Passover 2021, the eight-day festival where the Jewish people remember and retell the Exodus story, begins at sundown on Saturday, March 27. For many people, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) is their favorite Jewish holiday because it is a time for gathering with friends and family from afar, eating special foods, singing catchy songs, and celebrating the Jewish people’s long, resilient history.
Like any other Jewish holiday, traditions are unique from family to family and can be heavily influenced by the local or ancestral customs of one’s Jewish community. However, there are plenty of shared rituals that unite us all. Whether you’re reading this from Chicago or Sri Lanka, this guide will outline the basics of celebrating Passover — including tips for having a meaningful and safe holiday during the pandemic.
For guidance on how to get ready for Passover, check out our 2021 guide to Passover prep!
Passover Food 101
Passover is about a lot of things — redemption, spring, memory, family — but food is one of the most important aspects of the entire eight-day festival. As we mentioned previously, most Jews refrain from eating chametz (unleavened bread products) during Pesach, both during the Passover meal and throughout all eight days. According to the Torah, there are five forbidden grains: wheat, oats, spelt, rye, and barley.
Many grocery stores, even in areas with small Jewish populations, will have a selection of food that is labelled Kosher for Passover, meaning the food is both kosher according to traditional standards and does not contain any chametz. These sections will often include cola soda, potato chips, and other foods that don’t contain wheat. Why? Due to an ancient custom, many Ashkenazi Jews take it a step further and do not eat kitniyot, which includes legumes, corn products, rice, certain seeds, and similar products. Therefore, many Kosher for Passover foods in North America and other parts of the world with large Ashkenazi populations won’t have corn syrup, oils derived from kitniyot, etc.
When you’re shopping, don’t forget you need enough wine (or grape juice) so that each guest can pour and drink four glasses.
If you’re stumped and looking for recipes, there are dozens of Jewish chefs and food bloggers on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and all over the internet that unleash their talents to create unique Passover menus suitable for every diet, allergy, and budget!
Some Ashkenazi Jews do eat kitniyot, and the Reform and Conservative movements in America even permit it. If you’re new to celebrating Passover and aren’t sure which custom to follow, talk to a trusted rabbi to learn more about the norms in your community.
Regarding Dietary/Health Restrictions…
With all of the different laws and customs surrounding food during Pesach, challenges can arise, especially for people on special diets. Whether you’re vegan and rely on kitniyot for protein, you’re allergic to the gluten in matzah, alcohol is triggering, or you’re recovering from an eating disorder and are nervous about restricting your diet, remember that your health and wellbeing comes first, even according to the strictest interpretations of Jewish law. Consult your doctor and a rabbi before Passover begins so you can fully enjoy the holiday in a manner that is best for you.
While Passover is eight nights long, the most notable part of festivities occurs when we gather for the Seders on the first night and the second night. (We will explain more about the second Seder in the next section). At the Passover Seder, we gather with loved ones, recall the Exodus story, and eat a special dinner.
The centerpiece of the table is the Seder plate, which is often elegant by itself and filled with items that are rich with symbolism and meaning. If you’re wondering what to put on your Seder plate, what each item symbolizes, and where the tradition comes from, check out this blog post!
Wondering else goes on your table? Here’s a handy checklist:
- Plates, cutlery, wine glasses, etc. for each guest for the ritual meal
- A Haggadah at each seat
- Bottles of Kosher for Passover wine (each guest will need four cups of wine!)
- Bitter herbs and a vegetable for karpas for each guest
- Salt water and charoset accessible to each guest
- Three pieces of matzah, covered
- A Kiddush cup
- A cup for Elijah the Prophet
- A bag to put the Afikoman in before the hunt
Seder literally means “order” in Hebrew. We use this word to refer to the ritual because we do it in a very specific order. While you might assume that a Passover Seder is just retelling the story of the Exodus and eating matzah, there are 14 special rituals in total that make up the Passover Seder:
- Kadeish: We make Kiddush over the first cup of wine and then drink it. Many people will recline to the left while they drink it to signify our freedom and escape from slavery. Because the Seder is held on Saturday night after Shabbat, we also add special Havdalah blessings in at this point. (Your Haggadah should tell you what to say!)
- Urchatz: We wash our hands (in the ritual way, not with soap!) but according to most customs, do not recite a blessing because we are only eating vegetable, not grains.
- Karpas: We dip a vegetable (often parsley) into salt water or vinegar, which symbolizes the salty tears of the Israelites who endured the bitterness of slavery.
- Yachatz: From the three pieces of matzah on the table, we take the middle matzah and break it in half, placing the larger piece in an Afikoman bag and hiding it to be found later. The smaller piece is placed back in between the two in-tact pieces.
