Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Pesah, or Passover, is one of the most important and widely-observed holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Passover bears several names in the Hebrew Bible.

It is variously called hag ha-pesah (the Festival of the Passover offering), hag ha-matzot (the Festival of Matzah), and hag ha-aviv (the Spring Festival). In rabbinic tradition, Passover is known as zeman hayrutaynu, the season of our freedom. Each name alludes to one aspect or symbol of this multi-faceted festival: the Paschal sacrifice; the matzah (unleavened bread) eaten throughout the holiday; the spring harvest season; and Passover's historical basis in the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

Jewish tradition calls for the removal of all leavened products (hametz) from the home for the duration of the Passover holiday.
Traditional Jews are scrupulous about this precept, and thoroughly clean their homes for days and weeks in preparation for the onset of Pesah.

The highlight of the Passover observance is the seder, a colorful ceremony celebrated in Jewish homes on the first two nights of Pesah. Family and friends gather to read and chant the Haggadah, a book of prayers, songs and stories about the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. Familiar symbols on the seder plate include matzah, a shankbone (recalling the Paschal sacrifice), a hard-boiled egg (representing the hagigah, or regular festival sacrifice), a green vegetable (symbolic of spring), bitter herbs (recalling the bitterness of slavery), and haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts and honey representing the mortar used by the Israelites in their forced labor).

Four cups of wine are imbibed during the evening, and a fifth cup of wine is reserved for the prophet Elijah, an honored guest at the seder. Several customs are designed to attract and retain the interest of the children, including chanting the Four Questions, singing favorite Passover melodies, and the ritual of the Afikomen (a special hidden piece of matzah which the children search for and then hold for "ransom" until they receive a reward from the seder leader).

In Israel, Passover is a seven-day holiday, with the first and last days observed as full days of rest (yom tov), and the middle five days celebrated as hol ha-moed (intermediate days of the holiday). In the Diaspora (outside the land of Israel), Passover is an eight-day holiday, with the first two and last two days observed as full days of rest, and the middle four days as hol ha-moed.

The traditional festival greeting Jews extend to one another is hag samayah (happy holiday). Since Pesah is a special holiday with unique dietary restrictions, many Jews offer a slightly different greeting during Passover: Hag kasher v'samayah (a happy and kosher holiday).

Happy Passover! May this joyous festival help us to truly appreciate the priceless gift of freedom.



1) The nights of the seders are replete with rich symbolism. How the table is set and the seder plate itself is full of significance. On most holidays and on Shabbat, we set out two challot in order to remember that when the Israelites wandered in the desert, two portions of mannah would fall on Friday, enough to eat on both Friday and Saturday, for none would fall on Shabbat in order that no one might be tempted to go and gather up any mannah which might fall on Saturday, thereby violating the Shabbat. However, on Pesach, we set the table with three matzahs. We'll discuss this more later.

2) The seder plate is filled with different kinds of symbolic food which we will explain later. It is set with Karpas, which means a vegetable hors d'oeuvre, and it is usually parsley or celery. There is also a dish of salt water to dip the Karpas into and eat. Two commemorate dishes which are set but not eaten contain the Zeroa, or shankbone, representing the Paschal sacrifice and a Betzah, or roasted egg which represents the Chagigah, or festival offering. There is also Maror, or bitter herbs, and is usually horseradish, and some seder plates have a space for another kind of maror called chazeret, which is usually romaine lettuce. This is so that the horseradish maror is eaten when it comes time to eat it by itself, and the romaine lettuce chazeret is eaten in the Hillel sandwich which we'll talk more about later. And Finally, there is Charoset, a preserve representing bricks and mortar, and is prepared of chopped and pounded fruits, such as apples, nuts and almonds, mixed with cinnamon and wine.


3) Before we discuss the specific details and features of the seder, it is imortant to understand that there is an overall structure and movement of the entire ritual meal. In fact, the word "seder" itself means, in Hebrew, "order". Every element of the ritual meals has its own place and significance.

