The seven day (eight-day outside of Israel) festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. While it commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, at the same time it serves as metaphor for the freedom of every individual from his own personal Mitzrayim (constraints) in order to transcend the self. By following the special traditions of Passover, we have the ability to not only relive and experience the miraculous Exodus from bondage that our ancestors experienced, but for at least one night, to taste a true sense of freedom in the midst of our own spiritual journeys.
After many years of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were forced into daily backbreaking labor, while suffering horrendous cruelty at the hands of their Egyptians, G d finally decided to put an end to his people’s distress and thus sent the prophet Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to acknowledge G-d or listen to His command to free the Israelites. With each act of defiance, G d released upon Egypt a series of plagues, destroying everything from their water supply to their livestock to their crops.
At midnight of the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 (1313 BCE), G-d sent the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all of their firstborn. At the same time, G-d “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, sparing them, and hence, lending the name of the holiday. Finally, Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and the Jewish people were sent out of Egypt. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G d’s chosen people.
MATZAH AND CHAMETZ
According to Jewish tradition, when the Jewish people left Egypt, they left in such a hurry, that the bread they baked as provisions for the journey did not have time to rise. To commemorate this fact, we eat matzah—flat unleavened bread, over the course of the entire holiday. (It is a mitzvah to partake of matzah on the two Seder nights, while during the rest of the holiday it is optional.) At the same time, we don’t eat, or even retain in our possession, any chametz from midday of the day before Passover until the conclusion of the holiday. Chametz means leavened grain—any food or drink that contains even a trace of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt or their derivatives, and which wasn’t guarded from leavening or fermentation.
Ridding our homes of chametz is an intensive process which culminates with a ceremonial search for chametz on the night before Passover, and then a burning of the chametz ceremony on the morning before the holiday. Chametz that cannot be disposed of can be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday.
The highlight of Passover is the Seder, a time-honored tradition observed on each of the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a once a year, family-oriented ceremony where the events of the day are re-told. The main focal points of the Seder are the:
• Matzah: The “bread of affliction,” and primary symbol of the Exodus.
• Bitter herbs: These represent the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites.
• Four cups of wine (or grape juice): Each cup represents one of four expressions of redemption in describing the journey from Egypt to Israel and our birth as a nation: “I will take you out…” “I will save you…” “I will redeem you…” “I will take you as a nation…”
• The Haggadah: This is the guidebook for the evening which describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Reciting the Haggadah is the fulfillment of the Biblical obligation to recount to our children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover.