views updated May 18 2018


PASSOVER. Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt in the second millennium narrated in the Bible (Exod. 115). According to the Jewish calendar, the holiday begins on the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan, which falls in late March or early April. Passover is observed for seven days in Israel and eight days elsewhere. On the first one or two evenings of the holiday, Jews are required to recite the Exodus story (Exod. 13:8) at a family feast called the seder and to eat matzo, an unleavened flat bread. They are prohibited from eating foods containing leaven (hametz ) during the entire holiday.

History of Passover

The eating of a sacrificial animal, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, was central to Passover observance until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. However, the paschal sacrifice and eating unleavened bread actually predate the Exodus, even in the Exodus account itself (Exod. 12:8), and are associated with two distinct holidays: Pesach, a pastoral holiday during which animals were sacrificed and eaten, probably as a propitiatory measure to protect the flocks; and Hag HaʼMatzoth, an agricultural festival associated with the beginning of the barley harvest, during which unleavened bread was eaten. The Bible distinguishes these two holidays (Lev. 23:56; Num. 28:1617) and, in Exodus 12, juxtaposes them. The Samaritans still observe them as two separate events. Unleavened bread was also an ordinary bread made in haste. Sarah served it to guests (Gen. 18:6), and Lot offered it to the angels (Gen. 19:3). It is thought that eventually these two spring festivals were observed together and were later identified with the commemoration of a historical event, the Exodus, which also occurred in the spring.

According to the biblical account of the Exodus, God visited ten plagues on the Egyptians to persuade them to release the Israelites from bondage. Before the last plague, during which the firstborn in each household would be slaughtered, God told Moses to tell the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished yearling lamb or kid and smear the blood on their two door posts and lintel so their homes would be passed over and their firstborn spared. The Israelites, as instructed, roasted and ate the animals just before leaving Egypt but were in such a hurry that their bread had no time to rise (Exod. 12:128). Also symbolizing the food eaten by slaves and the poor, matzo is known as the bread of affliction or poverty (Deut. 16:3).

Passover became one of three pilgrimage festivals during which Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to make offerings, including the sacrifice of animals, at the Temple. They consumed parts of the roasted animal at a family feast. After the destruction of the Second Temple, animals could no longer be sacrificed, but the practice was remembered through symbols, such as the roasted shank bone placed on the seder table.

After the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. and the wide dispersal of the Jews, Passover was gradually codified, and many local variations developed. The laws concerning Passover are in the Bible (Exod. 1215), Tractate Pesahim of the Mishnah and Toseftah (compilations of the Oral Law completed in about 200 C.E.), Talmud, and later works. The Shulhan Arukh, written by Joseph Caro (14881575), with glosses by Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (15301572), is the basis for modern religious practice.


The story of the Exodus is recounted from the Haggadah, which means 'narrative' in Hebrew, at the seder, during which participants eat foods symbolizing the Exodus from Egypt. The traditional Haggadah, which contains passages from the Bible and the rabbinic literature, blessings, prayers, and songs, is based on a compilation that began to be assembled in the Second Temple period. With several core elements in place by 200 C.E., the Haggadah continued to evolve, as did the seder, whose form is set out in the Haggadah.

The diverse Jewish communities of the Diaspora have created thousands of distinctive Haggadahs and modified them to reflect such concerns as egalitarianism (removing masculinist language), feminism (emphasizing the role of women in the Exodus story and in Jewish history), environmentalism (adding pollution and other dangers to the list of plagues), oppression (expressing solidarity with African Americans, Soviet Jews, Tibetans, Palestinians), social justice (adding poverty, homelessness, and AIDS to the list of plagues), humanism (stressing the theme of freedom rather than divine intervention), personal liberation (freedom from addictions), and remembering the Holocaust. These texts have encouraged the creation of new kinds of seders, whether adaptations of the seders held on the first two nights of Passover or a special third seder, as well as new and newly interpreted symbolic foods and cuisines. For example, Tibetan food is served at interfaith and international seders for a free Tibet, whether on American university campuses or in Dharamshala, India, home of the Dali Lama in exile.


The seder is organized around seven symbolic foods. They include three matzoth (two in some communities); four glasses of wine; a roasted bone (zeroa) symbolizing the Paschal animal sacrificed at the Temple; a green vegetable for spring; bitter herbs (maror) for the bitterness of slavery and for the ancient practice of eating hyssop with the Paschal offering; a roasted egg symbolizing a festival sacrifice once made at the Temple; and a mixture of fruit, nuts, spices, and wine or vinegar (haroset) for the mortar used by the enslaved Israelites.

Ashkenazim (Jews who derive from Germany and central and eastern Europe) present these foods on a special seder plate. Some Sephardim ( Jews who derive from the Iberian Peninsula and the places they settled after the Expulsion in 1492) place these foods in a basket. Yemenite Jews set little bowls on a table covered with leafy green vegetables. In the late twentieth century, vegetarians replaced the bone with a roasted beet, or "Paschal yam," to symbolize the blood of the Paschal lamb. Among the many new Passover traditions is an orange on the seder plate, a practice introduced in the early 1980s by Susannah Heschel as a gesture of solidarity with those who have been marginalized within the Jewish community, including lesbians, gay men, and widows.

