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Known also by its English name of 'Passover', Pesach is a Jewish festival that lasts a week and occurs sometime in the springtime, though because it's done on the lunar calendar, its date on the Gregorian calendar moves around. It's generally around Easter (or rather, Easter is generally around Pesach, since Pesach came first) and often some of the days of the two festivals overlap. In 2000 (5760 on the lunar calendar), Pesach fell between the evening of 19 April and that of the 27. Jewish days traditionally begin at the moment when it is first possible to see three stars in the night sky.

The History

Picture the Jews; slaves for many years in Egypt and forced to work building great pyramids for the worship of Egyptian gods, after the bidding of a cruel and unjust Pharaoh. Moses, found floating down the Nile in a cradle of rushes by the Pharaoh's daughter, and adopted into the Pharaoh's household, rediscovers his Jewish roots when his sister Miriam recalls her mother entrusting her baby brother to the river and matches this story up to the Pharaoh's daughter's description of finding such a baby, and vows to lead his people to freedom.

Moses demands the freedom of the Jews from the Pharaoh, and God sends down ten plagues - blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, sickness, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and finally death of the first born - to help persuade the Pharaoh to make the right choice. After each plague, the Pharaoh refuses to grant them freedom, until the final, terrible plague. After the death of the first born, however, the Jews have enough of a chance to run away, and get a good head start before the Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the Egyptian army after them. God parts the Red Sea, allowing passage for the Jews, and brings it crashing back down on the Egyptian army when they attempt to follow.

Having wandered the wilderness for 40 years before finding the Promised Land, two spies, the only of the original slaves to survive the journey and enter the Promised Land, are sent forth, and return eventually reporting that all is well, and everyone goes in. Moses, however, sees the Promised Land and dies without entering.

The Passover

Due to the Pharaoh's reluctance to let the slaves go, the plagues sent by God get worse and worse. The final plague sent down is the 'Death of the First Born'. God, rather than sending down the Angel of Death, He Himself 'with outstretched arm' sweeps through Egypt and kills the first born son in every home he comes to. The Jews, however, are forewarned, and kill lambs, smearing the blood across the door-posts, and God 'passes-over' the dwellings that have been marked like this.

The doors of Jewish homes often have a small box containing the Ten Commandments rolled up, known as a mezuzah, attached to the door-posts. These are to symbolise the markings in blood that saved their first born from death.

The Importance of Pesach

During Pesach, Jews think of three important transfers:

  1. The transfer from slavery to freedom
  2. The transfer from anarchy to living by the rules of God
  3. The transfer from being nomads to living in their own country

Pesach also highlights the importance of reminding Jews to teach their children about the days of slavery, and of God being the true God, the protector of Israel. This is done through the Seder (see below).

The Festival

Due to the short notice they were given by the Pharaoh who had decided to let them leave after the final plague, the Jews did not have time to properly prepare, and fled Egypt taking from their ovens the bread which had not had time to properly leaven; this kept them fed until they were well into the desert (where God helpfully provided them with Manna from heaven for sustenance). To remember this, for the duration of Pesach Jews do not eat leavened bread, instead eating matzah, which is made from wheat that has been treated to prevent it from rising, and ends up much like large water crackers.

The abstinence, however, does not end there - Jews also do not eat any other products made from grains - wheat, corn, rice (even hops) - nor do they eat pulses. This basically means a diet of meat and potatoes for a week. This should be kept in mind before you start moaning about not being allowed to eat chocolate for Lent.

Preparations for Pesach

In order to have a kosher Pesach, which means that there are no leftovers of leavened pastries in the house or near it, people clean their houses of all leftovers of leavened bread, cakes, and pastries. They usually change dishes or wash them in boiling water.

Leavened pastries are either sold to Gentiles (non-Jews), or burned. All food and drink, including pet food and toothpaste, have to be marked as 'Kosher for Pesach'. Usually, new clothes are bought for the night of the Seder, new sandals or shoes, new table cloths, and new sheets. The Seder must not be performed in a non Kosher house, so the cleaning is very intense. Through the days of Pesach only matzah may be eaten, or pastries made of ground matzah, called matzah flour or matzah meal.

The Seder

Seder (which means 'order' in Hebrew) night occurs on the first evening of Pesach, and marks the beginning of the festival; it is the reading of the Haggadah, which is the story and songs of the flight from Egypt. Outside Israel, many families have two Seder nights, on consecutive evenings. This is a throw-back from the age when time keeping wasn't as precise a science as it is today, and was intended to ensure that the Seder was celebrated when it was the beginning of Pesach in Israel.

