend a Seder ("ordered") meal to retell the Exodus story of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, ca., 1250 BCE. Celebrate deliverance from slavery to freedom, but remember hard times by eating matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.

Over 3,000 years ago, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians under the rule of Pharaoh Ramses II, a pharaoh who did not know the heroic acts of Joseph or how he saved Egypt from famine. According to the Book of Exodus - Moses, was instructed by God to go to the pharaoh and demand the freedom of the people.

MosesMoses, with his brother Aaron, went to Pharaoh and pleaded with him to "Let my people go," but his plea was ignored. Moses warned the Pharaoh that God would send severe punishments to the people of Egypt if the Israelites were not freed. Again the Pharaoh ignored Moses' request of freedom. In response, God unleashed a series of 10 terrible plagues on the people of Egypt: Blood, frogs, lice (vermin), wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Still, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites - until the last plague.

In order to force the Pharaoh to do God's bidding, God told Moses to tell Pharaoh that God intended to kill the first-born of both human and beast. To protect themselves, the Israelites were told to mark their houses with lamb's blood so that God could identify and "pass over" their homes. The holiday's name -- Pesach, generally meaning "passing over" or "protection" in Hebrew, is derived from the instructions given to Moses by God. The Pharaoh, however, was unconvinced and refused to free the slaves.

Then the last plague hit. Cries of sorrow rang out throughout Egypt, and finally, Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.
When the Pharaoh finally agreed to freedom, the Israelites left their homes so quickly that there wasn't even time to bake their breads. So they packed the raw dough to take with them on their journey. As they fled through the desert they would quickly bake the dough in the hot sun into hard crackers called matzot. Today, to commemorate this event, Jews eat matzah (right) in place of bread for the entire eight days of Passover.

Though the Israelites were now free, their liberation was incomplete. The Pharaoh's army chased them through the desert towards the Red Sea. When the Jews reached the sea they were trapped, since the sea blocked their escape. It was then that a miracle occurred. The waves of the Red Sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross to the other side. As soon as they all reached the other side the sea closed trapping the Pharaoh's army as the waves closed upon them. Then, as the Israelites watched the waters of the Red Sea sweep away the Pharaoh's army, they realized they were finally free.

During the celebration of Passover, certain dietary restrictions apply, beyond the laws of kashrut (kosher). The source of the restrictions can be found in Exodus 12.15, 19. "For seven days, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days, there shall be no leavened products in your home for whoever eats chametz shall be cut off from the congregation." Chametz is the leavened product that results when wheat, rye, barley, oats, or spelt (the "five grains") comes into contact with water for more than eighteen minutes. Therefore, all breads, patries, cakes, cookies, and dry cereal are considered pure chametz. In addition to these five grains, many Jews do not eat rice, corn, beans, peas, and peanuts on Passover. Since flour can be made of these grains and baked into bread, it may lead to confusion, say the rabbis. While matzah is made of wheat, it is carefully watched when baked so that no water touches the flour prior to mixing the dough. Then it is mixed and baked in less than eighteen minutes.

Also See: JOI's Passover Holiday Page.