Tonight begins the eight day holiday of Passover, the oldest continuing celebration among Jews. In Judaism, there are three ways, or levels, of explaining a tradition or a text—the “simple” or face value meaning (Peshat), the story behind the text (Midrash), and the hidden or secret explanation or interpretation (Sod). Today, at the beginning of Passover, I thought I’d tell you about the basics of this celebration; later, I’ll post about the other ways of seeing it.
Personally, and because my parents were not religious, I learned the Passover story the old fashioned way—by watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments!
Great effects for 1956, but what a crappy movie. Still, as a kid, I loved it even though I understood nothing. The acting was truly laughable, unless you were seven years old. All I remember was Ann Baxter saying over and over, “Oh, Moses, Moses!” and Edward G. Robinson sneering, “Yeah? Where’s yer God NOW, Moses?”
And that very scary scene where this creepy green fog descends onto Egypt and kills the first born. (YIKES-Me! I am the first born too!) The parting of the Red Sea was awesome cool, but I distinctly remember thinking: What happened to all the fish when the sea parted? Are they spinning around in that turbulence?
Instead of posting that interminable movie, the easiest way to let you know about Passover—and also because I am lazy—is with this short video. It is from The History Channel, about five minutes.
The History of Passover
So, to recap, the festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. It commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. And, by following the rituals of Passover, we have the ability to relive and experience the true freedom that our ancestors gained.
Passover is probably the best known of the Jewish holidays, mostly because it ties in with Christian history (the Last Supper was a Passover seder). The seder is the name for the ritual meal we eat, and where we read aloud the story of the Exodus for Egypt. Seder is also the Hebrew word for “order” as in the order in which we tell the story and conduct the ritual.
The highlight of Passover is the two “Seders,” observed on the first two nights of the holiday. The Seder is a fifteen step, family oriented, tradition and ritual packed feast.
The focal points of the Seder are:
- Eating matzah.
- Eating bitter herbs—to commemorate the bitter slavery endured by the Hebrews.
- Drinking four cups of wine or grape juice—a royal drink to celebrate our newfound freedom.
Instead of chametz, we eat matzah— flat unleavened bread. It is a mitzvah to partake of matzah on the two Seder nights (see below for more on this), and during the rest of the holiday it is optional.
- The term “Passover” derives from the Book of Exodus, where the Angel of Death ( the final Plague of Egypt) passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves.
- The recitation of the Haggadah, a liturgy that describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the fulfillment of the biblical obligation to recount to our children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover
- Passover is divided into two parts. a) The first two days and last two days (that commemorate the splitting of the Red sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and we recite blessings over the wine and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. Observant and Orthodox Jews don’t go to work, drive, write or switch on or off electric devices.
- (The “ch” in Hebrew is pronounced like the Scottish in the word “loch.”)
- To commemorate the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, we don’t eat or even retain in our possession any “chametz” from midday of the day before Passover until the conclusion of the holiday. Chametz means leavened grain—any food or drink that contains even a trace of wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt or their derivatives and wasn’t guarded from leavening or fermentation. This includes bread, cake, cookies, cereal, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages. Moreover, almost any processed food or drink can be assumed to be chametz unless certified otherwise.
- Ridding our homes of chametz is an intensive process. It involves a full-out spring-cleaning search-and-destroy mission during the weeks before Passover, and culminates with a ceremonial search for chametz on the night before Passover, and then a burning of the chametz ceremony on the morning before the holiday.
In many homes, in addition to the ritual foods, dinner usually consists of gefilte fish (a kind of fish pate), matzah ball soup (chicken soup with dumplings), and a brisket with lots of potatoes (because we can’t eat grain and gotta get those carbs in!).
(The red stuff in the middle is horseradish and beets, which makes the fish palatable. And makes our eyes tear.)
Matzah Ball Soup
Four Cups of Wine (Yes—FOUR FULL CUPS!)
Brisket Recipe (OY! Fat Dave has a Jewfro.)
Macaroons (which need no flour) are typical for dessert.
Since as a kid I learned the story of Passover from Cecil B. DeMille, it’s a good thing Mel Brooks wasn’t making movies then!
One last thing that I think is so cool—Obama Has a White House Seder.
Tomorrow, I will write about the Seder and its symbolism and later, about what I have learned about the more hidden, sacred meaning of the festival. Happy Passover!