By Megan Muratore
Passover, one of the central holidays in the Jewish religion, begins on April 10th this year. While many people may have heard of the holiday, the significance behind it may not be common knowledge to non-Jewish people. So, what does Passover celebrate, and why is it such an important holiday in Judaism?
Passover is an eight-day long festival which takes place during the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan, or April 10th through 17th according to the Gregorian calendar.
The holiday commemorates the emancipation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Ancient Egypt, and is observed by avoiding leavened breads, and is discussed of the Seder meals which include metaphorical foods and drinks which represent the suffering of the Israelites while under the oppressive Egyptian regime.
In the book of Exodus in the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses which make up the Torah in the Hebrew Bible, it is revealed that after generations of being enslaved by the Egyptian pharaohs, God heard the prayers of his people and employed Moses as a messenger to the Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go.
When the Pharaoh refuses to let the enslaved people go, God sent ten devastating plagues onto the people of Egypt: all of the water in Egypt being turned to blood, an infestation of frogs, lice, and flies, all of the livestock would be diseased, all of the people and animals would break into boils, a thunderstorm of hail, locusts, three days of darkness, and, finally the death of all of the firstborn sons of the people of Egypt. The final, and most disheartening plague, the death of all of the firstborn sons was in retribution for the Pharaoh attempting to have all of the sons of the Israelites killed — Moses was one of these sons who was supposed to be killed as a baby, but his sister put him in a basket and sent him down the Nile river, where he was discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and was raised as part of the Egyptian royal family.
The Hebrew word for the holiday is transliterated as “Pesach,” which means “the pass over.” This phrase is in reference to the final plague of the death of the firstborn sons, as the Israelites would mark their doors so the angel committing God’s orders of killing the Egyptian sons would pass over the houses of the Israelites and not kill the first born sons of those families.
After the firstborn son of the Pharaoh was killed during the final plague, he let the Israelites go, and Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they were pursued by the Pharaoh and his soldiers. When it appears that the Hebrew people have no escape from their impending doom at the hands of the Egyptian soldiers, God gives Moses the power to use his wooden staff to part the Red Sea for just enough time for all of the formerly enslaved people to walk through on dry land, with the sea closing up again so the Egyptians could not pass.
The typical meal at a Passover Seder, which takes place the first two nights of the holiday, included foods which are metaphorical for the journey of the Hebrew people as they left Egypt and wandered for 40 years through the desert until they reached their destination of Canaan.
The Seder plate will always include a lamb shanks which represents an offering to the temple, a hard boiled egg as a symbol of rebirth, maror, or bitters herbs such s horseradish which signify the bitterness of slavery, karpas, or parsley, which is dipped into salt water to represent the tears of the Hebrew people during their enslavement, and haroset which is a mixture of apples, nuts, and wine, that represents that bricks and mortar used by the enslaved Israelites to build for the Egyptians.
The Seder will also include four glasses of wine, representing the four promises that God made to Moses and the Israelites: that he would bring then out from the suffering of Egypt, save them from enslavement, deliver them, and make them a nation under himself, the Lord. The Seder will also not have any leavened bread or baked products, as the legend says that when the Hebrew people were leaving Egypt, their bread did not have time to rise, so they took the unleavened bread, which they called matzo with them instead.
Along with the specified foods to be eaten during the Passover Seder, there are also specific readings from the Haggadah, a liturgical work, which describes in detail the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah recounts the biblical tale, and also implores the reader to recount the story of the enslavement and exodus of the Hebrew people to our children each Passover.
The service with the Haggadah always begins with “the Four Questions,” in which the youngest member at the Seder will ask what makes Passover different than all other nights, and will answer: 1. On all nights we need not dip even once, and on this night we dip twice (the parsley into the salt water and the bitter herbs into the haroset) 2. On all nights we eat leavened bread of matzo, and on this night only matzo 3. On all nights we eat various vegetables, and on this night, bitter herbs 4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline.
Passover is representative of the greatest series of miracles in the Hebrew Bible, and serves as a reminder to the Jewish people of the bittersweet journey their ancestors endured during their time in Egypt up through their 40 year wandering through the desert to reach the land of Canaan.