Your Passover Cheat Sheet
Your Passover Cheat Sheet
Passover (called Pesach in Hebrew) is the most widely-celebrated Jewish holiday, one that brings families together for the celebration of the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt. As with nearly every Jewish holiday, it is hinged on a big meal, or seder.
What Is A Seder?
It's a big feast, preceded by a story. The whole meal has a particular order to it (the word "seder" actually means order), punctuated by four cups of wine. Cool fact: Diaspora Jews celebrate two seders, Israelis only one. This has to do with olden times and the lack of technology. You can read more about it here, if you want to geek out.
In North America, if you don't have a huge family, a lot of folks use the second night as an opportunity to invite friends for a more relaxed version or attend a community seder which can be great fun.
Is It A Happy Or A Sombre Day?
Definitely happy. But like many Jewish holidays, it celebrates the end of a dark period. In this particular case, it celebrates the end of slavery for the Jews in Egypt. The story is told around the table that night in a book called a "haggadah."
What's The Story?
If you've ever seen The 10 Commandments or sung "Let My People Go," you already know the gist of the story:
The Jews were slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh was killing all the first born sons of the Jews because he felt the population was getting too numerous and strong. One boy was spared this fate when his his sister Miriam set him afloatin a basket on the river where baby Moses was discovered by the Pharaoh's daughter who named him Moses and raised him in the palace.
As an adult, God spoke to Moses and told him to persuade the Pharaoh to release the Israelites. After several failed attempts, God inflicted ten gruesome plagues on Egyptians. In the final and most brutal plague, the first-born child of every Egyptian family perished. A lamb was sacrificed by the Israelites, however, and its blood was placed on the door of every Jewish household, instructing the Angel of Death to pass over their homes. For this reason, the annual holiday is named "Passover."
Eventually, the Pharaoh agreed to free the Jews, but they knew they had to hoof it, with no time to let their bread rise for the trip. As feared, the Pharaoh quickly changed his mind and sent his soldiers to bring them back. Stopped at the edge of the Red Sea, the Jews had nowhere to go as the Egyptians descended upon them. God performed a miracle, and the sea parted, allowing the slaves to escape. As the Pharaoh's men charged forth, the sea closed up, and the pursuers were drowned. At long last, the Jews were free.
Then the excitement kind of dies down for 40 years as the Jews wander the desert before they found a homeland. Somewhere in there they get the Ten Commandments, but I digress.
Cool fact: Moses was totally the hero of this story, but he doesn't get mentioned much (just once) in the haggadah, as the rabbis who wrote the story didn't want him to be idolized.
The MOST Important Aspect Of This Story Is The Part About Freedom.
It's really important to identify with the exodus in a personal sense, and the haggadah keeps repeating that you have to feel that you yourself were freed. The telling of this story is also a chance to reflect on the luxury of our freedom, the food on our plates and, in many homes, a chance to talk about those who are enslaved in the modern day, refugees who are displaced by war and climate change, and other types of oppression.
There are many versions of haggadahs out there, and each one has its own take on the story. There are feminist or secular ones and kids' versions. There's one called the 30 Minute Seder and the New American Haggadah by a bunch of cool American writers (including Lemony Snickett!) that I am totally getting.
The Food Part
Matzoh is unleavened bread. It features large in the holiday. As mentioned before, when the Jews were making haste out of Egypt, they couldn't let their bread rise, and brought, instead, flat dough that baked in the sun. It is is also known as "the bread of affliction" but it's not that bad with a bit of horseradish and apple paste (charoseth). For the entire eight days of the Passover holiday, matzoh is your bread substitute. You can't eat pasta, toast or anything that rises during that time, although each group of Jews has their own specific rules and traditions around Passover food (Sepharadic Jews tolerate rice and beans).
There are many traditional foods for Passover, each with its own symbolic importance. You eat bitter herbs to mark bitter times. You eat a hard boiled egg to symbolize spring, dipped in salt water, which represents tears.
There is often gefilte fish. And matzoh ball soup. And brisket and potato kugel. At least, those were the dishes traditional to Jews from my family's part of Europe. Every family has a dish (or many!) that are the flavour of Passover. Here are a few recipes.
The Open Door Part
At the beginning of the seder you open the door to see if anyone in need wants to join your meal. At the end of the meal, you open the door again for Elijah the Prophet, whose appearance would signal the pending arrival of the Messiah. There is a cup for Elijah on the table that no one drinks from, although as a child in a secular household, my great uncle would always drink down that glass as we ran to open the door, then wink mysteriously when we returned.
There is singing and table thumping throughout the meal. There are songs in Hebrew, English and Aramaic. Many of them are tongue twisters and with catchy, repetitive choruses. The food is rich and comes in many courses. The children hatch plots around the Afikomen. Whether you are religious or secular or something in-between, the traditions of the night build cultural identity, creating memories and milestones for years to come.
Have you ever been to a Passover Seder? What traditions did you take part in?