Every year millions of Jews (and many Christians) gather around a table and celebrate Passover. We tell the story of the biblical Exodus from Egypt. This festive meal is among the oldest religious rituals in the Western world.
As the author of a book on Passover and life-long participant in its celebration, I’ve learned Passover has a deeply meaningful message, but it also generates lots of confusion. Here’s what you should know:
1.The Last Supper was not a Passover Seder: The Last Supper is one of the most famous stories (and paintings) in the world. According to the Gospels, it takes place on Passover. But it was a meal not a seder. What’s the difference?
The word seder means “order” in Hebrew. It refers to a ritual meal created after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. The ritual meal replaced the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. While they retold the same story, Jesus and the disciples did not go through the same ritual we do today.
2. Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America: Almost 90 percent of American Jews attend some sort of Passover gathering. Its proximity to spring break and Easter helps.
3. All the Passover foods have special significance: At the center of the table is the ritual plate. On it is matzah (unleavened bread), symbolizing the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt; the bitter herbs, which represent the pain of slavery.
In addition, the charoset (a mixture of nuts and apples made into a paste) symbolizes the mortars of the bricks the Israelites made. The saltwater represents the tears of slavery, while the parsley reminds us of the oncoming spring.
On this holiday we do not just tell a story. We imbibe it.
4. The custom of spring cleaning may have begun with Passover: During the weeks before the holiday, Jews traditionally rid their homes of any bread-related products. These include cereals, loaves of bread, pancake mix and so son. Some families even use a separate set of dishes so that no remaining bread crumbs touch Passover food.
Since ridding one’s home of bread requires great effort, some families combine that effort with a thorough spring cleaning. While getting rid of bread, we also rid of stuff that has accumulated over the year.
It can become a spiritually powerful experience. We clear our bodies, homes and souls for the Passover message.
5. Passover involves lots of singing: Before we had the Passover script (known as the hagaddah in Hebrew) with all the prayers and readings, Jews remembered the prayers by singing them. The most well-known parts of the seder, including the asking of the four questions by the youngest person present, use simple melodies everyone can remember.
6. Passover teaches the power of empathy: The seder is not just an extended history lesson. It is an immersive experience. The goal is for every participant to imagine he or she has been delivered from Egypt.
We are meant to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the ancient Israelites and experience the journey from slavery to freedom. One of the most important lines in the hagaddah is “In every generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt.”
7. Passover is not just one night: It lasts eight days. Several Jewish holidays are eight days, including Sukkot and Chanukah. The seder meal is typically held on the first and second nights of the holiday, but the requirement to abstain from bread extends through the eight days.
The eight-day-period is long enough to matter—it takes effort and mindfulness to refrain from bread for that long—but it is not so long as to become too overwhelming for most.
8. Passover is political: The exodus is the story of the journey from slavery to freedom, from oppression to the promised land. It inspired the founding fathers of America who compared England to Egypt and America to biblical Israel.
Seders today address issues around the world, including poverty, disease, human rights and religious violence. While Passover does not convey a partisan message, it does remind us that God desires freedom for every human being.
9. Passover guides are among the oldest books in the world: The Sarajevo Hagaddah, for example, is said to have been composed in 1350 and has survived through wars, black markets, and several near-brushes with destruction. It was the subject of a best-selling novel, The People of the Book, and several of its pages are stained with wine, indicating its usage at meals centuries ago.
10. Passover was once the Jewish New Year: The Jewish Near officially begins on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which occurs in the fall. But the Hebrew month that begins with Rosh Hashanah is actually the seventh month of the Jewish year. Confusing? Well, yes. It’s an accident of history.
In the Torah, the first month of the year is Nisan, which is the month during which Passover falls. We know this from Exodus 12, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”
But sometime around the beginning of the Common Era, Jewish leaders changed the beginning of the official New Year to the time of the autumn harvest, which was consistent with the practices of surrounding cultures. That’s when Rosh Hashanah falls.
Even so, Passover’s connection with the onset of spring reminds us of the power and importance of new beginnings. Chag Samaech, Happy Passover!