The seder, which means 'order' in Hebrew, proceeds through a set sequence of fifteen elements. These include blessings on the wine, the matzoth, and other symbolic foods; blessings and ceremonial washing of the hands; recitation of the Haggadah; eating the festive meal; the afikoman (half of the second of two or three matzoth); grace before and after the meal; and concluding songs and poems.

Many customs vary. Toward the end of the seder, Ashkenazim set aside a special goblet of wine for the Prophet Elijah and open the door to allow him to enter. The arrival of the Prophet Elijah is believed to herald the coming of the Messiah. A feminist innovation is the addition of Miriam's goblet, which is filled with water because Miriam, the older sister of Moses, is called a prophetess in the Exodus account and is associated with a miraculous well (Exod. 15:20). According to Erich Brauer (The Jews of Kurdistan, 1993, first published in 1947), with the mention of each of the ten plagues, Jews from Ushnu dip a finger in wine and shake a drop into an empty eggshell, to which they add some arrack, tobacco, and bitter herbs. Then "one of the men takes the egg and in silence throws it on the doorstep of one known to hate the Jews, returns in silence, and washes his face and hands before taking any further part in the Seder" (Brauer, 1993, p. 288). During the song "Dayenu," in which the refrain "that would have been enough" follows a verse describing how God executed justice, some Sephardi, Afghani, and Persian Jews beat each other gently with scallions to symbolize the lashes of Egyptian taskmasters.


Haroset is eaten at points nine (maror) and ten (koreh) in the seder sequence, after which the meal proper commences. Many of the ingredients in haroset, which vary from one community to another, have symbolic significance. The spices stand for the straw that was mixed into the mortar, red wine refers to the plague of blood, sweetness signifies hope, apples are mentioned in the Song of Songs (8:5), and various fruits (figs, dates, raisins) are associated with Bible lands. Ashkenazim favor apples, nuts, cinnamon, and red wine. Yemenite Jews, who refer to haroset as dukeh, a Talmudic term that only they use, combine dates, raisins, dried figs, roasted sesame seeds, pomegranate, almonds, walnuts, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and a little wine vinegar. The Lopes family in Jamaica makes a paste of dates and sultanas soaked in orange juice and adds grated citron rind, port wine, and shredded coconut. The paste is shaped into little bricks and dusted with cinnamon (Michel, 1999).


The afikoman, a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice, is the last morsel consumed at the seder. The word afikoman derives from the Greek epikomion ('dessert') and epikomioi ('revelry'), which are associated with the final phases of the Greek symposium. While the seder resembles the Greek symposium in other ways, most importantly Socratic dialogue and learned discussion in the context of a festive meal (the symposium generally followed the meal), the rabbis stressed the differences between them because the symposium was associated with excessive drinking and licentious behavior. Many similarities between the seder and symposium (drinking wine, reclining, song) were characteristic of ancient banquets rather than unique to either of them, but these and other common practices (for example, dipping appetizers in a condiment) acquired special meaning in the Passover seder.

Ashkenazim hide the afikoman and reward a child for finding it at the end of the meal. While neither Sephardic nor Yemenite Jews hide the afikoman, they do reenact the Exodus, consistent with the obligation stated in the Haggadah that one is obliged to see oneself as if one had personally left Egypt. Syrian Jews do this by wrapping the afikoman in a special embroidered napkin cover, throwing it over their shoulders, reciting Exodus 12:34, and then asking and answering the following questions in Arabic: Where are you coming from? (Egypt) Where are you going to? (Jerusalem) (Dobrinsky, 1986, p. 256). In some Mediterranean and Central Asian Jewish communities, a piece of the afikoman is saved as a protection against misfortune. It is also a Sephardic custom, when breaking theafikoman during the seder, to do so in a way that forms a letter of symbolic significance.


Although matzo is required only during the seder, it is customary to eat matzo throughout the holiday. To mark the distinction, many Jews use guarded (shmurah) matzo for the seder and regular matzo on the remaining days, while others eat shmurah matzo throughout the holiday. To ensure that the grain never comes into contact with any water or trace of leaven, shmurah matzo is guarded from the moment the wheat is harvested until the matzo leaves the oven, whereas regular matzo ( matzo peshutah) is made from wheat that has been supervised only from the point of milling. Of concern is the practice of tempering grain by moistening it with water before milling. The flour for shmurah matzo is mixed with mayim shelanu, water that has been drawn from a natural source after sunset and left to stand overnight in a cool place.

All matzo, to be kosher for Passover, must be made from dough mixed, kneaded, rolled, perforated, and baked at a high temperature within eighteen minutes. A rabbi supervises the process and checks that the matzoth are properly backed, with no bubbles, folds, or soft spots. Between each batch of matzoth, tables and tools are scrupulously cleaned to ensure that no traces of dough adhere to them. In Yemen, Jews used to bake matzoth during Passover in order to have fresh soft matzoth throughout the holiday. Baked directly on the walls of a clay oven, these matzoth were somewhat like pita. Yemenites served thick matzoth at the seder, as did medieval Jewish communities, and thin ones during the rest of the holiday.

