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Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel. Originally a combination of a couple of different spring festivals, it is a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt–especially the night when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague–and of the following day, when the Israelites had to leave Egypt hurriedly. Centered on the family or communal celebration of the seder (ritual meal), Passover is one of the most beloved of all Jewish holidays.
The origins of Passover lie in pre-Israelite spring celebrations of the first grain harvest and the births of the first lambs of the season. Within a Jewish context, however, it celebrates God’s great redemptive act at the time of the Exodus, leading the Israelites out from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Together with Shavout (the Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (The Festival of Booths), Pesach is one of the ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals, during which adult males journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and bask in the divine presence. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the focus of Pesach celebration shifted to the ritual meal, called the seder, that takes place either in the home or in the community.
In anticipation of Pesach, it is traditional to engage in Pesach cleaning. During the holiday, Jews’ food reflects the major theme of Passover, reliving God’s great redemptive act, albeit in a vicarious manner. Because the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise, Jewish law forbids eating (or even possessing) any food that contains leaven. Therefore, a major part of the preparations for Pesach consists of removing all traces of leavened foods from the home and replacing them with unleavened foods (though many Jews prefer to “sell” their unused leaven products to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday). This necessitates both a cleanup and the replacement of one’s ordinary dishes with special Pesach ones. It also requires a shopping expedition to stock the kitchen with special Passover-kosher foods.
The central ritual of Pesach is the seder, a carefully choreographed ritual meal that takes place either in the home or in the community. A number of symbolic foods are laid out on the table, of which the most important are the matzah, the unleavened “bread of affliction,” and the shankbone, which commemorates the Pesach sacrifice in the Temple. The seder follows a script laid out in the Haggadah, a book that tells the story of the redemption from Egypt and thanks God for it. Although the Haggadah is a traditional text, many people–particularly in the modern world–add to it and revise it in accord with their theology and understanding of God’s redemptive actions in the world.
Although the focus of Passover observance is on the home, it should not be forgotten that Pesach is a holiday, on the first and last days of which traditional Judaism prohibits working. There are special synagogue services, including special biblical readings, among which one finds Shir ha-Shirim, “The Song of Songs” and Hallel, Psalms of praise and thanksgiving for God’s saving act in history. The last day of Passover is one of the four times a year that the Yizkor service of remembrance is recited.
The overarching theme of Passover is redemption. After all, this is the holiday that celebrates God’s intervention in history to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom. It is a time to celebrate God as the great liberator of humanity. The divine redemption of the Israelites thus becomes the blueprint for the Jewish understanding of God and divine morality and ethics, which can be seen in Jewish participation at the forefront of movements for social justice.