What is Pesach?

Simon Rocker tells you everything you need to know about one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar


The Origins of Pesach

The festival of Pesach, which commemorates the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, is the foundation story of Jewish peoplehood. The first major festival instituted in the Torah not only celebrates national liberation but dramatises the critical belief, recurrent throughout the Bible, that God hears the cry of the oppressed.

The key events are narrated in Exodus chapters 12 and 13. As Pharaoh obdurately continues to resist the release of his Israelite slaves, God resolves to bring the last and most terrible of the Ten Plagues, the smiting of Egypt’s firstborn. 

On the eve of their redemption, on the 14th of the month of Nisan, each Israelite household is instructed to roast a lamb at nightfall. They are to daub the animal’s blood on their doorposts as a sign to ensure that their own firstborn will escape harm. “I will pass over you and there shall be no plague on you to destroy you,” God says (Exodus 12.13) – hence the name of the festival, Pesach, “Passover”.

The lamb is to be consumed “in haste”, with nothing left over till morning, and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Since there is no time to let the dough rise, the bread must be unleavened. The bitter herbs symbolise the bitterness inflicted on the captive Israelites by their slave-masters (Exodus 1:14). 

When the plague strikes even the royal household, Pharaoh finally capitulates and the Israelites go free. As they make their escape, they are commanded to “observe this day” henceforth in every generation.

The commemoration of the festival covers the week from the Exodus to the Crossing of the Red Sea, where Pharaoh and the pursuing Egyptian chariots meet their doom. While Pesach lasts seven days in Israel and among Progressive Jews, traditional Jews in the diaspora keep it for eight. The first and seventh day are a Yom Tov in Israel and for Progressive Jews, when no work may be done, while Orthodox and Masorti communities in the diaspora observe Yom Tov on the first, second, seventh and eighth days.

How is Pesach celebrated?

The most distinctive feature is to abstain from eating leavened foods, chametz, (made from the five species of grain associated with the land of Israel: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye). Instead, we re-enact the exigencies of the Exodus by making do with unleavened matzah, the “bread of affliction”, as it is dubbed in Deuteronony.

Pesach was originally a pilgrim festival and the paschal lamb was eaten in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. But now the Temple no longer stands, lamb is not eaten at the Pesach meal and is instead symbolised by a roasted shankbone on the Seder plate. But bitter herbs remain one of the evocative tastes of Pesach.

The other core commandment is to explain the significance of Pesach to one’s children. “And you shall tell it to your son” (Exodus 13.8).  Which we now do  by reciting the Haggadah (“narrative”), a compilation of biblical and rabbinic passages, psalms and songs, at the Seder  (“Order of Service”) on the first night, or first two nights, of Pesach. Progressive communities, which officially observe only one day Yom Tov, will ofsten hold a communal Seder in the synagogue on the second night. 

In order to ensure that no leaven enters the Pesach food chain, processed foods have to be made under strict rabbinic supervision for the festival. While Sephardim eat both rice and legumes (“kitniot”) on Pesach, Ashkenazim, concerned that cooked foods made from these might be confused with leaven,  continue to refrain from these over Pesach. So while Sephardim will eat hummus, for example, Ashkenzanim do not.

Preparing for Pesach

No festival involves so much preparation as Pesach because not only does the Torah command abstinence from leaven but it also stipulates that none shall be “found in your house” (12.9). Hence, the prelude to Pesach involves an exhaustive springclean. Utensils made of earthenware, for example, which is considered to absorb leaven, cannot be used; while others have to be purified - steel cutlery, for example, needs to be immersed in boiling water. But some simply change over to a fresh set of everything.

Mindful of possible financial hardships, the rabbis did allow for the storage of unused chametz, provided it was sealed away and its ownership temporarily transferred to a non-Jewish person over the festival, through a special deed of sale overseen by the local rabbi.  

The Sabbath before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath, after the portion of the prophets read in the synagogue from Malachi, who envisions the re-appearance of Elijah, harbinger of the Messiah, on the “Great and Awesome Day of the Lord”. The commemoration of the past entails hope of redemption in the future.

The night before Pesach, the tradition is to scatter a few pieces of chametz around the house and collect them in a ceremonial search, using a feather, wooden spoon and candle (or torch). These are the formally burnt the next morning before the cut-off point when no chametz may no longer be consumed.

The eve of Pesach is also the Fast of the Firstborn, which was instituted by the rabbis in gratitude of the deliverance of the firstborn Hebrews during the Tenth Plague. (However, the firstborn are spared the fast if they attend a siyyum, a celebration following the completion of study of a tractate of the Talmud, which synagogues commonly organise immediately after the morning service that day).

The Seder 

Nothing illustrates better that Jewish ritual begins at home than the Seder meal, one of the most observed Jewish customs. Jews who keep little else still commonly gather with their families to celebrate it. Modelled on a classical Greek symposium, it demonstrates how Jews have taken elements from the surrounding culture and adapted it for their own religious purposes. While there is a set traditional text of the Haggadah, it is considered meritorious not simply to recite it but also to prompt discussion of the meaning of the Passover during the meal. Over the years thousands of editions of the haggadot have been produced, not only containing new commentaries on the traditional text but sometimes representing adaptations which reflect the special interests of particular groups. Even early 20th Jewish socialists who rejected religion held their own socialist-style Seder. On this festival above all, it is considered important to extend hospitality to those who might otherwise be left on their own. “Let all who hungry come and eat,” says the Haggadah.

Pesach as a Spring Festival

Pesach is variously known as Chag HaPesach, Chag Hamatzot and Zeman Cheiruteniu, “Season of Our Freedom”. But it is also known as Chag Ha’aviv, the Festival of Spring (Aviv an alternative name for the month of Nisan). Pesach was the time when barley was reaped in the land of Israel when the first sheaves were  brought to the Temple – and now commemorated in the ritual of the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second night. The prayer for dew chanted in synagogues on the first day also evokes the vernal theme, as does the later recitation later in the festival of the Songs of Songs (Sephardim conclude their Seder with the Song) which speaks of the passing of winter and flowers in bloom.

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