In comparison with the fate of many laws and customs associated with Jewish tradition, it appears that none are practiced by such a broad segment of contemporary Jewry as the Passover seder. Long after other aspects of Jewish tradition lose their significance for many contemporary Jews, the Passover Seder remains meaningful. Why is this so? I believe it is because the Passover Seder embodies the essential cultural and educational mechanism that has guaranteed the continuity of Jewish existence throughout the generations.
The continuity of Jewish existence is dependent upon the success of Jewish parents in every generation to convey the story of its past to its children. Should it ever happen that the parents no longer have a story to tell, or if the children are no longer interested in hearing the story of their past, the existence of the Jewish people will then come to an end. - Professor Joseph (Yossi) Turner
In every generation, each of us must feel as if we personally had come out of Egypt, as the Torah says: "You should tell your child on that day, 'When I left Egypt, God did miracles for me...'
The History of Passover
The story of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) begins in Genesis, with Jacob and his twelve sons, of whom Joseph was his favorite. The older brothers, in a fit of jealousy, sold Joseph into slavery and Joseph ended up in Egypt. His ability to interpret dreams led him to the Pharaoh, and Joseph became Viceroy of all Egypt. Shortly after, there was famine in the land, and Jacob and his family came to Egypt.
The story continues in Exodus, as more Israelites settled in Egypt and multiplied. The Pharaoh feared the Israelites were becoming too powerful and started to oppress and enslave them to weaken them. The Israelites were forced to build cities, erect monuments, construct roads, work in the new quarries and hew stones. Despite this, the Israelites continued to multiply. When an oracle prophesied that an Israelite boy would lead them out of Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that all male newborns of Jewish mothers be killed.
One boy, however, was spared -- the third child of Amram and Yocheved, brother of Miriam and Aaron. To save the baby from being killed by Pharaoh's soldiers, Yocheved placed him in a basket amongst the reeds at the edge of the Nile River. When Pharaoh's daughter came to bathe in the Nile, she discovered the baby. She called the baby Moses (meaning "drawn from the water") and decided to raise him in the palace as a prince of Egypt. Yocheved was hired to be his nurse.
Years later, when Moses saw an Egyptian overseer whip an Israelite, he became enraged and killed the Egyptian. Moses fled to Midian, became a shepherd, and married Cipora, a daughter of a Midianite priest. One day, while herding sheep, Moses heard God speak to him through a burning bush. God instructed Moses to return to Egypt and deliver a message to Pharaoh: "The God of Israel said, 'Let My people go, that they may serve me.'" Pharaoh refused to let the Jewish slaves go free. God then sent nine plagues (blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, animal disease, boils, hailstorm, locusts, darkness) to punish Pharaoh; after each plague, Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go, then changed his mind. After the tenth plague -- the death of the firstborn -- Pharaoh finally told the Israelites to go. Exodus tells us the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years.
The Jews departed Israel in haste. They assembled in groups to eat the roasted paschal lamb and the unleavened bread (matzah). Then, at sunrise on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the Jewish nation rose together to leave Egypt. After three days, Pharaoh started to regret that he had permitted the Israelites to leave. He mobilized his army in hot pursuit of his former slaves. He reached them near the banks of the Sea of Reeds. Moses led the Israelites on until they came to the Sea of Reeds. Then God told Moses: "Lift up your rod, stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it." Moses did as God ordered; a strong east wind blew all night, the waters of the sea divided, and the Israelites crossed to the other side in safety. The Egyptians continued their pursuit, but the waters closed over them and drowned Pharaoh's army. Thus, God liberated the Israelites from the Egyptians, and the Israelites saw God's great power. The story of Passover recounts the birth of the Jewish people as a nation.
Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most commonly observed, even by non-observant Jews. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the others are Shavuot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but the primary observances of Pesach are related to Exodus chapters 1-15. Pesach lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). On the first and last days of Pesach, no work is permitted.
"Pesach" comes from the Hebrew root meaning to pass over, to pass through, to exempt, or to spare. It refers to the fact that God "passed over" the houses of the Jews when He was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also called the Spring Festival, the Festival of Matzahs, and the Time of Our Freedom. The day before Pesach is a minor fasting day for firstborn males to commemorate that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague.
We were liberated from Egyptian bondage in order to bring liberation to the entire world, but first we have to liberate ourselves.
-- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
A significant Pesach observance is the removal of all chametz (leaven) from our homes. This commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also symbolic of removing the "puffiness" (pride, arrogance) from our souls. Chametz includes anything made from wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. Ashkenazi Jews also avoid rice, corn, and legumes; these are used to make bread, so they are prohibited to avoid any confusion. We may not eat chametz during Pesach or even own it. Traditionally, Jews dispose of all chametz by selling it to a non-Jewish friend or neighbor for a nominal sum (to be repurchased after the holiday). Some pack up their chametz and store it in a separate place, like the garage or a locked cabinet. Many Jews have a separate set of Passover dishes; some now opt for paper and plastic. In a thorough cleaning, we remove all breadcrumbs of leaven from our cabinets, cars, sofa cushions, etc. There is a tradition to search for the last crumbs of chametz the night before Passover by candlelight, brushing it away with a feather.
On the morning before Passover (Passover, like all Jewish holidays, begins at sundown), we burn all the chametz that was found during the search, and anything left over after breakfast and not stored away or sold. After the chametz has been burnt in the fire, we recite the following: "All leaven which is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not shall be completely considered naught and ownerless as the dust of the earth."
What we do eat during Pesach is matzah, unleavened bread made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. Kosher-for-Passover matzah has to be cooked less that 18 minutes after it is mixed with water, before the dough has had time to ferment and start to rise. You are only required to eat a piece of matzah the size of two thimbles (since in ancient times matzah tasted so bad!), but now we have lots of flavors of matzah. We have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah: matzah flour (for cakes and cookies), matzah meal (like bread crumbs), matzah farfel (a noodle substitute), and full-sized matzah sheets (a bread substitute).
The Passover Seder
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for Jews outside Israel), we have a special family meal filled with rituals to remind us of the significance of the holiday, called a Seder (from a Hebrew root meaning "order" because there is a specific set of information that must be presented in a specific order). The order is outlined in a text called the Haggadah. There are many versions of Haggadahs: traditional, contemporary, family-style with pictures, richly illustrated ones, vegetarian ones, etc.
For the Seder, we use a Seder plate -- a patter with six divisions or selections on it. We put on the Seder plate six required items:
- charoset - a mixture of walnuts, wine, cinnamon and apples that represents the mortar the Jewish slaves used for Pharaoh's bricks
- parsley - symbilizing springtime, dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears of slavery
- an egg - another symbol of spring
- a shank bone - symbolic of the sacrificial lamb offering
- maror - bitter herb, usually horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery
- karpas - another bitter vegetable (usually lettuce) to dip in salt water
In the 1990s, some started adding an orange to the Seder plate to represent the acceptance of women, gays and lesbians, and anyone who has been marginalized in the past.
Also on the Passover Seder table, we have three matzahs, one on top of the other, and a bowl of salt water; some make enough eggs for each person to have one and have extra charoset and horseradish each in a separate bowl. At the Seder, we are obligated to eat matzah (at least the size of two thimbles). Four glasses of wine are drunk at the Seder, representing the four stages of the Exodus: freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release. We set out a cup for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach. Many also set a cup for Moses' sister Miriam to honor the contribution of women throughout Jewish history. The cup is filled with water symbolizing the well that God gave Miriam to help the Israelites in the desert. Traditionally, we would eat the Passover meal reclining on cushions because only free people can recline during meals.
The Seder is highly ritualized and follows the specific order outlined here. This is just a brief summary and is not meant to replace a haggadah, which has lots more details, customs, and history:
- Kadesh: Sanctification - A blessing obver wine for the holiday.
- Urechatz: Washing - A washing of the hands without a blessing.
- Karpas: Vegetable - A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten, symbolizing the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed in slavery.
- Yachatz: Breaking - One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen.
- Maggid: The Story - A retelling of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, designed to encourage participation in the Seder (see Mah Nishtanah in the songs below). At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.
- Rachtzah: Washing - A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
- Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products - The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products, is recited over the matzah.
- Matzah: Blessing over Matzah - A blessing for the matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
Maror: Bitter Herbs - A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually horseradish) and it is eaten, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.
- Korech: The Sandwich - Rabbi Hillel said that maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah with charoset (we don't do animal sacrifices anymore, so there is no paschal offering).
- Shulchan Orech: Dinner - The festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, no chametz). Among Ashkenazi Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, roast chicken or turkey, and beef brisket are common.
- Tzafun: The Afikomen - The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as a "dessert", the last food of the meal. In some families, the children hide it, while the parents have to find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. (The idea iss to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the proceedings, waiting for this part.)
- Barech: Grace After Meals - The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ma-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. The blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah. The door is opened for a while at this part for Elijah.