A traditional rich matzo (matzo ashirah) is made with white grape juice or eggs rather than with water. Only those who have difficulty digesting regular matzo, including the sick, elderly, or young children, may eat this kind of matzo during Passover. The Talmud and later sources debate the permissibility of decorating matzoth, whether by pressing them into molds or perforating them to make patterns, because the extra time devoted to this process might cause the dough to ferment. Illustrated Haggadahs show, however, that matzoth were indeed ornamented. In 1942, matzoth in the shape of V, for victory, were baked in the United States.

Rolled by hand, shmurah matzoth are round, in contrast with the square matzoth made by machines introduced during the 1850s in Austria. Machine-made matzoth were controversial for several reasons. First, round matzoth were stamped out of sheets of dough. Because the scraps were reused, there was a delay between mixing and baking the dough, prompting concern that the dough would start to rise. Second, to fulfill the religious obligation of eating matzo during the seder, matzo must be made intentionally for that purpose. Whether or not the intentional starting of the machine is sufficient to meet this requirement has been debated, and steps have been taken to increase human involvement in the machine process.

In time, square matzoth made by machine came to be widely accepted, so much so that matzo companies, such as Manischewitz, established in Cincinnati in 1888, made every effort to diversify their matzo products and to create a market for them all year round. Since the 1930s, their cookbooks have provided recipes for how to use their matzo products in everything from tamales to strawberry shortcake. In the late twentieth century, Manischewitz added an apple cinnamon matzo to its product line. Chocolate-covered matzo has become popular.

The claim that Jews added a victim's blood to the matzo or drank the blood at the seder is a late addition to the long history of blood libels accusing Jews of kidnapping and killing a Christian, usually a child. Blood libels have led to the execution of accused Jews and the massacre of Jewish communities. In 2002 in Saudi Arabia, a blood libel accused Jews of using the blood of non-Jewish teenagers in their Purim pastries.


Whereas one is only obligated to eat matzo at the seder, hametz is prohibited during all eight days of Passover. Hametz refers to any of the five species of grain mentioned in the Bible (wheat, rye, oats, spelt, barley) that have come into contact with water after being harvested and allowed to ferment. These grains and anything that has come into contact with them or has been made from them cannot be eaten or be in one's possession during the holiday. Preparation for Passover entails a scrupulous cleaning of the home to remove every last trace of hametz, the "sale" to a non-Jew of any remaining hametz in one's possession (and repurchase following the holiday), the use of dishes and utensils dedicated exclusively to Passover or specially prepared for that purpose, and consumption of food that is kosher for Passover.

To prevent any possibility of violating the prohibition, "fences" have been created around these rules. Many Ashkenazim do not eat kitniyot (legumes, grains, and beans, including lentils, rice, corn, peas, millet, buckwheat, and anything made from them or their derivatives, such as oil, sweeteners, or grain alcohol). Sephardim generally eat fresh beans, and some groups eat rice. Most Hasidim do not eat gebrokts (matzo, whether whole, broken, or ground into meal, that has been mixed with water). Italian Jews do not consume milk during Passover, while Ethiopian Jews abstain from consuming fermented milk products. Many Jews do not conform to these restrictions, while some observe kashruth (Jewish dietary laws) during Passover but not during the rest of the year.


Passover dietary restrictions and requirements have prompted distinctive culinary responses. Signature dishes of the seder meal itself vary according to Jewish communities. While many are also served on the Sabbath and other holidays, some are specific to Passover.

Ashkenazim serve clear chicken broth with dumplings (kneydlakh) made from matzo meal and noodles made of egg and potato starch or matzo meal, gefilte fish (poached balls of ground fish), roasted fowl, stewed carrots, and nut tortes made without flour. Because of the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in eastern Europe during late March and early April, carrots, beets, radishes, potatoes, and other root vegetables are important. Rosl, prepared weeks in advance by allowing raw beets covered with water to ferment, is the basis for a hot or cold borscht consumed during the week. Delicacies include beet or black radish preserves, khremslakh (pancakes made from matzo meal), sponge cakes, macaroons, and ingberlakh (candies made with grated carrot or small pieces of matzo and honey, nuts, and ginger).

Sephardim prepare haminados, eggs in their shells braised in water with red onion skins, vinegar, and saffron. Favorite Passover dishes among Moroccan Jews include dried fava bean soup with fresh coriander and stewed lamb with white truffles, which are harvested in February. Greek Jews feature artichokes with lemon, fish in rhubarb sauce, stuffed spinach leaves, leek croquettes, various dishes calling for lamb and lamb offal, and a baklava made with matzo. East European Jews traditionally made their own raisin wine for Passover, while Greek and Turkish Jews made raki, a liqueur derived from raisins through a process of distillation. Purchased wine must not only be kosher, which involves many strict religious regulations, but also kosher for Passover.

As if to demonstrate that Passover dietary restrictions are no impediment to innovation and variety, the kosher food industry has developed an astonishing array of Passover products. The historian Jenna Weissman Joselit, in "The Call of the Matzoh," notes that by 1900 Bloomingdales and Macy's featured Passover groceries, wine, and other holiday necessities (Joselit, 1994, p. 221). The most widely observed of the Jewish holidays, Passover occupies only 3 percent of the calendar, but generally accounts for 40 (and in some areas up to 60) percent of kosher food sales in the United States annually. This makes kosher for Passover products an estimated $2 billion industry. According to Kosher Today, a trade publication of the kosher food industry, more than six hundred new Passover products were introduced in 2001 alone, which gave consumers up to four thousand items from which to choose. However, in a world where almost everything is becoming kosher for Passover, from pizza to noodles, Passover may lose some of its culinary distinctiveness.

