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 Easter1 and often some of the days of the two festivals overlap. In 2000 CE2 (which is 5760 on the lunar calendar) Pesach falls between the evening of 19th April and that of the 27th3.
Picture the Jews, slaves for many years in Egypt, forced to work building great pyramids for the worship of Egyptian gods, after the bidding of a cruel and unjust Pharoah. Moses, found floating down the nile in a cradle of rushes by the Pharoah's daughter, and adopted into the Pharoah'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 Pharoah'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 Pharoah, and God sends down ten plagues - blood; frogs; lice; wild beasts; sickness; boils; hail; locusts; darkness and finally death of the firstborn - to help persuade the Pharoah to make the right choice. After each plague, the Pharoah refuses to grant them freedom, until the final, terrible plague. After the death of the firstborn, however, the Jews have enough of a chance to run away, and get a good head-start before the Pharoah 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 forty 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 going in.
Because of the Pharoah'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 sons 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-borns from death.
Due to the short notice that they had that the Pharoah 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 abstinance, 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!
Seder4 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
At the centre of the table is the Seder plate, which has on it a roasted shank bone, a hard-boiled egg, a bitter herb (often horseraddish) - to remind us of the suffering of the slave, a green vegetable, haroset - chopped fruit, blended together to symbolise the mortar used to build the pyramids - and salted water, to remember the tears.
There is a pile of matzah, which is covered with a decorative cloth, and blessed as Jews would normal bread on a Friday night.
Finally there are candles and wine, with one more cup then there are people around the table.
Choice Highlights from the Evening
Whilst 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 is 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 (and, 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 - kosher for pesach, of course!).
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!' - meant more metaphorically, of course, if you are celebrating the Seder in Jerusalem!
Four questions are asked:
Every other night we eat bread or matzah - why do we eat only matzah tonight?
Every other night we eat all sorts of vegetables - why do we eat maror (bitter herbs) tonight?
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?
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!