Passover is here, and millions of Jewish people around the world are set to celebrate one of their most important religious holidays.
The festival is known as Pesach in Hebrew, and commemorates God liberating Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt, and Moses leading them to their freedom.
When is Passover?
Just like Easter in Christianity, the date of Passover changes in the more-commonly used Gregorian, solar calendar.
But it always begins on the 15th day of the Nisan, the first month of the ecclesiastical year and the seventh month of the civil year in the Hebrew calendar.
This year, the festival will end on the evening of 13 April.
What is the meaning behind Passover?
Passover’s name comes from the belief that God “passed over” the Jewish homes when killing the Egyptian firstborns in the story of Exodus.
Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Passover, Hebrew Pesaḥ or Pesach, in Judaism, holiday commemorating the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and the ‘passing over’ of the forces of destruction, or the sparing of the firstborn of the Israelites, when the Lord ‘smote the land of Egypt’ on the eve of the Exodus.”
Passover begins on the 15th and ends on the 21st (or, outside of Israel and among Reform Jews, the 22nd) day of the month of Nisan (March or April). On these seven (or eight) days, all leavened food, whether in bread or other mixture, is prohibited, and only unleavened bread, called matzo, may be eaten. Matzo symbolises both the Hebrews’ suffering while in bondage and the haste with which they left Egypt in the course of the Exodus. Passover is also sometimes called the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
The words Pesach and Passover can also refer to the korban Pesach – the sacrificial Paschal lamb – the Passover Seder – the ritual meal eaten at the start of Passover – or to the week-long festival, also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The story of Moses and the Exodus
The festival marks the Biblical story of Moses and how he freed the Jewish slaves from Egypt.
According to the Book of Exodus, the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for 210 years, and God promised that he would release them.
This would only come after the Egyptian Pharaoh had refused their release and God had released 10 plagues on Egypt to demonstrate his power.
The story of Moses says the Pharaoh had ordered the death of all Jewish male newborns, but Moses was saved when his mother placed him in a basket which floated on the Nile. He was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter and he was raised at court, although knew he was Hebrew.
Once grown, he saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish person and could not control his anger, killing the Egyptian. He realised the following day that Pharaoh would find out and fled to Midian, in the east.
Moses met the Midianite priest Jethro, married one of his daughters Zipporah, and began to tend Jethro’s flock.
One day, while wandering the wilderness, he came across a burning bush that was not being consumed by the flames, and God spoke to him. God said that Moses must deliver the Israelites from Egypt.
Moses, and his brother Aaron, went to the Pharaoh, saying: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go.’”
Pharaoh refused, and ordered even more oppression, but Moses persisted. According to the story God ordered a series of plagues on the Egyptians, including the water of the Nile turning to blood and swarms of frogs.
The final plague is death, with all the firstborns of Egypt being killed at the stroke of midnight of the 15th of the month of Nissan.
The story says God ordered Moses to tell the Israelites to mark lamb’s blood above their doors so that the Angel of Death would pass over them.
After the death of the firstborns, the Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to leave Egypt, and requested Moses bless him in the name of the Lord.
The story goes that the Israelites left without enough time for their bread to rise, which is why unleavened bread is eaten at Passover.
The Pharaoh later changed his mind and ordered his army to chase down the Israelites, but God granted Moses the power to part the Red Sea, allowing them to cross. When the Egyptians attempted to follow, the sea crashed down again, drowning them.
What is Seder?
Traditionally, for the first two nights of Passover, families and friends gather for a religious feast called Seder – Hebrew for “order” – reflecting how it is served in an order set out in the Passover Haggadah, a Jewish instructional text.
The Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Passover is often celebrated with great pomp and ceremony, especially on the first night, when a special family meal called the Seder is held. At the Seder, foods of symbolic significance commemorating the Hebrews’ liberation are eaten, and prayers and traditional recitations are performed. Though the festival of Passover is meant to be one of great rejoicing, strict dietary laws must be observed, and special prohibitions restrict work at the beginning and end of the celebration.”
During the gathering, worshippers recall the liberation of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, while also sharing a series of six symbolic dishes.
These include the bitter Maror herbs, which symbolise the harsh struggle of the Jews in slavery, and the roasted lamb or goat of the Zeroah, reflecting the Passover sacrifices traditionally offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Vegetables are also dipped in salt water to symbolise the tears Jews shed while they were enslaved.
The six symbolic dishes are:
A vegetable, preferably parsley or celery, which is dipped in salt water to symbolise the tears the Israelites shed while they were enslaved in Egypt before being saved by God and Moses.
Maror and Chazeret
These bitter herbs are meant to symbolise the harsh struggle of the Jewish people in slavery.
A sweet plate made of a mix of dried fruits, nuts and wine. Its colour is meant to recall the mortar used by the Israelites while they were enslaved by the Pharaoh.
A hard-boiled egg symbolising “korban chagigah” or the festival sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.
A roasted lamb shank bone, reflecting the Passover sacrifices traditionally offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Flatbread made of flour and water which is put to bake but taken out before the dough rises. It is meant to serve as a reminder of how the Israelites fled their homes in Egypt in such haste they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise.
How is Passover celebrated?
The Torah commands people observe Passover for seven days, which many worshippers in Israel follow, as well as Reform Jews and other progressive groups.
However, more conservative and Orthodox Jews celebrate it for eight days.
One of the most important traditions is getting rid of all leavened products from one’s household and abstaining from them for the duration of the festival.
This is to reflect the story that, when being freed from slavery, the Israelites fled in so much haste their bread didn’t rise. That is why a type of flatbread known as matzo is eaten during the holiday.
Children perform different rituals during Sedar. For example, at some point during the feast, the youngest child will ask what makes the night unique.
Youngsters also take part in a hunt for the “afikomen”, a piece of the matzo flatbread hidden away, with the lucky winner getting a prize.
How to say Happy Passover in Hebrew
“Sameach Pesach” is a Hebrew translation for “Happy Passover”.
This is pronounced differently to English – with the “ch” sound a raspy noise that should come from the back of the throat.
The words are also flipped back to front – so it’s spoken “sah-MEY-akh PAY-sock” but written “Pesach Sameach”.
There are other things you can say as well. Sometimes people will drop the “Pesach” and instead say “Chag Sameach” which means “Happy Festival”.
This can be used for most Jewish holidays, but is often used during Passover, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot, which are technically the only religious festivals.
Alternatively, you could opt for the impressive “Chag kasher v’sameach”, pronounced “KHAGH kah-SHEHR vuh-sah-MEY-akh”.
This roughly translates to mean: Have a happy and kosher holiday.
“Chag Kashruth Pesach” is a Passover specific greeting, which means: Have a happy kosher Passover.