Public Seder

Whereas the seder is traditionally a family event, public and organizational seders arose even before the twentieth century in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere to meet the needs of Jewish soldiers away from home (for example, during the American Civil War and today in Israel); Jews confined in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons; and the destitute. During the twentieth-century, the kibbutz, a collective agricultural settlement in Palestine and then in Israel, created its own Haggadahs and seders, consistent with the socialist and even atheistic tendencies of its founders and the practice of eating together in large public dining halls. During the Holocaust, Jews in Bergen-Belsen, separated from their families, organized to observe the holiday as best they could. Unable to obtain matzo, they determined that hametz was permitted and created a special prayer to say over it.

Even before World War I, seaside resorts in the United States attracted Jewish visitors who preferred to avoid the elaborate preparations for Passover and observe the holiday away from home. According to Kosher Today, over seventy-five thousand people participated in Passover programs in hotels during 2000 in the United States, and the Passover getaway business, which has grown in size and variety, hoped to fill thirty thousand rooms in 2002. In Israel, many orthodox families spend all eight days of the holiday at a hotel or kibbutz pension to avoid the considerable effort of preparing for Passover. Communal seders are also held in Europe. The first communal seder in Beijing took place in 1998. Caterers organize seders in banquet halls, and restaurants offer seders, in part as a response to the dispersal of families. Wolfgang Puck, at the prompting of his Jewish wife, began to host Passover seders at Spago, his Los Angeles restaurant, in 1985. The menu features such delicacies as roasted white Alaskan salmon (Panitz, 1999). Peter Hoffman, who has been hosting seders at his Mediterranean-style restaurant Savoy since 1994, created a seder inspired by Marrano traditions. Other restaurants may simply include matzo on the menu.

Third Seder

Whereas only one seder is required in Israel (and among some Reform Jews) and two seders in the Diaspora, a Lubavitcher tradition holds that the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism, a pietist movement, instituted a Messiah's Feast, mirroring the seder with matzo and wine, on the afternoon of the eighth day of Passover. During the 1920s, Zionist groups and members of the Jewish Labor movement organized third seders, although radical secular Haggadahs, which stressed human agency over divine intervention, were printed as early as the 1880s. In 2002 the Workmen's Circle, which is associated with the Jewish Labor movement, celebrated fifty years of its annual Third Seder, recently renamed A Cultural Seder. Their special Yiddish Haggadah, which makes no mention of God, focuses on liberation struggles and Yiddish cultural achievements. In the late twentieth century, they incorporated elements of the traditional seder for those who only observe this one seder. Other groups, prompted by such crises as Israeli soldiers missing in action and AIDS, also have created a third seder.

The Christian Seder

There is disagreement as to whether the Last Supper took place during the evening of the fourteenth of Nissan, after the Paschal sacrifice, in the form of a Passover meal (synoptic Gospels), or on the afternoon of the preceding day as an ordinary meal (Gospel of John). Consistent with the former, some Christians reenact the Last Supper as a seder, usually on Holy Thursday, based on practices thought to have been followed at the time of Christ. The Christian seder typically includes lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, haroset, karpas (raw vegetables), and wine; washing of hands and feet; reclining at the table; recitation of appropriate blessings and passages from Exodus, and singing of Psalms. As Gillian Feeley-Harnik explains in The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (1981), the Last Supper, as a sacrificial meal, "most closely resembles the passover, but every critical element in the passover is reversed: the time, the place, the community, the sacrifice, and ultimately the significance of the meal" (Feeley-Harnik, 1981, p. 19).


In some communities, a special meal ushers out the holiday or otherwise marks the return to everyday life. Moroccan Jews celebrate the Mimouna after sundown on the last day of Passover and on the following day with a great variety of post-Passover foods, music, and dance. The earliest record of the holiday dates from the eighteenth century. While the etymology of Mimouna remains unclear, some find a connection with maimouna (Arabic, meaning 'wealth', 'good fortune'), emunah (Hebrew, meaning 'faith'), and mammon (Hebrew-Aramaic, meaning 'riches', 'prosperity'). Some link the timing of the Mimouna with the anniversary of the death of the revered Rabbi Maimon, father of Moses Maimonides, who moved from Cordoba to Fez in 1159/1160. Moroccan Jews believe the holiday originated in Fez.

The evening holiday is traditionally celebrated at home, with doors open to relatives and friends. Ears of wheat and flowers are placed on the table and around the room. A lavish table is set with a white cloth, and depending on the community, symbolic foods may include flour, yeast, wine, five coins, five beans, five dates, five eggs, sweets, nuts, fruits, milk, buttermilk, butter, a live fish, and mofleta, the first leavened food eaten after Passover. Mofleta is a yeast-risen pancake fried in a skillet, spread with butter and honey, and rolled. In Morocco, where Jews "sold" their hametz to their Muslim neighbors before Passover, the Muslims brought the wheat, flowers, dairy products, and other foods to the Jews during the afternoon of the last day of Passover. After Passover, Muslims returned the hametz and were rewarded, in addition to receiving a piece a matzo, believed to bring good fortune. The day following Passover is a time for family excursions and picnics. During the Mimouna, a time of courtship, young people dressed in their finery, and betrothed couples exchanged gifts. With the immigration of North African Jews to Israel, other Maghrebi and Levantine Jews also celebrate the Mimouna, which has become a large public event.

