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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 (134)
September 18, 2014
To Jesusgrc
All that we can see is life; and then there's death. What's beyond that is a mystery. And since we know that life is good, it is natural to see that taking a life is terminally bad; unless, the one who took it can ultimately give it back. The Jews are not celebrating the death of children. They are celebrating freedom from oppression and the beginning of a new and more abundant life.

Since you are on this page, you believe in God or you're at least curious. Whatever the case, your questions seem to be inspired by what's reasonable to you. But your foresight and understanding are limited. To question God's competence by what you see as a bad move is like cringing when you see a chess player sacrifice pieces. But what you don't know is that this player is a grandmaster and his sacrifices will secure a victory in the end.

The life giver is the life taker. His motives are mysterious. But our hope is that ultimately he is just and his plans are righteous.
May 7, 2014
Inniocent children
Thanks, Paul. Appreciate the backup.
Art Frailey
May 5, 2014
To Paul, NC
"...That said there would obviously be some first borns that were children, but the vast majority would be elderly people. "

So, according to your concept, no new families were conceiving either that year or few years prior, making the entire Egyptian population mostly comprised of elderly people.

Of course, that is not a reflection of reality and you know it. Practically every day a new family is bringing their "firt born" into the world. That is a fact the should be obvious to anyone.

Even if this fictional race of mostly elderly people existed, it doesn't take away from the fact that innocent people were unjustly killed for another's crimes.

I believe ALL life is sacred.
May 4, 2014
To Jesusgrc
"To be frank, your comment has to be one of the most ignorant statements I have read so far"

Just saying, Art Frailey is technically correct by saying, "God did not kill innocent children. He only killed the Egyptian firstborns. (Ex 12:12)", mainly because the first born would actually be the oldest person born in a family. That said there would obviously be some first borns that were children, but the vast majority would be elderly people.

How strange it is that all these old fellows were just randomly dying one day. Still , regardless of their age they were still killed for no reason.
May 2, 2014
To Art Frailey
"God did not kill innocent children. He only killed the Egyptian firstborns. (Ex 12:12)"

To be frank, your comment has to be one of the most ignorant statements I have read so far.
April 28, 2014
to Passover confusion
Dear Passover Confusion'
God did not kill innocent children. He only killed the Egyptian firstborns. (Ex 12:12)
Art Frailey
Marion, Il
April 28, 2014
To Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Re: Passover Confusion
Thank you for responding, but I have read your source and did not see an answer to my original questions.

They were very specific in nature and, very important with respect to issues of morality.
I am posting again below in case anyone else can answer those specific questions...

"I'm confused as to why anyone would celebrate the killing of innocent children as punishment for the crimes of others. Wouldn't an all-powerful, omniscient god find a more just way to force the release of his people? How about, punishing the one solely responsible for their enslavement in the first place?"
April 28, 2014
Re: Passover Confusion
This question is addressed in "The Plague Count" on our site and "Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?".
Tzvi Freeman
April 18, 2014
not knowing the jewish calander, how may I determine when the Passover begins?
Karl Morris
Lubbock, TX
April 18, 2014
I wish to record my support of the Jewish people at this time. As a child I saw photographs of the persecution of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. I will never ever forget seeing ladies just like my Aunties naked in the morning cold running around Nazi soldiers who were fully clothed against the cold. I could not understand how this could be?
I went to a Methodist Church as a child but all through my life the images always stayed with me.
As a young adult I met many Jewish people who remain in my heart. I was proud to discover our family had some Jewish antecedents on both sides, notably my maternal grandmother.
But apart from this I want you all to know my thoughts are always with you and I will support and defend you whenever and wherever possible.
My father served with the Australian Army in WW2 in the Middle East and was so impressed with how the Israelis had made the desert bloom!
God save Israel!
Victoria York
Victoria York
Kogarah, NSW, Australia
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