Passover 2009 begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8. Passover lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days in the rest of the world (seven days for Reform Jews).
Jewish tradition encourages the faithful to begin elucidating Passover-related laws 30 days before the start of the festival. For one thing, the religious dos and don'ts are very detailed. Moreover, the conceptual significance of this holiday is central to the understanding of Judaism.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) commemorates the formative experience of the Jewish people: their transformation from scattered tribes indentured in Egypt to a nation on the road to redemption. The Bible relates in the Book of Exodus that after hundreds of years of slavery, God smote the hardhearted dictator Pharaoh with Ten Plagues until he finally acceded to the demand relayed by Moses: Let My people go that they may serve Me! (Exodus 7:16)
As the Israelites hastily prepared for their precipitous flight from Egypt, they had no time to allow their bread to rise. Instead they baked matza, a flat, yeastless cracker of flour and water.
At the last minute, Pharaoh changed his mind and gave chase; God parted the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on miraculously dry land while causing the pursuing Egyptians, along with their horses and chariots, to drown in the briny deep.
How to prepare for Passover:
* Rid yourself of chametz, or leavened products. Forbidden foodstuffs include bread, cake, crackers, pasta, beer and whiskey. For devout Jews, pre-Passover cleaning is spring cleaning on steroids as they relentlessly expunge both bread crumbs and specks of dirt from their homes.
* Menu planning: substitute matza for bread, use potato flour instead of wheat flour, and for alcoholic refreshment stick to wine or brandy.
* The night before Passover begins, go through your home with a candle to seek out unnoticed bits of leftover chametz. The next morning, burn them.
* This removal of chametz can be understood on a metaphorical level as well; one can perform an introspective examination and root out such unwanted traits as pride and vanity (symbolized by yeast, the leavening agent which puffs up chametz).
On the first night of Passover (the first two nights, outside of Israel), a ceremonial meal called a seder is held, usually in the company of family and friends. The seder, replete with symbolism, revolves around bringing the Exodus story to life. The central axis is the question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Various forms of that question, as well as all others, are encouraged.
At the seder, while the participants recline on pillows, the Haggada, which recounts the story of the Exodus, is read, and various food items that recall slavery and/or freedom are consumed. These include matza; maror (bitter herbs); charoset, a sweet brownish mixture usually made of apples and nuts that represents the mortar the slaves used to build bricks; and karpas vegetables dipped into salt water, which represents tears. Four cups of wine are drunk at specified points in the ritual, and a fifth cup is poured for the prophet Elijah, who, according to tradition, visits every seder table. A roasted piece of meat symbolizing the discontinued Paschal sacrifice is present but, ever since the destruction of the Temple, is not eaten. See The Seder Plate.
The other six days:
The Biblical Song of Songs is read during synagogue services on the Saturday that falls during Passover (the second if there is more than one). On the final night of Passover, some Hassidic Jews and others recall the splitting of the Red Sea — which, according to tradition, happened on that day — by gathering to sing songs of praise to God, with a bowl of water on the table before them. Chabad Jews dedicate a special meal on this day to the Messiah, complete with another four cups of wine.
Did you know?
* To produce Passover matza, flour must remain in contact with water for no longer than 18 minutes before it is baked.
* Coke makes a kosher-for-Passover version, substituting sugar for corn syrup in its recipe (Ashkenazi Jews customarily refrain from eating corn on Passover).
* Moses, the leader who was central to the biblical account of the Exodus, is notably absent from the Haggada, the rabbinic retelling of the story. This is to emphasize the divine, miraculous nature of the event.
* In 2000, the last year for which statistics were available, Israelis spent 43 million hours cleaning their homes for Passover. Of these, 29 million hours were spent by women, 11 million by men, and the remaining 3 million by persons employed as cleaners.
* Some believe that Jesus' Last Supper was a seder.
* What's the difference between Israelis and Israelites? One third fewer calories.