Pesach (Passover) is, without a doubt, one of the most widely observed, if indeed not the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. Pesach is personally my favorite holiday. Despite the massive amount of preparation involved, I find the spiritual message of Pesach immensely compelling.
Pesach is the festival that marks the Jewish people’s founding as a nation. Through the Seder—the meal held on the first night in Israel and the first two outside of it, we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Yetziat Mitzrayim in Hebrew). Ideally, the Seder is meant to be a highly interactive and participatory experience. We don’t merely tell the story by rote, as it were, we reenact it. We are to each see ourselves at the Seder as though we were personally leaving Egypt. Mitzrayim does not merely mean Egypt the physical locale—it is derived from the Hebrew root denoting narrowness. Pesach is therefore not solely about our liberation from slavery in Egypt, it serves as an apt opportunity for each and evry one of us to look within and see which narrow places we need to free ourselves from this year.
Pesach begins on the fifteenth of the month of Nissan (the evening of Friday, April 6th this year) and continues for seven days (eight if you live outside of Israel). Pesach is the first of the three pilgrimage festivals, for the first of Nissan marks the beginning of the year for counting festivals. (The Jewish calendar has four new years, the most familiar being Rosh HaShanah on the first of Tishrei which occurs in the fall).
Pesach, perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, is concentrated in the home. Weeks before Pesach, we begin to prepare by cleaning our homes of all chametz, leavened products. We are forbidden from possessing any chametz at all during the whole of Pesach. Chametz are products or derivitives of products made from oats, spelt, rye, wheat and barley.
Ashkenazi Jews--Jews from Eastern and Central Europe--also refrain from eating kitniyot—literally, little things or little grain. Foods that are classified as kitniyot include rice, beans and peanuts. Sefardic Jews—Jews from Spain, Portugal and North Africa—do not have this custom, but do ensure that any rice that they eat on Passover has been thoroughly cleaned to ensure that no chametz is found. According to Halakhah or Jewish law, Jews are forbidden to possess even the tiniest quantity of chametz. Thus, on the night of the fourteenth of Nissan, we do a special search for chametz, which is often done by candlelight to ensure that we have managed to find and get rid of every last crumb.
Some have the custom of hiding ten crumbs of chametz throughout the house to be found during this search in order that the search for chametz may take place in a home that has already been thoroughly and scrupulously cleaned for Pesach. It is critical to write down where each of the crumbs is located in the event that they aren’t all found during the search. Once the search has been completed and any remaining chametz has been gathered, we recite a declaration by which we nullify any chametz that has not been found. This declaration may be said in any language. The English translation of it is as follows:
“All chametz and leaven that is in my possession which I have neither seen nor destroyed and which I do not know about shall be null and void and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
The morning of the fourteenth, we take the remaining chametz and burn it.
In addition to scrupulously cleaning our homes, we must also kasher our kitchens especially for Pesach. Many people, instead of kashering all of their dishes, will buy a set for use exclusively on Pesach.
Undoubtedly one of Judaism’s most observed and beloved home-based rituals is the Seder, the festive meal held on the first two nights of Pesach outside of Israel and the first night only in Israel. The word Seder is derived from the Hebrew word meaning order and denotes the fact that the Seder has a very specific ritual order to it, consisting of fifteen distinct components.
It is during the Seder that we fulfill one of Pesach’s most central mitzvot which is found explicitly in the Torah (Exodus 13:8) to tell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. The Seder plate is central to the Seder and it contains symbolic foods, including the bitter herbs (Maror), Karppas, haroset, the Z’roa (shankbone) and Beitzah--egg. There are also three matzot on the table, and these are either on a separate plate or are beneath the Seder plate.
The text used at the Seder is called the Haggadah, which is derived from the Hebrew root meaning "to tell." The text of the Haggadah was codified over many centuries and in our own time, many have taken it upon themselves to build upon the text, adding in supplementary readings or passages to make their experience of the Seder all the more meaningful and relevant. While many prefer to stick solely to the traditional text, the flowering of ritual and liturgical creativity around the Haggadah means that today, one can find Haggadot of every type imaginable, from very traditional to secular humanist, from those with a feminist or GLBT-affirming bent to those with a mystical orientation. There are children’s haggadot, haggadot with a particular political bent, haggadot targeted towards interfaith gatherings and those with little background; the variety is seemingly endless. There are more than 3,000 Haggadot in print today! I love the innovation surrounding the Haggadah. While the basic text is fixed, there are always new readings that can serve as a supplement. Jewish organizations of nearly every description imaginable put these out every year and even after the Sederim, I love reading them to enhance my own experience of Pesach. The Seder is all about asking questions and engaging in discussion. The best Seders, in my view, are those at which the participants bring questions of their own and really engage with the experience.
In addition to the plethora of haggadot available, over the past several years, new ritual objects have been incorporated into the Pesach Seder in some segments of the Jewish community. One is the placement of a Miriam’s cup on the table to compliment the Cup of Elijah. This cup is most often filled with water, reminiscent of Miriam’s well. The Miriam’s Cup is a symbol denoting the important role played by Miriam specifically and women generally in the Exodus and Jewish history. Another ritual related to women is the placement of an orange on the Seder plate, which is not ordinarily there. This orange is meant to symbolize women's increased and increasing roles in all aspects of Jewish life.
The Passover Seder is also filled with a variety of songs, some of which are sung during the Magid portion of the Seder when we tell the story of our Exodus from Egypt and others at the end of the Seder during the Nirtzah section, when the familiar line, “next year in Jerusalem!” is recited. Singing at the Seder table is perhaps one of the most joyous and spiritually uplifting aspects of Pesach. Songs such as Dayenu, a Hebrew word which translates as "it would have been enough for us," or "it would have sufficed," recounts, in fifteen stanzas, our thanks to G-d for all of the miracles that G-d performed for us and our ancestors while Mah Nishtanah, or "The Four Questions," is sung by the youngest individual at the table. After the Seder has formally concluded, there are many popular songs that can be sung, including Adir Hu, "Who Knows One," and Chad Gadya—one kid.
(Photo used with permission from Wikicommons.)