Passover is probably the best known of the Jewish holidays among Gentiles, mostly because it ties in with Christian history (the Last Supper was apparently a Passover seder), and because a lot of its observances have been reinterpreted by Christians as Messianic and signs of Jesus.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu'ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. This story is told in Exodus Chapters 1-15. Many of the Passover observances are instituted in Chapters 12-15.
The name "Passover" refers to the idea that God "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. In Hebrew, it is known as Pesach (that "ch" is pronounced as in the Scottish "loch"), which is based on the Hebrew root meaning pass over. The holiday is also referred to as Chag ha-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth (the Festival of Matzahs), and Zeman Cherutenu (the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).
Probably the most significant observance related to Passover involves the removal of chametz (leaven; sounds like "chum it's" with that Scottish ch) from our homes. This commemorates the idea that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their dough rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from our souls.
Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 24 minutes after coming into contact with water (many are accustomed limit this to 18 minutes). Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they were chametz. All of these items have been used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot".
We may not eat chametz during Passover; we may not even own it or derive benefit from it. We may not even feed it to our pets or cattle. All chametz must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew, and utensils used to cook chametz must be properly cleaned and stored away or specially prepared for use during Passover.
The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. It is often said that to do it right, you must spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc.; while this description of the process is exaggeration, it is indeed a lot of hard work. After the cleaning is completed, the night before the seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is undertaken, and in the morning any remaining chametz is burned.
The grain product we eat during Passover is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made in their flight from Egypt. We have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah; it is available in a variety of textures for cooking: matzah flour (finely ground), matzah meal (coarsely ground), "matzah farfel" (little chunks, used as a noodle substitute), and full-sized matzahs (about 10 inches square, a bread substitute).
The day before Passover, it is customary for the firstborn to fast; this is a minor fast for all firstborn males, commemorating the idea that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague. The fast is not obligatory, but it is commonly observed.
On the first night of Passover (first two nights for Jews outside Israel), we have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a "seder", from a Hebrew root word meaning order. It is the same root from which we derive the word "siddur" (prayer book). There is a specific set of acts, speeches, and blessings that must be covered in a specific order. An overview of a traditional seder is included later in this page and our complete parallel Hebrew-English Seder according to Mishneh Torah is also available.
Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. See Extra Day of Holidays for more information. Some work is permitted on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which work is partly permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.
The text of the Passover seder is generally printed in a book called the Haggadah. Our complete parallel Hebrew-English Seder according to Mishneh Torah is available here online for study or printing out for use on the night of the Seder; if you are used to a much longer Haggadah than ours, please note that nothing that the Law requires has been left out, and some things left out of other versions of the Haggadah are left in as they were originally, but later forgotten. The content of the typical seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew folk rhyme:
Now, what does that mean?
This fruit, nut, and wine mix is eaten during the Passover seder (and often, during the whole Passover week). It is meant to remind us of the clay and mortar used by the Jews to build during the period of slavery. It should have a coarse texture. The ingredient quantities listed here are at best a rough estimate. Other nuts or fruits such as dried dates, figs, and raisins can be used.
Grate the apples (and grind the dry fruits, if used). Add all other ingredients. Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until the liquid is absorbed by the other ingredients; you may need to add more wine, if it turns out too thick.
Passover begins on the following days on the civil calendar:
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