The Passover (or Pesach) Seder is the most beloved and probably the most widely observed ritual of the Jewish year. The holiday, which is observed for eight days (outside of Israel), commemorates and celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt approximately 3,000 years ago. This year the first Seder is celebrated on Saturday night April 19.
The Seder is specifically designed to communicate the story of the Exodus to children. As described in the Biblical book of “Exodus,” after 210 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses was sent by God to tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, “Let My People Go!” As Pharaoh refused, God inflicted increasingly harsh plagues on Egypt, culminating in the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn children in Egypt. During this plague, God passed through the land of Egypt, but “passed over” Jewish homes, hence the name Passover.
Since its inception, the Seder focused on answering the four questions, known as “ma nishtana,” traditionally recited by the youngest attendee. The Seder table is set up to include things not normally on a table so as to stir the curiosity of children. Only Matzo is to be eaten; no bread is allowed. The simplest meaning of this law is to remember that the Jews were rushed on their way out of Egypt and therefore their bread did not have time to rise.
Matzo is also referred to as the bread of the poor man, commemorating the years of slavery that preceded the Exodus. Bitter herbs, known as maror, are eaten to remember the sad and difficult times of slavery. Four cups of wine are drunk symbolizing the wording of God’s promise of redemption, given to the Jews while they were in Egypt. It is customary to recline while eating and drinking at the Seder as a show of the freedom that was gained with the exodus.
A well-known custom is the “stealing” of the Afikoman, a broken piece of matzo, which is hidden during the Seder, challenging the children to find it and return it in exchange for a present. The Haggada, the written guide to the Seder, consists in large part of answers to the child’s questions, relating the exodus story through quotes and commentaries on the Biblical story. Though many of my generation grew up with the “Maxwell House” Haggada, these books run the gamut from the most simple to those with extensive commentaries or beautiful artwork.
The seventh day of Pesach commemorates the splitting of the sea, which allowed the Jews to escape the pursuit of the Egyptians. In any year it would be difficult to describe or even think of this story without picturing the movie, The Ten Commandments. All the more so this year with the recent passing of Charlton Heston who so memorably played the role of Moses. In many synagogues this day is celebrated by large crowds gathering and singing the whole night through, commemorating the song, or poem, that was recited after the splitting of the sea.
Many laws accompany the rich rituals of this holiday. According to the Torah (the Old Testament), eating, owning, or deriving any benefit from leavened foods (known as chametz) or anything containing leavened foods is prohibited during these eight days. This includes bread, pasta, cakes and cookies as well as beer and whiskey, which are made from grain. These rules necessitate a major housecleaning to rid the house of these types of food.
On the night before Passover, a ritual “search” for Chametz is conducted and what is found is burned the next morning. Traditionally observant Jews customarily make a small fire in a garbage can to fulfill this ritual. In some communities special arrangements are made with the fire department to burn all of the community’s chametz at one time.
With the complicated process of food production nowadays it is difficult for the average person to know which foods fall into the category of chametz. Likewise, many medications and cosmetics contain alcohol or starches, which may render them, unfit for consumption during this holiday, with the caveat that most JEWISH laws defer to matters of health.
Wishing all a happy, healthy and kosher Passover.
Rabbi Steven Axelman also serves as Cantor at the Whitestone Hebrew Center