See also Bible, Food in the ; Christianity ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Islam ; Judaism ; Last Supper ; Middle East ; Religion and Food ; United States: Ethnic Cuisines .


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Bradshaw, Paul F., and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons. Two Liturgical Traditions series, vol. 6. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Brauer, Erich. The Jews of Kurdistan. Edited by Raphael Patai. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1993.

Dobrinsky, Herbert C. A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs: The Ritual Practices of Syrian, Moroccan, Judeo-Spanish, and Spanish and Portuguese Jews of North America. Hoboken, N.J., and New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1986.

Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Fredman, Ruth Gruber. The Passover Seder: Afikoman in Exile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Goodman, Philip. The Passover Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961.

Joselit, Jenna Weissman. "The Call of the Matzoh." In The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 18801950, pp. 219263. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Michel, Joan. "The Mortar the Merrier." Jewish Week (New York) (1999).

Panitz, Beth. "A New Tradition: Dining Out for Passover." Restaurants USA (1999).

Segal, Judah Benzion. The Hebrew Passover, from the Earliest Times to A.D. 70. London Oriental Series, vol. 12. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Schauss, Hayyim (Shoys, Hayim). Guide to Jewish Holy Days: History and Observance. New York: Schocken Books, 1962.

Shuldiner, David P. "The "Third" Seder of Passover: Liberating a Ritual of Liberation." In Of Moses and Marx: Folk Ideology and Folk History in the Jewish Labor Movement, pp. 119140. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.

Stavroulakis, Nicholas. Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. Port Jefferson, N.Y.: Cadmus Press, 1986.

Weinreich, Beatrice S. "The Americanization of Passover." In Studies in Biblical and Jewish Folklore, edited by Raphael Patai, Francis Lee Utley, and Dov Noy, pp. 329366. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1960.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett


views updated May 18 2018


PASSOVER is the joyous Jewish festival of freedom that celebrates the Exodus of the Jews from their bondage in Egypt. Beginning on the fifteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, the festival lasts for seven days (eight days for Jews outside Israel). The Hebrew name for Passover, Pesa, refers to the paschal lamb offered as a family sacrifice in Temple times (Ex. 12:128, 12:4349; Dt. 16:18), and the festival is so called because God "passed over" (pasa ) the houses of the Israelites when he slew the Egyptian firstborn (Ex. 12:23). The annual event is called ag ha-Pesa, the Feast of the Passover, in the Bible (Ex. 34:25). Another biblical name for it is ag ha-Matsot or the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, after the command to eat unleavened bread and to refrain from eating leaven (Ex. 23:15, Lv. 23:6, Dt. 16:16). The critical view is that the two names are for two originally separate festivals, which were later combined. ag ha-Pesa was a pastoral festival, whereas ag ha-Matsot was an agricultural festival. In any event, the paschal lamb ceased to be offered when the Temple was destroyed in 70 ce, and although the name Passover is still used, the holiday is now chiefly marked by the laws concerning leaven and, especially, by the home celebration held on the first nightthe Seder ("order, arrangement").

Prohibition on Leavening

On the night before the festival the house is searched thoroughly for leavened bread. Any found is gathered together and removed from the house during the morning of 14 Nisan. This is based on the biblical injunction that not only is it forbidden to eat leaven, but no leaven may remain in the house (Ex. 12:15, 12:19). On Passover, observant Jews do not employ utensils used during the rest of the year for food that contains leaven. Either they have special Passover utensils or they remove the leaven in the walls of their regular utensils by firing or boiling them in hot water. Only food products completely free from even the smallest particle of leaven are eaten. In many communities, rabbis supervise the manufacture of packaged Passover foods to verify that they are completely free from leaven, after which they attach their seal of fitness to the product. There was at first considerable rabbinical opposition to machine-made matsah on the grounds that pieces of dough might be left in the machine and become leaven. Nowadays, with vastly improved methods of production, the majority of Jews see no objection to machine-made matsah.

The biblical reason given for eating unleavened bread (matsah ) and refraining from eating leaven (amets ) is that during the Exodus the Israelites, having left Egypt in haste, were obliged to eat unleavened bread because their dough had had insufficient time to rise (Ex. 12:39). Matsah is therefore the symbol of freedom. A later idea is that leavenbread that has risen and become fermentedrepresents pride and corruption, whereas unleavened bread represents humility and purity.

Great care is consequently taken when baking matsah for Passover. The process is speeded up so that no time is allowed for the dough to rise before it is baked. The resulting matsah is a flat bread with small perforations (an extra precaution against the dough's rising). Some Jews prefer to eat only round matsah, because a circle is unbounded, representing the unlimited need to strive for freedom.

