What Is Passover? Plus the Delicious & Symbolic Ways It's Celebrated
Every year, in either March or April (with thanks to the ever-changing lunisolar Jewish calendar), the Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Pesach, or Passover. This weeklong holiday (Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel, and for eight days among many of the Diasporic communities) commemorates the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, recognizes years of oppression and similarly recognizes ongoing oppression faced by other groups of people in the world by acknowledging their oppression and including them in prayer. During Passover, family and friends will gather together, recite special blessings or prayers, go to synagogue, listen to readings from the Torah, and eat according to Seder guidelines. During the Seder, those gathered around the table will read from a Haggadah, which is a book containing the story of Passover. Read on to learn more about Passover and its traditions, and the delicious ways it's celebrated around the table.
Related: Healthy Passover Recipes
What Is Passover?
Passover is a holiday that commemorates the bitter struggle of the Jewish people and, ultimately, their liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.
According to the Old Testament Book of Exodus, when the Egyptian Pharaoh denied their freedom, God sent down various plagues. But the Pharaoh, set in his ways, continued to deny them freedom. Before the last plague—the death of the firstborn son in the family—God instructed the Jewish people to sacrifice lambs and put the lambs' blood on their front doors. Doing so would tell the angel of death to pass over their doorways, sparing the Jewish people from the plague. This is where the name Passover comes from.
After this final plague, the Pharaoh, bereft from the loss of his son, conceded. The Jewish people packed up their belongings to leave, but they believed that the Pharaoh would soon change his mind about their freedom, so they grabbed what they had, including their bread, which had not yet had time to rise. This unleavened bread—matzo—has since become a symbol of the holiday. (More on matzo shortly.)
As they were leaving, God granted the prophet, Moses, the ability to part the Red Sea with his staff, so that the Jewish people could pass into the Promised Land. Soon after, the Pharaoh did change his mind, and sent his army to pursue them. After the Jewish people crossed to safety, Moses lowered his staff, drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea. Because of this, Passover is also a holiday of reflection.
How Is Passover Celebrated?
The first two nights of the eight-day Passover celebration are when the Seder happens. This symbolic dinner incorporates several specific foods, which are eaten during a religious ceremony that takes place before the celebratory meal. These foods are often served on a Seder plate, like the one pictured above.
The Seder plate must contain at least five foods.
1. Charoset: a mixture of apple, nuts and honey that represents mortar, used for the work done in slavery.
2. Maror, or horseradish: a bitter herb to symbolize both slavery and the loss of the lives of the Egyptians.
3. Beitzah, or roasted egg: which symbolizes the the cycle of life.
4. Zeroa, or lamb shank: symbolizing the blood that spared the lives of the Jewish firstborn.
5. Karpas, or a vegetable, which is often parsley: used for dipping into salt water to symbolize the tears of slavery.
The food served at the Passover Seder excludes any food containing leavening agents, also called "chametz" in Hebrew. (A leavening agent is a substance, like yeast or baking soda, used to make baked goods rise. Think biscuits or breads, including sourdough, as well as many other foods made with flour, like pasta.) This chametz, or forbidden food, is also avoided for the duration of Passover. It's removed from Jewish homes prior to the holiday and in particularly strict homes, matches are burned, then extinguished, and then the hot match is used to burn crumbs from cabinet corners.
What Foods Are Eaten During a Typical Passover Dinner?
Like any other religious holiday that involves food and faith, Passover is, most importantly, a holiday of tradition. And after the Seder ceremony, many families continue the celebration with lots of delicious foods—matzo, the unleavened bread, included. Matzo ball soup, perhaps the most famous of Passover foods, was a dish created from necessity since noodles cannot be eaten at Passover.
Other common dishes served include potato kugel, which is a casserole or sorts, brisket or roast chicken and unleavened desserts, like macaroons.