- Hallel: Praises - Several psalms are recited; a blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
- Nirtzah: Closing - A statement that the Seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come next year), followed by hymns and stories.
During the seven days of Passover, we are commanded not to eat any of the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt); Ashkenazi Jews also avoid rice, corn, and beans. But this does not mean that you'll go hungry during Passover -- see the creative and delicious Passover recipes in cookbooks and on websites.
Traditional Charoset (Other fruits or nuts can be used)
Ingredients: 4 medium apples; 1/2 cup finely chopped almonds; 1/4 cup sweet wine or grape juice; 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
Directions: Finely chop the apples. Add all other ingredients. Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until the wine/juice is absorbed by the other ingredients. Serve on matzah.
Quick Matzah Brei (a great breakfast dish)
Ingredients: 1 sheet of matzah; 1 egg, beaten; shake of cinnamon
Directions: Break the matzah into tiny pieces into a bowl; add enough hot water to moisten. Let sit a few minutes for the matzah to get soft. Stir in egg and cinnamon. Fry as you would small pancakes, about 3 inches in diameter. Top with jelly, honey, or fruit and serve warm.
Variations: 1.) add 2 Tbsp. small curd cottage cheese and 1 Tbsp. sugar
2.) instead of cinnamon, add garlic salt, black pepper, salt, and herbs to taste
Matzah Rolls (great substitute for bread for sandwiches)
Ingredients: 2 cups matzah meal; 1 1/2 cups boiling water; 1/2 cup vegetable oil; 1 teaspoon white sugar; 1 teaspoon salt; 4 beaten eggs
Directions: Preheat over to 375 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet. In a large mixing bowl, combine matzah meal, water, oil, sugar, and salt. Mix well, then let mixture cool. Add eggs to the mixture. Drop rolls by rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour, until golden brown and not burned.
Matzah Ball Soup (a traditional opener for the Seder dinner)
Ingredients: 1/2 cup matzah meal; 2 eggs; 2 Tbsp. oil; 2 Tbsp. water or chicken broth; 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley; a little black pepper; 2 quarts thin chicken broth; 2-3 carrots cut intoo large chunks (optional); a few stalks of celery cut into large chunks (optional)
Directions: Beat the eggs, oil, and water together thoroughly. Add the matzah meal, parsley and black pepper and mix until you achieve an even consistency. Let this sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Bring the broth to a vigorous boil, then reduce heat until the broth is just barely boiling. Add the vegetables to the broth (if used). Wet your hands and make balls of about 1-2 Tbsp. Drop the balls gently into the boiling water. They will be cooked in about 15 minutes, or let simmer longer to absorb more of the chicken broth flavor. They are done when they float on top of the broth and look bloated. For lighter matzah balls, use a little less oil, a little more water, and cook at a lower temperature for a longer time. For heavier matzah balls, do the reverse.
Ingredients: 4 matzah sheets; 1 lb. cottage cheese; 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese; 1/2 tsp. black pepper (optional); 1 1/4 cups grated mozzarella cheese; 30-34 oz. prepared tomato sauce
Directions: Grease a pan big enough to fit matzah (8"x8" or 9"x9"). Place marinara sauce in it to cover the bottom, about 1/2 cup. Place a matzah on top. Spread tomato sauce over matzah. Place some of the cottage cheese on top of the matzah. Sprinkle mozzarella and parmesan cheeses over cottage cheese, place another matzah on top; repeat until you run out of matzah. End with tomato sauce. Top with the 1/4 cup mozzarella and parmesan cheese left. Add 1/2 cup water, cover, bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 min.
Ingredients: 1 matzah; shredded mozzarella cheese; shredded cheddar cheese; grated parmesan cheese; prepared marinara or tomato sauce
Directions: Grease a baking pan big enough to fit matzah. Spread tomato sauce over matzahs. Sprinkle mozzarella, cheddar, and parmesan cheeses over tomato sauce. Sprinkle with oregano or Italian seasoning (optional). Bake at 400 degrees for ten minutes or until cheese melts.
Cottage Cheese Pancakes
Ingredients: 1/2 lb. cottage cheese; 4 beaten eggs; 2 tsp. sugar; 1/2 cup matzah meal; butter, oil, or oil spray for frying; sugar and cinnamon
Directions: Mix the cheese with the eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Fry spoonfuls of the batter until light brown on both sides. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, and serve hot.
