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The Passover Seder | Recipe for Charoset | List of Dates

Pesach (Passover)

Level:  Basic

Passover is probably the best known of the Jewish holidays among Gentiles, mostly because it ties in with Christian history (the Last Supper was apparently a Passover seder), and because a lot of its observances have been reinterpreted by Christians as Messianic and signs of Jesus.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan.  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 Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery.  This story is told in Exodus Chapters 1-15.  Many of the Passover observances are instituted in Chapters 12-15.

The name "Passover" refers to the idea that God "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt.  In Hebrew, it is known as Pesach (that "ch" is pronounced as in the Scottish "loch"), which is based on the Hebrew root meaning pass over.  The holiday is also referred to as Chag ha-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth (the Festival of Matzahs), and Zeman Cherutenu (the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).

Probably the most significant observance related to Passover involves the removal of chametz (leaven; sounds like "chum it's" with that Scottish ch) from our homes.  This commemorates the idea that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their dough 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 24 minutes after coming into contact with water (many are accustomed limit this to 18 minutes).  Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they were chametz.  All of these items have been used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion.  Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot".

We may not eat chametz during Passover; we may not even own it or derive benefit from it.  We may not even feed it to our pets or cattle.  All chametz must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew, and utensils used to cook chametz must be properly cleaned and stored away or specially prepared for use during Passover.

The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task.  It is often said that to do it right, you must 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.; while this description of the process is exaggeration, it is indeed a lot of hard work.  After the cleaning is completed, the night before the seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is undertaken, and in the morning any remaining chametz is burned.

The grain product we eat during Passover 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 in 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), matzah meal (coarsely ground), "matzah farfel" (little chunks, used as a noodle substitute), and full-sized matzahs (about 10 inches square, a bread substitute).

The day before Passover, it is customary for the firstborn to fast; this is a minor fast for all firstborn males, commemorating the idea that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague.  The fast is not obligatory, but it is commonly observed.

On the first night of Passover (first two nights for 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.  It is the same root from which we derive the word "siddur" (prayer book).  There is a specific set of acts, speeches, and blessings that must be covered in a specific order.  An overview of a traditional seder is included later in this page and our complete parallel Hebrew-English Seder according to Mishneh Torah is also available.

Passover 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.  Some work is permitted on the intermediate days.  These intermediate days on which work is partly permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.

The Passover Seder

The text of the Passover seder is generally printed in a book called the Haggadah.  Our complete parallel Hebrew-English Seder according to Mishneh Torah is available here online for study or printing out for use on the night of the Seder; if you are used to a much longer Haggadah than ours, please note that nothing that the Law requires has been left out, and some things left out of other versions of the Haggadah are left in as they were originally, but later forgotten.  The content of the typical seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew folk rhyme:

Kaddesh, Urechatz,
Karpas, Yachatz,
Maggid, Rachtzah,
Motzi, Matzah,
Maror, Korech,
Shulchan Orech,
Tzafun, Barech,
Hallel, Nirtzah

Now, what does that mean?

1.  Kaddesh:  Sanctification
The word is derived from the Hebrew root Qof-Dalet-Shin, meaning holy.  This is a series of blessings over wine in honor of the holiday, with a cup of wine poured for each person instead of the single cup for shabbat and other holidays.  After the blessings, a whole cup of wine is to be drunk by each person while reclining on the left side (the same is true of the other three obligatory cups of wine, which should each hold 5 oz. or more of wine; grape juice may be used by those who prefer not to drink so much wine).
2.  Urechatz:  Washing
A washing of the hands after a blessing just as before a meal, in preparation for eating the Karpas.
3.  Karpas:  Vegetable
A vegetable (classically karpas, celery in Hebrew, but anything but maror will do) is dipped in charoset and eaten (today, most erroneously dip in salt water or vinegar instead).  The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people.  The charoset is a thick mixture described below that symbolizes the clay and mortar used by the Jews in building during our slavery in Egypt.
4.  Yachatz:  Breaking
One of the matzahs on the table is broken.  Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the "afikomen" (see below); this step is custom and is not required.
5.  Maggid:  The Story
A second cup is poured for each person, and "the story" is told over it.  This is a retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover.  The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people:  the wise son, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked son, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple son, who needs to know the basics; and the son who is unable to ask, the one who does not even know enough to know what he needs to know.
At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk while reclining.
6.  Rachtzah:  Washing
A second washing of the hands after a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.
7.  Motzi:  Blessing over Bread
The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread (whether leavened or unleavened matzah), is recited over the matzah.
8.  Matzah:  Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and matzah of the volume of an average olive is eaten.
9.  Maror:  Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over the leaves and stems of certain bitter vegetables (most properly romaine lettuce, endive, chicory, and the like; sometimes raw horseradish root is used instead, but that is a European substitute for the original maror, probably because real maror was not locally available), and the volume of an average olive of it is eaten.  This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery.  The maror is eaten dipped in charoset, like the karpas.
10.  Korech:  The Sandwich
Then we eat a sandwich of maror, matzah, and charoset.
11.  Shulchan Orech:  Dinner
The eating continues in a festive meal.  There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten).  Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal.
12.  Tzafun:  The Last Matzah
At the end of the meal, each person must eat the volume of an average olive of matzah, and that is the last thing eaten till morning.  Different families have different traditions relating to this matzah, popularly known as the afikomen.  Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back.  Others have the parents hide it.  The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.
13.  Barech:  Grace after Meals
A third cup of wine is poured for each person, and grace after meals is recited.  This is similar to the grace that would be said after any meal, with a few additions mentioning the holiday.  At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk while reclining.
14.  Hallel:  Praises
The fourth cup is poured for each person.  Several more psalms and a special blessing are recited.  A blessing is recited over this last obligatory cup of wine and it is drunk while reclining.
15.  Nirtzah:  Closing
Today, a statement is made that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Mashiach will come within the next year); originally, this wish just opened the Magid.  This is often followed by various optional hymns and stories.  Those who spend the whole night in telling the story of the Exodus are to be praised.

Recipe for Charoset

This fruit, nut, and wine mix is eaten during the Passover seder (and often, during the whole Passover week).  It is meant to remind us of the clay and mortar used by the Jews to build during the period of slavery.  It should have a coarse texture.  The ingredient quantities listed here are at best a rough estimate.  Other nuts or fruits such as dried dates, figs, and raisins can be used.

Grate the apples (and grind the dry fruits, if used).  Add all other ingredients.  Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until the liquid is absorbed by the other ingredients; you may need to add more wine, if it turns out too thick.

List of Dates

Passover begins on the following days on the civil calendar:

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