The evening consists of a series of rituals, aiming to remember the flight from Egypt, and then a large festive meal.

The Seder Table

Three (some say two) whole matzahot, blessed as Jews would normally bless bread on a Friday night, covered and separated, are set near or under the Seder platter, which stands at the centre of the Seder table. On the platter, there are smaller plates which hold:

  • Maror - Bitter herbs, usually sliced, grated or ground horseradish, sometimes mixed with beet juice to make it red; symbolic of suffering.

  • Karpas - Green vegetable, usually parsley, but can be any green vegetable and is sometimes even potato; used as a symbolic appetizer to cleanse the palate at the start of the meal. Karpas will be dipped in salt water or vinegar to symbolize tears.

  • Charoset - Varying mixtures of chopped fruit, cinnamon, and nuts. Charoset symbolizes the mortar used by the Hebrews. A typical Charoset could be made using apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and wine.

  • Zeroa - Shank bone, a charred bone, preferably from a sheep, cleaned of meat; symbolic of the Pascal lamb.

  • Beytza - Hard boiled egg, also charred. This is a symbolic spring fertility offering.

  • Chazeret - Bitter vegetable, usually lettuce, watercress, or radish, which symbolizes suffering. This is a modern addition to the Seder platter, as traditional platters only had the first five items.

Finally there are candles and wine, with one more cup than there are people around the table.

Choice Highlights from the Evening

While a blow-by-blow account of when each cup of wine is drunk is not necessary (four are drunk in all, if you're really interested) and nor are the exact specifications of each matching of items from the Seder plate which is eaten, there are some things of interest to note about the events of Seder night, which are useful to understand if you are ever going to observe such an evening. Considering that strangers may not be turned away on Seder night, but must be invited in, the chance of this may not be as remote as you might first imagine.

The extra cup, for example, is there for the prophet Elijah, and is filled along with the rest of them, and at one point in the evening the door to the house is opened so that he can be welcomed in.

At various points during the evening wine is spilled from the cups. Ten drops are spilt, and the words 'chanted' each time are the Hebrew words for each of the plagues.

At one point early on, the head of the table breaks off a piece of matzah from the covered pile, and hides it somewhere. This, the afikoman, is searched for by the children, who eat it as the dessert, or, more often these days, exchange it for something sweet.

Throughout the night there is a repetition of the words 'Last year we were slaves, this year we are free men', but also, at one point it is changed to 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men', to remind us that we must always be thankful, but always strive to break free of any chains that hold us.

At the end of the night, the proceedings are closed with the wish 'Next Year in Jerusalem!' which is meant more metaphorically, of course, if you are celebrating the Seder in Jerusalem.

Four questions are asked:

  1. Every other night we eat bread or matzah, why do we eat only matzah tonight?

  2. Every other night we eat all sorts of vegetables, why do we only eat maror (bitter herbs) tonight?

  3. Every other night we eat vegetables as part of the meal, why do we eat a vegetable dipped in salt water, and maror dipped in chopped fruit, before we even start the meal tonight?

  4. Every other night we may sit upright or lean at the table, why do we only lean tonight?

But to hear the answer to these questions and to hear them sung (a song known by its first words - Mah Nishtanah), by the youngest child, as well as the questions asked by the wise child, the rebellious child and the simple child and that asked for the child too shy to ask, you will simply have to go and observe a Seder for yourself.

Celebrating Pesach

Pesach is celebrated in at least two different ways: the religious way and the non religious, Kibbutznik way.

The traditional Haggadah, used for religious and conservative Seders, barely mentions the story of Moses, and practically begins at the stage of the ten plagues. It's all about teaching children, and is mainly written in Aramaic (ancient Hebrew). It refers to interpreters of the Bible and states parts of their ideas.

In Kibbutzim, Pesach is celebrated in a non religious way. The Hebrew Haggadah is read as a symbol of Zionism1, Hebrew labour, and of spring.

Except for the parts mentioned in the religious Haggadah, there are also many songs in Hebrew, and many reading parts about the Spring. The book Song of Songs is the source of the traditional spring songs, and religious people read the book throughout the Pesach week. This book is a collection of love songs, about King Solomon and a woman named Shulamith, but represents the love of God to his people of Israel.

On the seventh day of Pesach, there is another holiday, Second Pesach, which states the end of the Holiday, followed by the eighth day, a day of rest, which allows a slow return to daily life.

1Zionism is a movement which arose in the Jewish communities of Europe in the 19th Century aimed at reconstructing a Jewish state in Palestine.

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