Matzah Cheese Kugel
Ingredients: 5 eggs; 1 cup milk; 1 lb. cottage cheese; 1 tsp. salt; 1/4 cup honey or sugar; 1/2 tsp. cinnamon; 4 matzahs, crumbled; 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds (optional)
Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease shallow 2 qt. baking dish or large pie pan. Beat eggs and milk together; add the rest of the ingredients, except matzah. Put half of the matzahs in the dish, pour 1/2 of the cheese-egg mixture on top of the matzah. Place the rest of the matzah on top of the egg-cheese mixture. Pour the rest of the egg-cheese mixture over the matzah. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until the top is brown and slightly crunchy.
The Music of Pesach
Many people think of Pesach as a time of deprivation, since we cannot eat bread or our other comfort foods, but this is not the traditional way of viewing the holiday. Pesach is Z'man Cheiruteinu, the Time of Our Freedom, and the joy of that time is evident in the music of the season.
1. Mah Nishtanah? (Why is it Different?)
The recitation of the Four Questions is done by the youngest participant.
Mah nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot, mi-kol ha-leilot?
Why is this night different from all other nights, from all other nights?
Sheb'chol ha-leilot anu ochlin chametz u-matzah, chametz u-matzah. Ha-lailah ha-zeh, ha-lailah ha-zeh, kulo matzah.
On all other nights, we may eat chametz and matzah. On this night, on this night, only matzah.
Sheb'chol ha-leilot anu ochlin sh'ar y'rakot. Ha-lailah ha-zeh, ha-lailah ha-zeh, maror.
On all other nights, we eat many vegetables. On this night, maror.
Sheb'chol ha-leilot ein anu mat'bilin afilu pa'am echat, afilu pa'am echat. Ha-lailah ha-zeh, ha-lailah ha-zeh, sh'tei p'amim.
On all other nights, we do not dip even once. On this night, twice.
Sheb'chol ha-leilot anu ochlin bein yosh'bin u'vein m'subin, bein yosh'bin u'vein m'subin. Ha-lailah ha-zeh, ha-lailah ha-zeh, kulanu m'subin.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, either sitting or reclining. On this night, on this night, we all recline.
2. Dayenu (It Would Have Been Enough For Us)
One of the most popular seder tunes, an upbeat song about the many favors that God bestowed upon us when He brought us out of Egypt:
Ilu hotzi-hotzianu hotzianu mi-Mitzrayim, v'lo asah bahem s'fatim dayenu.
Had He brought us out of Egypt and not judged them, it would have been enough for us.
Chorus: Day-dayenu, day-dayenu, day-dayenu, dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. (2x)
It would have been enough for us.
Ilu asah bahem s'fatim, v'lo asah beyloheyhem, v'lo asah beyloheyhem dayenu.
Had He judged them and not done so to their idols, it would have been enough for us.
3. The Frog Song
And of course, there's the all-time favorite:
One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed,
(hands together under head, like sleeping)
there were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head,
(hands on the sides and on head)
frogs on his toes and frogs on his nose,
(hands on toes, then on nose)
frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere
(hands shake to one side, then the other)
Passover Family Crafts
- Make a Seder plate -- glue pictures of the foods that go on the seder plate onto a colored plastic plate, cover with a clear plastic plate and glue around the edge.
- Make a matzah cover from fabric or felt -- decorate with fabric paint, sparkly glue, sequins, etc. Or use a white handkerchief, cover it with strips of colored tissue paper and spray with water for a tie-dye look.
- Make an afikomen bag out of fabric or felt -- glue or stitch together to form a pouch big enough to fit half a square of matzah; decorate with fabric paint, sparkly glue, sequins, beads, etc.
- Make an Elijah or Miriam cup -- use a plastic wine glass, paint with acrylic paints, decorate with glitter glue, sequins, small jewels
- Make a matzah house -- use kosher-for-Passover marshmallows as glue to attach the sides.
- Make a delicious Passover treat -- spread matzah wih melted kosher-for-Passover chocolate, sprinkle with nuts or marshmallows.
- Make chametz brooms -- fold a paper plate over, decorate; then staple a Popsicle stick to one edge (handle for dust pan). At the other end, glue a feather (the sweeper).
- Make a placemat with pictures to remind the youngest child at the Seder of the Four Questions (see Mah Nishtanah song).
- Discuss together what it means to be free, in what ways are we free in our modern society and what we might become slaves to (latest trends, computer games, etc.).
- Look at different Haggadot together; try to find some older texts to look at, notice the differences and similarities, and look at the artwork.
- Make charoset together -- try to create a new recipe that will be your own new family tradition.
Passover Guide compiled by Mila Vasser, Program Coordinator,
and Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El