A Little Bit About Passover

One of the author's first Passover seders.


The Israelites’ Exodus out of Egypt is one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people, because it tells the story of how God first contacted the nomadic tribe, introduced the concept of monotheism, and led them out of slavery.

Families celebrate the eight-day festival of Passover in the early Spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, those dates fall on April 19 – April 27.

Unlike most other Jewish holidays, which are celebrated in the synagogue, the Passover Seder is generally conducted in the family home. However, synagogues, schools and community centers do hold communal Seders for the public.

Established thousands of years ago, the Passover Seder has been an effective way of reminding future generations that they come from humble beginnings. Through the use of food imagery, Jews of all ages receive an annual lesson on the story contained in the first book of the Holy Testament; aptly titled, “Exodus”. Throughout the meal, a little handbook—called a Haggadah—is read by everyone at the table; including the children.

One long-standing tradition is for the youngest coherent child at the table to ask “The Four Questions”. Each question begins with the Hebrew phrase: “Ma Nishtana…” This means, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

These questions are asked in a song and are included in the Haggadah as part of the Maggid section. They are designed to get the children more involved in the Seder and make them curious about what is happening in an effort to hold their attention throughout the long process.

The Haggadah Provides Instructions for the Setting of the Seder Table

Placed in the middle of the table are three meaningful items:

  • A plate containing three matzoth (this is the plural of matzo, which is unleavened bread);
  • A special platter holding a shank bone and a cooked or roasted egg, some horseradish (to represent bitter herbs), a compound of fruit, nuts and wine known as Charoseth, and a sprig of parsley.
  • A deep dish full of salt water, which represents the Israelites’ tears as they fled from oppression.

Once the festival candles are lit, the Passover Seder is followed in 14 steps, which include the recitation of prayers, the washing of hands, and eating from the aforementioned foods. These foods represent what the Jews went through during their slavery and subsequent escape. This all sparks a discussion about how the present and future relates to the past.

Jews Survive to Thrive

The Haggadah explains the significance of every sip of wine and each piece of matzo, with the most meaningful part of the Seder taking place when the handbook mentions the ten plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians: Blood, frogs, vermin, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness…

Then, the most impactful event took place when God sent the Angel of Death to kill their first-born sons. This is where the holiday gets its name.

After many failed attempts to get the Egyptian Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt in peace, God instructed Moses to tell every Jewish family to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered Spring lamb. This was meant to be a signal to the Angel of Death to PASS OVER the first-born sons of these homes and spare their lives.

Passover Traditions are Passed Down

The Passover Seder takes place on the first and second days of the holiday, with many families hosting a Seder only on the first day of Passover.

After that, a signature rule of Passover is that Jews cannot eat leavened bread. Matzo—which is made with only flour and water and then cooked very quickly—is eaten as a substitute for bread… and anything else that uses a leavening agent. In fact, the consumption of any food that uses yeast and the fermentation of five types of grain is forbidden Those grains include wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt, and they are known as chametz. Any cake, biscuit, bread or even beer made from these grains is strictly off-limits. Prior to the holiday, everyone makes sure their homes are cleaned out of any trace of chametz.

Dairy, fish, meat, fruits and vegetables don’t involve any leavening agents, so those foods are allowed to be eaten during Passover.

©️Jill Cueni-Cohen