Synagogue Service

The synagogue liturgy for Passover contains additional prayers and hymns suffused with the themes of freedom and renewal. On the first day there is a prayer for dew; the rainy season now over, supplication is made for the more gentle dew to assist the growth of the produce in the fields. The scriptural readings are from passages dealing with Passover. On the seventh day, the anniversary of the parting of the sea (Ex. 14:1715:26), the relevant passage is read; some Jews perform a symbolic reenactment to further dramatize the event. On the Sabbath in the middle of Passover, the Prophetic reading is Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37:114). On this Sabbath, too, there is a reading of the Song of Songs (interpreted by the rabbis as a dialogue between God and his people), in which there is a reference to the spring (2:1113) and to the Exodus (1:9).

The Seder and the Haggadah

The Seder, celebrated in the home on the first night of Passover (outside Israel, also on the second night), is a festive meal during which various rituals are carried out and the Haggadah is read or chanted. The Haggadah ("telling") is the traditional collection of hymns, stories, and poems recited in obedience to the command for parents to tell their children of God's mighty deeds in delivering the people from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 13:8). The main features of the Haggadah are already found in outline in the Mishnah (Pes. 10) with some of the material going back to Temple times. It assumed its present form in the Middle Ages, with a few more recent additions. The emphasis in the Haggadah is on God alone as the deliverer from bondage. It is he and no other, neither messenger nor angel, who brings his people out from Egypt. Even Moses is mentioned by name only once in the Haggadah, and then only incidentally, at the end of a verse quoted for other purposes.

A special dish is placed on the Seder table upon which rest the symbolic foods required for the rituals. These are three matsot, covered with a cloth; maror, bitter herbs that serve as a reminder of the way the Egyptian taskmasters embittered the lives of their slaves (Ex. 1:14); aroset, a paste made of almonds, apples, and wine, symbolic of the mortar the slaves used as well as of the sweetness of redemption; a bowl of salt water, symbolic of the tears of the oppressed; parsley or other vegetables for a symbolic dipping in the salt water; a roasted bone as a reminder of the paschal lamb; and a roasted egg as a reminder of the animal sacrifice, the agigah offered in Temple times on Passover, Shavuʿot, and Sukkot. During the Seder, four cups of wine are partaken of by all the celebrants, representing the four different expressions used for redemption in the narrative of the Exodus. Since in ancient times the aristocratic custom was to eat and drink while reclining, the food and drink are partaken of in this way as a symbol of the mode of eating of free people. Some medieval authorities held that since people no longer recline at meals, there is no longer any point in the symbolic gesture, but their view was not adopted.

The Seder begins with the Qiddush, the festival benediction over the first cup of wine. The middle matsah is then broken in two, one piece being set aside to be eaten as the afiqoman ("dessert"), the last thing eaten before the Grace after Meals, so that the taste of the matsah of freedom might linger in the mouth. It is customary for the grown-ups to hide the afiqoman, rewarding the lucky child who finds it with a present. The parsley is first dipped in the salt water and then eaten. The youngest child present asks the Four Questions, a standard formula beginning with "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The differences are noted in four instances, such as, "On all other nights we eat either leaven or unleaven, whereas on this night we eat only unleaven." The head of the house and the other adults then proceed to reply to the Four Questions by reading the Haggadah, in which the answers are provided in terms of God's deliverances. When they reach the section that tells of the ten plagues, a little wine from the second cup is poured out to denote that it is inappropriate to drink a full cup of joy at the delivery, since in the process the enemy was killed. This section of the Haggadah concludes with a benediction in which God is thanked for his mercies, and the second cup of wine is drunk while reclining.

The celebrants then partake of the meal proper. Grace before Meals is recited over two of the three matsot and a benediction is recited: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us to eat matsah." The bitter herbs (horseradish is generally used) are then dipped in the aroset and eaten. There is a tradition that in Second Temple times the famous sage Hillel would eat matsah, bitter herbs, and the paschal lamb together. In honor of Hillel's practice, a sandwich is made of the third matsah and the bitter herbs. In many places the first course is a hard-boiled egg in salt water, a further symbol of the tears of the slaves in Egypt and their hard bondage.

At the end of the meal the afiqoman is eaten, and the Grace after Meals is recited over the third cup of wine. The Hallel (consisting of Psalms 113118) and other hymns of thanksgiving are then recited over the fourth cup of wine. Before the recital of Hallel, a cup is filled for the prophet Elijah, the herald of the Messiah, who is said to visit every Jewish home on this night. The door of the house is opened to let Elijah in, and the children watch eagerly to see if they can notice any diminution in Elijah's cup as the prophet quickly sips the wine and speeds on his way to visit all the other homes. At this stage there is a custom dating from the Middle Ages of reciting a number of imprecations against those who oppressed the Jews and laid the Temple waste. Nowadays, many Jews either do not recite these verses or substitute prayers more relevant to the contemporary situation, such as prayers for freedom to be established for all people.

The Seder concludes with the cheerful singing of table hymns, most of them jingles for the delight of the children present, such as ad Gadyaʾ (One kid), constructed on the same lines as This Is the House That Jack Built, the cat devouring the kid, the dog devouring the cat, and so on until the Angel of Death devours the final slaughterer and then God slays the Angel of Death. Commentators to the Haggadah have read into this theme various mystical ideas about the survival of Israel and the ultimate overcoming of death itself in eternal life. All join in singing these songs, for which there are many traditional melodies. This night is said to be one of God's special protection so that the usual night prayers on retiring to bed, supplicating God for his protection, are not recited since that protection is granted in any event.

