Spring is here and for many Jewish families that means it's time to prepare for Passover! In 2018, Passover begins on Friday, March 30, at sundown and ends at sundown on Saturday, April 7. Do not fret if you're not well-versed on this major Jewish holiday; we explain the meaning and traditions of the eight day festival below.
WHAT IS PASSOVER?
The holiday, called Pesach in Hebrew, celebrates the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in the time of Thutmose II, pharaoh of Egypt (the common belief that the pharaoh at the time was Ramses II is discounted by many historians and Egyptologists, based on ancient writings and archaeological studies). Moses, an Israelite foundling raised by pharaoh's daughter, delivered a message to pharaoh from God, directing pharaoh to let the Israelites go free and tyrannize them no longer. When pharaoh failed to heed the command, God visited Egypt with 10 deadly plagues, killing Egypt's firstborn children, along with crops and livestock. But the plagues "passed over" the homes of the Israelites, sparing them, and pharaoh chased them out with such ferocity that the bread many were baking failed to rise. This unleavened bread is the matzoh at the center of today's Seder plate.
WHAT IS A SEDER?
Every piece of food on the table is a piece of history and a reminder of what the Israelites experienced, both as slaves and free people. But before the Seder, the house is thoroughly cleaned of chametz, or leavened grain products; none are allowed during Passover. A Seder is more than a sumptuous meal. It's family and friends reading the Passover story in turns, talking, laughing, singing, and appreciating the freedom to celebrate the event. The Haggadah is the book used to relate the history of slavery, the plagues, the Exodus, and explain the foods' significance. The Seder plate, sometimes a family heirloom, contains:
- Matzoh: In remembrance of the rushed flight from Egypt and slavery
- Bitter herbs: In remembrance of the bitterness of slavery
- A shank bone: In remembrance of the lamb sacrificed for the blood used to mark the homes of the Israelites during the plagues
- A hard cooked egg (with a bowl of salted water on the side): In remembrance of the sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem; the egg is dipped in salt water before it is eaten
- Charoset: A mix of apples, pears, nuts, and wine, with slivered carrots. This paste is served in remembrance of the mortar used between the bricks laid by Israelite slaves
- Karpas: A vegetable such as parsley or celery, also dipped in salted water, in remembrance of both the tears shed by slaves and the fresh hope for new birth and beginning
- And while not on the Seder plate, there are four cups of wine offered to each Seder guest; each cup represents a statement from God to the Israelites describing The Exodus from Egypt and rebirth as a new nation.
WHY IS PASSOVER CELEBRATED?
The festival is significant as a reminder of God's mercy in passing over the homes of the Israelites during the plagues (the doors were marked with lamb's blood) and as a remembrance of the end of slavery and the beginning of yet another great hardship: 40 days and nights of wandering, known as The Exodus, to the Promised Land of Canaan. Upon reaching Mount Nebo (located in what is now Jordan), Moses died and the Israelites settled near what is now the modern state of Israel.
WHY DO THE PASSOVER DATES CHANGE EVERY YEAR?
On the Hebrew calendar, the date doesn't change. It's always the 15th through the 22nd of the month of Nissan, in accordance with the Torah's commandment that the Passover offering take place in the spring. However, the Hebrew calendar consists of 12 lunar months, each lasting 29.5 days, for a total of 354 days, compared to the 365 days in the Gregorian calendar most of the world follows today. To prevent holiday fluctuations and keep Passover in the spring, seven leap years with an additional 13th month are added into every 19-year cycle.
Children's Passover traditions
Children's involvement in the Passover celebrations teaches them tolerance, history, and even a few cooking skills. Here are six ways to get the kids busy for this year's celebration:
Napkin rings and place mats: Create colorful designs for the holiday table, including unique place mats, napkin rings, and place cards for each guests.
Kids' table Seder plate: If your gathering is large enough to require a kids' table, take the children to a pottery class to create their own Seder plate.
The Seder plate ingredients are simple for children to make: Help the kids chop nuts and fruit for charoseth, cook eggs, and clean vegetables. It's a lesson in both cooking and history.
Stage a Passover play or puppet show: Have the kids (and any willing adults) act out the 10 plagues, the walk through the Sinai desert, and the act of God speaking to Moses and the bestowing of the Ten Commandments.
The Passover leftovers contest: Because eight days of dry matzoh gets a little boring for kids, challenge them to invent recipes using holiday ingredients for matzoh pizza.
Create the Afikomen from scrap material: The decorative cloth cover for the Seder matzoh is a beautiful and useful part of the Seder. Buy cloth remnants and glue sticks and let the kids create works of material art using a holiday theme.