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What Is Passover?

What Is Passover?

The holiday’s history and observances

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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.

NO CHAMETZ

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.

MATZAH

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 SEDERS

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 (153)
April 12, 2015
Regarding the March 31 statement that it is the traditions (correct or not) that set Jews apart is interesting - I had thought that it was G_d who set the Jews apart when He chose Jacob rather than Esau. I do agree that traditions of clothing and food do indeed distinguish a Jew from other nations; however, it is hoped that these behaviors are based exclusively on the scriptures. Some religions are ever changing based on the climate of the day; Judaism seems to establish certain traditions hundreds of years after the original scripture was given and then claim that these "new" traditions must never be changed.
Fred Flinstone
April 9, 2015
Charles Scarborough, Hag Sameach. That's good for all holidays.
Beverly Margolis-Kurtin
Texas
March 31, 2015
Passover Cakes and Kitniyot
If one is looking for scholarly evidence for all we do as Jews I believe one would be come quickly disillusioned. So much of what we do as Jews is sheer nonsense and cannot be answered in any logical way however it is these very traditions that set us apart and help us remember we are Jews and our special relationship to God, For one week we can forget the beans and eat the Chocolate Cake.. .
Anonymous
March 29, 2015
Passover on 14th of Nisan
Art Frailey's comments on Feb 16th indicating that the Passover should be celebrated on the 14th of Nisan rather than the 15th of Nisan seem to make sense. Wouldn't the firstborn of the Israelites have been killed by the angel if they had waited until the 15th? (day late and a shekel short?)
Fred Flinstone
March 27, 2015
What would be an appropriate phrase to wish one a happy Passover?
Charles Scarborough
Hopkins
March 24, 2015
Re: Passover Cakes and Kitniyot
Thank you for the link, although it didn't really answer the question. Moreover, I found this line interesting, "...once a custom has become accepted, it is binding and has the force of Jewish law". Really? Accepted by whom? Israel has already rejected the ban on eating kitniyot during Passover, as have many Jewish communities in the United States. How many more do we need before we can overturn this archaeic and silly misinterpretation of G-od's laws?
Anonymous
March 24, 2015
To Fred
The first seder is on the eve of the 15th as Biblically mandated and as established according to the Jewish calendar. The Passover offering was brought on the afternoon of the 14th, but the Seder was held and the holiday of Passover began, on the 15th which is why the Seder is then.
Mrs. Chana Benjaminson
mychabad.org
March 23, 2015
Re: Passover Cakes and Kitniyot
With regards to the question of why Passover cakes that look just like the real thing aren't considered Kitniyot, and are permitted on Passover, please see the articleWhy Aren’t Kosher-for-Passover Cakes Kitniyot
Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org
March 23, 2015
Just curious why the Passover is observed on the 15th when the first Passover was observed on the 14th. I understand that there is an 8 day festival that follows, but it still seems that Passover should be on the same day as when Moses celebrated it
Fred Flinstone
Colorado
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.
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