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What Is Passover?

What Is Passover?

The holiday’s history and observances


The eight-day 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.

The Story in a Nutshell

After many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, G‑d saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), G‑d visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, G‑d spared the Children of Israel, “passing over” their homes—hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day, and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.

Click here for the full Passover story.

Passover Observances

Passover is divided into two parts:

The first two days and last two days (the latter commemorating the splitting of the Red Sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and kiddush and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. We don’t go to work, drive, write or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to carry outdoors (click here for the details).

The middle four days are called chol hamoed, semi-festive “intermediate days,” when most forms of work are permitted.


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 which 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. Chametz that cannot be disposed of can be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday.

For more on this topic, see Operation Zero Chametz.


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.

Click here for more on matzah.


The highlight of Passover is the Seder, observed on each of 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 Israelites.
  • Drinking four cups of wine or grape juice—a royal drink to celebrate our newfound freedom.
  • 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.

Visit our Seder Section for guides, insights, tip, and a Global Seder Directory.

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Discussion (144)
February 24, 2015
re: Passover Cakes and Kitniyot
Dear Anonymous--

Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer to your question. I've asked it on at least three other boards with no response. I'm convinced that there is no answer. We are told that we can't eat beans on Passover because we might confuse them with flour (right--as if anyone would confuse a green bean with wheat flour), but then we are allowed to freely eat all kinds of cakes and cookies on Passover that are made with matzo meal, even though these look exactly like regular, chometz cakes. For some reason, no one is worried about Passover confusion in this case.

Many of the Jewish rules simply don't make any sense and are completely arbitrary, although sometimes experts will attempt a post-hoc explanation.
Susan K.
February 19, 2015
"The Sanhedrin is no longer in existence, and this type of decision can only be made by that assembly."

So is this why we can't eat beans on Passover because dried and ground they might "resemble" wheat flour and we might confuse the two, but we are allowed (and even encouraged) to eat Kosher-for-Passover cake mixes even though these look exactly like their non-Passover counterparts?

The point is that we continue to make arbitrary decisions on Jewish laws all the time, with or without the The Sanhedrin.
February 2, 2015
I love this site it helped me so much try to find social studies definitions.
January 2, 2015
we can and should have meaningful discussions that's what we are here for
November 17, 2014
To Anonymous
We can and should have meaningful discussions, that's what we are here for.

Your premise that Jews are going against G-d's will by observing eight days is not correct as according to Jewish law the rabbinical assembly, the Sanhedrin, were empowered by Moses to be the channel through which Torah was taught and lived and the ability to make the necessary decisions which would allow all Jews to observe the Torah. The Sages were empowered to add to the Torah when they deemed necessary, it is not considered a sin.

In this specific case the decision was made regarding observing holidays an extra day so that all Jews could keep them in the correct time wherever in the world they lived. In other words, if not for that additional day, Jews who lived far from Jerusalem would have observed the holiday on the wrong day. So the Sanhedrin used the power given to them to ensure that would not happen, to ensure that the Torah is kept as it should be.

Now, why don't the rabbis change the law today? The Sanhedrin is no longer in existence, and this type of decision can only be made by that assembly. So we await the arrival of the Messiah and we will see what will happen then.
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
November 17, 2014
I'm sorry, but I simply don't know what to say at this point. You responded to the only point in my post that I specifically said that I wasn't going to address. I wasn't talking about calendars, or why we continue to observed holidays for a specific length of time even with improved calendars. I was talking about the original decision to disobey G-D's command to observe Passover for seven days.

I don't understand why we, as Jews, cannot have a meaningful discussion on subjects like these. Simply continuing to say that change is bad and all of the decisions made by our ancestors must have been correct does nothing to move the issue forward or bring enlightenment to us or to our children.

Thank you.
November 16, 2014
To Anonymous
As Rabbi Freeman commented on that article "Today we have a calendar and we know when the holiday is supposed to be. Why do we continue keeping two days in the diaspora? But the fact is, when the calendar was established, the rabbis advised the Jews of the diaspora to continue keeping two days. The simple explanation is that they wisely didn't want to bring about radical change in those communities—which, by human nature, could end up as the beginning of a slippery slope. Still, everything in Torah has meaning and purpose, not just as a safeguard, but in its essential content. And here too, we see that in the diaspora two days are needed to achieve the same sense of rest and joy that one feels immediately when living in the Holy Land."
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
November 14, 2014
Not really an answer....
I appreciate the response, but simply directing me to the standard retort does not answer my question. I am well aware of why we have chosen to observe an extra day of Passover. What I am suggesting is that this choice was a mistake. In adding that extra day, we are going against G-d's direction. He specifically commanded us to eat unleavened bread for seven days. Adding an extra day to make sure that we are not shortchanging does not make us more holy; rather, we are disobeying His order just as much as if were were to celebrate Passover for only 5 or 6 days. It seems to me that arbitrarily re-interpreting G-d's commands to what we think he meant is a dangerous business, and to be avoided. On this point He was quite clear (i.e. He did not say "at least seven days.")

I'm not even going to address the point here that we now have precision time-keeping devices and that extra day is simply no long necessary.
November 13, 2014
To Anonymous
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
October 16, 2014
Why 8 Days?
"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread." Exodus 12:15-20

If G-d commanded us to eat unleavened bread for seven days, then why are we disobeying Him by eating it for eight? It seems to me that if G-d had wanted for us to eat unleavened bread for eight days, then that's what he would have commanded us to do. In my opinion, observing Passover for 8 days is just as much of a violation of G-d's order as if we would observe it for only 6 days.
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