See Also



J. B. Segal's The Hebrew Passover: From the Earliest Times to a.d. 70 (London, 1963), with a comprehensive bibliography, deals with the history and development of the festival through the Temple period and surveys the various critical theories on the origins of the festival. For the later period the best work is Chaim Raphael's A Feast of History: Passover through the Ages as a Key to Jewish Experience (New York, 1972). This book also attractively presents one of the very many editions of the Haggadah. Isaac Levy's little book A Guide to Passover (London, 1958) provides a useful summary of the traditional laws and customs of the festival. An anthology of teachings with a comprehensive bibliography is Philip Goodman's The Passover Anthology (Philadelphia, 1961). For an insightful look at the history of the printed Haggadah one may consult Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Haggadah and History (Philadelphia, 1975).

New Sources

Anisfield, Sharon Cohen, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector, eds. The Women's Passover Companion: Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom. Woodstock, Vt., 2003.

Bergant, Dianne. "An Anthropological Approach to Biblical Interpretation: The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:120 as a Case Study." Semeia 67 (1994): 4362.

Parnes, Stephan O., ed. The Art of Passover. New York, 1994.

Prosic, Tamara. "Origin of Passover." SJOT 13 (1999): 7894.

Safran, Eliyahu. Kos Eliyahu: Insights on the Haggadah and Pesach. Hoboken, N.J., 1993.

Louis Jacobs (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 23 2018


Passover or Pesach ("pass over"), one of the most significant Jewish holidays, begins the evening of 14 Nisan (late March to April). Traditionally, Jews outside Israel observe Passover for eight days; Jews in Israel and Reform Jews in North America observe for seven days. One of three biblical pilgrimage festivals (with Shavuot and Sukkot) when people brought agricultural offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem, Passover has its origins in ancient Near Eastern spring celebrations and is also called Chag Ha'Aviv ("the Spring Holiday"). However, the connection with history gives Passover its distinctive Jewish identity as a communal reminder and reenactment of the experiences of Egyptian slavery, the Exodus from bondage, divine revelation, and the formation of Judaism as a sacred community. Remembrance of these events is biblically mandated in Exodus 12:1–28. Many customs associated with Passover derive from earlier agricultural festivities, but all have been given Jewish meanings in terms of the Exodus. Most central is eating unleavened bread (matzah) throughout the festival. Once part of celebrations of the spring grain harvest, matzah came to symbolize the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt, with no time to leaven their bread before baking it. Moreover, Passover observance requires that no leaven (chametz) of any kind may be eaten. Foods made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats, rice (for Ashkenazic Jews), and legumes, including beer and liquor, come under this category. The exception is the wheat flour used for baking matzah under rabbinic supervision in conditions that prevent any leavening; ground matzah may be used for baking. In traditional Jewish households, all regular dishes, cutlery, cooking utensils, and appliances are put away during Passover and replaced with items reserved for Passover use that have had no contact with chametz; directly before the holiday the house is thoroughly cleaned to remove all chametz. Many Jews also transfer ownership of any remaining chametz products to a non-Jew for the duration of the festival.

Although worship takes places in the synagogue on the first two and the last two days of the festival, which are considered full holidays, for most American Jews Passover's most central commemoration is the Seder (from the Hebrew word for "order"), a festive ritual meal, probably the most observed religious practice among North American Jewry. While Reform Jews may attend only one Seder, on the eve of the first day of the holiday, more traditionally oriented American Jews also participate in a second Seder, on the evening of the first day. Although components of the Seder have evolved over the centuries, the Seder framework remains flexible, allowing for adding new rituals and contemporary reinterpretations of Passover's fundamental themes. Central to the Seder is the Haggadah ("retelling"), the book that dictates the order of the ritual. The Haggadah, like the Seder itself, is a work in progress; while some of its contents date back two millennia, new material may always be added. In recent decades American Haggadot have been written focusing on issues such as civil rights, freedom for Soviet Jewry, and the role of women in Judaism. Since the Haggadah is a liturgical book for domestic use, regulations against adornment and illustration for scrolls and books used in the synagogue do not apply. Thus there is a long tradition of beautifully decorated and illustrated Haggadot; many examples of illuminated Haggadot manuscripts survive from the Middle Ages, while printed Haggadot past and present display a variety of artistic styles.

The primary functions of the Seder are educational and experiential. Since parents are biblically commanded to instruct their offspring on the centrality to Judaism of the redemption from slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, and the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, many elements of the Seder are directed at engaging and entertaining children. Moreover, all who participate in the Seder should imagine that they themselves are part of the Exodus generation reliving through this ritual the experiences of degradation, freedom, and commitment to religious service. Passover stresses that God alone brought the Israelite slaves out of bondage and led them to Mount Sinai, forming a mixed multitude into a people united by revealed laws and shared faith. The Haggadah's recounting of these events eliminates human agency as much as possible; Moses, so central in the biblical account, is barely mentioned.