- Magid: This is the part of the Seder where we recall the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt by reading it from our Haggadah. The Magid also includes the Four Questions (also known as Mah Nishtanah), the Four Children, a recitation of the 10 Plagues, and singing “Dayenu.” We also drink the second cup of wine. To learn more about Mah Nishtanah traditions from around the world, click here!
- Rohtzah: We ritually wash our hands again, this time with the blessing.
- Motzi: We recite two blessings at this point: ha’motzi over the matzah (just like we do over challah on Shabbat!), and then a blessing thanking God for commanding us to eat matzah.
- Maror: We recite a blessing over the bitter herbs and then eat them. Many people use horseradish.
- Korech: Following the tradition of the sage Hillel, we take the bitter herb and charoset and place it between two matzahs, like a sandwich.
- Shulchan Orech: This is the point when we finally eat the festive and elegant Seder meal! Whether you’re enjoying matzo ball soup or gefilte fish, beteavon!
- Tzafun: This is supposed to be your last chance to eat. The children (or whomever joins the hunt) find the Afikomen and everyone at the Seder eats an olive-sized piece. According to traditional Jewish law, no food or drink is to be consumed after eating the Afikomen, except for water and the remaining two cups of wine.
- Bareich: We pour the third cup of wine, and before drinking it, we recite Birkat Ha’Mazon, or the Grace after Meals (also known as bentching). After that, we drink the third cup of wine, and many will then open their front door for the Prophet Elijah and pour a glass of wine for him.
- Hallel: Hallel, also known as Songs of Praise, are recited at this point. We then drink the fourth cup of wine and say a brief grace after that.
- Nirtzah: Mazel tov, you’re at the last part of the Seder! We recite a prayer that our previous prayers, blessings, and hopes are honored, and we also acknowledge that we are waiting for the Messiah by saying “L’Shana ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim!” (Next year in Jerusalem!)
We know this is all a lot to remember, but that’s what Haggadahs are for! Haggadahs are essential for an orderly Seder, and depending on which edition you choose, can provide insightful commentary to discuss over dinner or keep the kids engaged all night long.
The Second Night
If you live outside of Israel, it is customary to also hold a Seder on the second night of Passover (Sunday, March 28 this year), as the second day is also considered Yom Tov. This custom, known as yom tov sheni shel galuyot (a second day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora), also occurs on many other holidays, like Sukkot and Shavuot. It derives from ancient times, when the Jewish people relied on messengers to relay the start of the new month and holidays by observing the moon. When confusion arose, rabbis instituted yom tov sheni shel galuyot to ensure holidays were observed on the correct days, just in case.
The Seder is essentially the same on the second night: there are still 14 rituals, the same songs, the retelling of the Passover story, and a holiday meal. There are just a few small adjustments to the blessings. Your Haggadah should have specific instructions before each blessing and ritual that will help you navigate the second Passover Seder like a pro.
The 3rd through 6th days of Passover are known as Chol Hamoed. In Israel, many people use these days as an opportunity to get outdoors, go hiking, and enjoy nature, especially since Passover is also known as Chag Ha’Aviv (the Spring Festival) and often coincides with warm weather. Families also use this time to visit zoos, amusement parks, and other fun places where they can create memories together.
While most of the laws regarding holiday observance don’t apply on these days, some communities do have various customs, such as not getting a haircut or doing laundry. As always, it is best to consult with a trusted rabbi regarding the norms in your community.
The Last Two Days of Passover
Outside of Israel, the last two days of Passover are observed as Yom Tov (in Israel, only the seventh day is). Each community has its own customs: many people light Yom Tov candles each evening, and some people stay awake all night studying Torah on the seventh day. The eighth day of Passover is also one of the four times a year that synagogues host Yizkor services for those who have lost loved ones to recite the traditional prayers.
Celebrating Passover during a pandemic
It’s important to remember that one of the most important mitzvot in Judaism is the preservation of life, so be cautious and follow local guidelines regarding gatherings and distance. While some have already been vaccinated against COVID-19 and can safely travel and gather with loved ones, others may not be able to for a variety of reasons. Celebrating Passover at home this year without your usual Seder crew can be scary and sad, but it is still possible to have a meaningful Pesach. Talk to a trusted rabbi about ways that you can make Seder special this year, whether that’s by connecting with others by Zoom or creating new traditions.
Just like the Israelites made it out of Egypt, we will make it out of the pandemic. Next year in Jerusalem, and hopefully, next year in person, maskless and with all of our loved ones! Happy Passover from the Judaica Webstore team.