Bar Mitzvah Brochure
Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most commonly observed, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), more than 80% of Jews have attended a Pesach seder.
Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu'ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Pesach are related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesach observances are instituted in Chs. 12-15.
The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottich "loch") comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that G-d "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. In English, the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also reffered to as Chag he-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth (the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cherutenu (the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).
Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves the removal of chametz (leaven; sounds like "hum it's" with that Scottish ch) from our homes. This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from our souls.
Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they were chametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are reffered to as "kitniyot."
We may not eat chametz during Pesach; we may not even own it or derive benefit from it. We may not even feed it to our pets or cattle. All chametz, including utensils used to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew (they can be repurchased after the holiday). Pets' diets must be changed for the holiday, or the pets must be sold to a non-Jew (like the food and utensils, the pets can be repurchased after the holiday ends). You can sell your chametz online at http://www.chabadcenter.org/. I have noticed that many non-Jews and non-observant Jews mock this practice of selling chametz as an artificial technicality. I assure you that this sale is very real and legally binding, and would not be valid under Jewish law if it were not. From the gentile's perspective, the purchase functions much like the buying and selling of futures on the stock market: even though he does not take physical posession of the goods, his temporary legal ownership of those goods is very real and potentially profitable.
The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Pesach is an enormous task. To do it right, you must prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc. After the cleaning is completed, the morning before the seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is undertaken, and any remaining chametz is burned.
The grain product we eat during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. We have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah; it is available in a variety of textures for cooking: matzah flour (finely ground for cakes and cookies), matzah meal (coarsely ground, used as a bread crumb substitute), matzah farfel (little chunks, a noodle or bread cube substitute), and full-sized matzahs (about 10 inches square, a bread substitute).
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for traditional Jews outside Israel), we have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a seder, from a Hebrew root word meaning "order," because there is a specific set of information that must be discussed in a specific order. It is the same root from which we derive the word "siddur" (prayer book). An overview of a traditional seder is included below.
Pesach lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. See Extra Day of Holidays for more information. Work is permitted on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are reffered to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.
Occasionally, Pesach begins on a motzaei Shabbat, that is, on Saturday night after the sabbath has concluded. This will occur in the year 5761 (2001). This complicates the process of preparing for Pesach, because many of the preparations normally undertaken on the day before Pesach cannot be performed on Shabbat.
The Fast of the Firstborn, normally observed on the day before Pesach, is observed on Thursday instead. The search for chametz, normally performed on the night before Pesach, is performed on Thursday night. The seder should be prepaed for as much as possible before Shabbat begins, because time should not be taken away from Shabbat to prepare for Pesach. In addition, there are severe complications dealing with the conflict between the requirement of removing chametz no later than mid-morning on Saturday, the prohibition against eating matzah on the day before the seder, and the requirement of eating three meals with bread during Shabbat! For further details, see an excellent summary from the Orthodox Union, the world's largest, oldest and perhaps most respected kosher certification agency.
The text of the Pesach seder is written in a book called the haggadah. Suggestions for buying a haggadah are included below. The content of the seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew rhyme:
Now, what does that mean?
Many people think of Pesach as a time of deprivation: a time when we cannot eat bread or other leavened foods. This is not the traditional way of viewing the holiday. Pesach is Zeman Herutenu, the Time of Our Freedom, and the joy of that time is evident in the music of the season. There are many joyous songs sung during the seder.
This fruit, nut and wine mix is eaten during the seder. It is meant to remind us of the mortar used by the Jews to build during the period of slavery. It should have a coarse texture. The ingedient quantities listed here are at best a rough estimate; I usually just eye-ball it. The recipe below makes a very large quantity, but we usually wind up making more before the holiday is over. Other fruits or nuts can be used.
Shed the apples. Add all other ingedients. Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until the wine is absorbed by the other ingedients. Serve on matzah. Goes very well with horseradish.
If you want to know more about Pesach, the best place to start is with the haggadah. The haggadah was written as a teaching tool, to allow people at all levels to learn the significance of Pesach and its symbols.
There are a wide variety of Haggadahs available for every political and religious point of view: traditional haggadahs, liberal haggadahs, mystical haggadahs, feminist haggadahs, and others. I have even seen what might be described as an atheist haggadah: one that does not mention the role of G-d in the Exodus.
If you're buying a haggadah for study or collection, there are many haggadahs with extensive commentary or with pictures from illuminated medieval haggadahs. However, if you're buying haggadahs for actual use at a seder, you're best off with an inexpensive paperback. Keep in mind that you'll need one for everybody, you're likely to get food and wine on these things, and you'll be using them year after year.
I'm particularly partial to the Artscroll/Mesorah series' The Family Haggadah. It has the full, Orthodox text of the haggadah in English side-by-side with Hebrew and Aramaic, with complete instructions for preparing for and performing the seder. The translations are very readable and the book includes marginal notes explaining the significance of each paragraph of the text. This book is usually only available at Jewish gift or book stores, and usually sells for about $2.50.
Another good traditional one is Nathan Goldberg's Passover Haggadah. This is the familiar "yellow and ed cover" haggadah that so many of us grew up with. Believe it or not, it is frequently available in grocery stores in the Passover aisle. It usually sells for less than $5, and is often given away free with certain grocery purchases.
Watch out for Christianized versions of the haggadah. The Christian "last supper" is generally believed to have been a Pesach seder, so many Christians recreate the ritual of the seder, and the haggadahs that they use for this purpose tend to reinterpret the significance of the holiday and its symbols to fit into their Christian theology. For example, they say that the three matzahs represent the Trinity, with the broken one representing Jesus on the cross (in Judaism, the three matzahs represent the three Temples, two of which have been destroyed, and the third of which will be built when the moshiach comes). They speak of the paschal lamb as a prophecy of Jesus, rather than a remembrance of the lamb's blood on the doorposts in Egypt. If you want to learn what Pesach means to Jews, then these "messianic" haggadahs aren't for you.
Note: Pronunciations are intended to reflect the way these terms are most commonly pronounced by Jews in the United States, and may not be strictly technically correct.
Pesach will begin on the following days on the American calendar:
For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish Calendars.
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