The Seder appears to have been influenced by the Greek custom of holding sumptuous banquets accompanied by philosophical conversation, as in Plato's Symposium. Usual practices at such feasts—drinking wine and reclining at table—were adopted and imbued with Jewish symbolic meanings, while the philosophic discourse was turned into the Haggadah. In fact, the Seder is both a meal and a religious service; the five (sometimes six) foods on the Seder plate at the Seder table symbolically recall the Passover story. These include an egg (betzah), which evokes the Passover sacrifices that were offered in the Jerusalem Temple and the wholeness and continuity of life. A green vegetable (karpas), usually parsley or celery, represents the renewal of springtime; during the Seder, the greens are dipped in salt water, reminiscent of the tears of the Hebrew slaves. A roasted shank bone (zaro'a) recalls the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover, while bitter herbs (maror —sometimes in two varieties) evoke the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. A mixture of chopped apples, nuts, and wine (charoset) is a reminder of the mortar the slaves were forced to mold into bricks; both maror and charoset are eaten, separately and together, during the Seder. The Seder table also holds a plate with three matzot, symbolizing the three divisions of ancient Israel: Kohen (priests), Levi (assistant priests), and Israel, the rest of the Jewish people. As the Seder begins, the middle matzah is broken in two; one half becomes the afikomen, a Greek term meaning "dessert," which must be eaten to end the ritual meal. This afikomen is hidden away and children search for it, demanding a gift in payment for its return. It is customary to drink four cups of wine during the Seder, based on four biblical promises of redemption (Exodus 6:6–7). An additional Cup of Elijah is placed on the Seder table as a reminder that Elijah will one day herald the advent of the messianic era, when all disputes will be resolved. Late in the Seder service, the door of the home is opened for Elijah. This symbolic reminder of ultimate redemption, like the afikomen, also sustains the interest and involvement of children.

The fifteen parts of the Seder service are recited and performed in a specific order. The central focus, the telling of the Passover story, maggid (narration), begins when the youngest child present asks four questions about what differentiates the Seder night from all other nights. The answers initiate the chronicle of slavery and redemption and explain the meaning of the three central Passover symbols: the paschal sacrifice, the matzah, and the maror. Following the eating of the Passover meal, the service concludes with selections from Psalms praising God for the many miracles of redemption, drinking of the final cups of wine, and songs and games. The Seder's final words, "next year in Jerusalem," refer literally to return to the biblical land of Israel and metaphorically to hopes for the time when all people will live in freedom and peace.

On the Sabbath, which occurs during Passover, the biblical book Song of Songs is read in the synagogue; it is appropriate both for its evocation of vitality and rebirth and as an allegory of the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people that was forged through the Exodus experience.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Food; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Religious Communities; Religious Persecution; Ritual; Synagogue; Temple; Torah.


Broner, Esther. The Women's Haggadah. 1994.

Dosick, Wayne. Living Judaism: The Complete GuidetoJewish Belief, Tradition, and Practice. 1995.

Raphael, Chaim. A Feast of History: The Drama of Passover through the Ages. 1972.

Steingroot, Ira. Keeping Passover: Everything You NeedtoKnow to Bring the Ancient Tradition to Life and CreateYour Own Passover Celebration. 1995.

Waskow, Arthur. Seasons of Our Joy: A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal. 1990.

Judith R. Baskin


views updated May 29 2018

Passover (Heb., pesah). Jewish Festival of Unleavened Bread (mazzah), one of the Pilgrim Festivals. The festival begins on 15 Nisan and lasts seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora. During this time, the exodus from Egypt is commemorated. It is so called because God ‘passed over’ the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague of Egypt (Exodus 12). Traditionally the paschal lamb was sacrificed in the Temple on Passover eve (14 Nisan), and both Josephus and the Talmud record Passover celebrations in the second Temple period. After the destruction of the Temple, the celebrations of the festival reverted to being home-based.


views updated May 18 2018

Passover (Pesach) Jewish festival lasting eight days, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the redemption of the Israelites. Symbolic dishes are prepared, including bitter herbs (maror) and unleavened bread (matzot), to remind the Jews of the haste with which they fled Egypt and, by extension, of their heritage. It is a family celebration, at which the Haggadah is read. Christ's ‘Last Supper’, at which he instituted the Eucharist, was a Passover meal.


views updated May 29 2018

Passover The Jewish festival celebrating the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. There was no time to allow bread dough to rise, and unleavened bread was eaten. In commemoration, Jews abstain from leavened bread for the week of Passover, eating matzo instead, and using matzo meal or potato flour for baking. Foods certified free from leavened bread are known as ‘kosher for Passover’. See also kosher.


views updated May 17 2018

Pass·o·ver / ˈpasˌōvər/ • n. the major Jewish spring festival that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, lasting seven or eight days from the 15th day of Nisan. ∎ another term for paschal lamb.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Passover the major Jewish spring festival which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, lasting seven or eight days from the 15th day of Nisan. The name comes from pass over ‘pass without touching’, with reference to the biblical story in Exodus 12 of how the Israelites escaped by marking their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, when the plague which destroyed their firstborn fell on the Egyptians.


views updated May 23 2018

Passover Jewish feast, the lamb sacrificed at this, the Paschal Lamb (see Exodus 12: 11, 13; 1 Cor. 5: 7). XVI. f. phr. pass over, rendering Heb. pesah, f. pāsah pass over.