The festival of Passover is arguably the most widely observed of all the Jewish holidays. This year, Passover begins at sundown on Friday night, April 19, and lasts for seven or eight days. It is customary outside of Israel to add an eighth day to the festival. In Israel and among Reform Jews, the tradition is to follow the biblical injunction of seven days’ observance.
The essential message of Passover is one of freedom and the will to persevere with faith against all odds. The story of the Exodus is a metaphor that is appreciated by Jews and all people of faith.
The essence of Passover (in Hebrew, Pesach) asks Jews to remember their past history as slaves in Egypt and resolve to never be a part of taking advantage of the less fortunate. Because we as Jews know what it was like to be harshly mistreated, we must stand up to all modern forms of subjugation.
The origins of Passover are to be found in the Bible (Exodus), and the name Passover refers to the idea that God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the 10th Plague visited upon the Egyptians, namely the slaying of the first born at God’s command.
There are many traditions associated with Passover. The most important aspect of Passover is the Seder, a dramatic reenactment of Jewish history. The Seder (literally the Hebrew word for “order”) is recited through story and song at the dining room table, and a festive meal is always included in the proceedings.
Passover is essentially a family and home observance. Special foods play a prominent role. Matzah, or unleavened bread, is eaten not only at the Seder but throughout the week. Many Jews eschew bread products and certain grains in keeping with the description of how the Jews, in their haste to flee Egypt, did not have enough time to wait for their bread to rise.
Highlights of the Passover Eve observance include: the drinking of four cups of wine, and the expectation of Elijah’s visit. The Prophet Elijah is the legendary character whose appearance signals the initiation of the Messianic Age. We open the door for Elijah, welcome him into our homes and our hearts, and even have a cup of wine waiting for him at the table. Another tradition is the search for the missing matzah (Afikomen, a word with Greek/Hebrew origins), which is hidden by the head of the household so that children have an opportunity to search and find this unleavened bread. Once the Afikomen is returned to the table, the Passover Seder can proceed; and the children are rewarded for their diligence.
When Moses at God’s command said to Pharoah, “Let my people go,” Moses was speaking on behalf of all the oppressed of the world, both then and now. This refrain remains the Seder’s undercurrent as we celebrate Jewish freedom and pray for renewed freedom around the globe.
The very last element in the Passover Seder is the heartfelt refrain, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Our prayer represents our attachment to the land of Israel and our ancestral connection to the Holy Land.
Rabbi Barry Altman serves Meridian’s temple Congregation Beth Israel.