4) There are exactly 15 parts of the seder which in itself is a significant number, for there are also exactly 15 verses in the song Dayenu describing the 15 stages of redemption that God wroght for the people of Israel when redeeming them from Egypt. There were also 15 steps in the Temple leading from the ower courtyeard into the sanctuary itself, and on these steps would stand the Levites who would sing the 15 Psalms known as Shir HaMalot, or, "Songs of Ascent" sung on the pigrimage festivals to Jerusalem. Also, according to one count, there are exactly 15 generations from Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, till King Solomon, the builder of the first Temple to God. And finally, one of the Hebrew names for God, "Yah" (yod, heh) has the numerical equivelent of 15!

5) These 15 parts of the seder are as follows:

1) Kadesh 6) Ra-chatza 11) Shulchan Orech
2) Ur-chatz 7) Motzi 12) Tzafun
3) Karpas 8) Matzah 13) Barech
4) Ya-chatz 9) Maror 14) Hallel
5) Magid 10) Korech 15) Nirtzah


1) Wine is the symbol of joy, gladness, for in appropriate amounts, it lifts our spirits. Wine is also the symbol of redemption, as it says in Psalm 116:13, "The cup of salvation will I raise, and I will call upon the name of God."

2) There are actually 4 cups of wine to be consumed during the seder, and these four cups are based upon a verse in Exodus 6:6-7, where God describes the Divine plan for redeeming the people of Israel to Moses. God says,
"...I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am the Lord."

3) The four cups of wine are to match and commemorate the four expressions of redemption in these verses. The number 4 is also a symbolic number and appears again through the seder: not only are there 4 cups of wine to match the four terms of redemption, but there are four questions asked during the seder and there are four sons described in the parable later on. Also, when Joseph interprets the dream of Pharoah's former cupbearer while in prison, the dream of Pharoah's cupbearer mentions the word "cup of wine" four times (Gen.40:10-13).

4) At a traditional, regular holiday meal, there would be two cups of wine anyway, the first would be to make Kiddush, or sanctification, and the second would be used in making the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals, and indeed, two of the cups of wine during the seder are used for this, but there are two extra cups; one of these cups is used to conclude the first half of the seder to mark the end of the telling of the story part of the seder, (G'al Yisrael), and the final cup is used to conclude the second half of the seder, when we conclude the recitation of the Hallel, a series of Psalms recited in the synagogue on joyous events, such as holidays (Melech m'hulal b'tishbachot). This, then, explains the place and funtion of all four cups of wine. Also, each cup of wine has its own special blessing said before we drink it. This is because each cup is a separate stage of redemption by itself. One cup by itself isn't a fulfillment of God's redemption by itself. We were redeemed from Egypt in stages, and so too, redemption in our time will not happen all at once, but in stages.

5) However, while everyone at a seder must drink these four cups of wine, there is actually a fifth cup of wine which is poured but not drunk. And this fifth cup is the result of a compromise. There was an argument among the rabbis in the Talmud as to whether there is actually a fifth term of redemption in the verses above ("bring"). Some rabbis said that this was in fact a continuing part of the redemptive process, while others said that since it had not yet happened, we cannot drink of cup of wine in its honor. Therefore, the rabbis compromised and declared that this fifth cup of wine was to be poured, but not drunk. And ultimately, when Elijah the prophet comes to announce the coming of the Mashiach, then he will decide all unresolved matters of Jewish Law and determine whether we should in fact drink this fifth cup of wine or whether we should even pour it at all! Therefore, this cup is called, the Cup fo Elijah, which in popular folklore, came to be thought of as a cup of wine poured for Elijah to drink!! Rabbi Moses Maimonides said that the drinking of this fifth cup is optional and some modern rabbis have said that we should in fact, drink this fifth cup of wile in gratitude for the new State of Israel.

6) The first cup of wine is drunk at this point.


Many of the customs and rituals of the seder are derived from Greco-Roman customs at banquets. One of these rituals is the cleansing of the diners' hands before eating anything.

2) On Shabbat or a holiday, it is cutomary to wash the hands and make a blessing before eating the bread, however, this washing is done without a blessing because this washing is done before the eating of a green vegetable. In the Jewish legal conception of the significance of food, vegetables are considered as less significant than baked bread. Therefore, this washing before eating a vegetable does not require a blessing.


1) Another Greco-Roman custom which we follow to this day is the eating of some kind of green vegetable as an hors d'oeuvre before the main meal. Karpas is a Greek word for vegetable.

2) The Karpas also has some ritual significance as well. Since Pesach is a Spring festival, the greenery represents the coming Spring and re-birth of nature. This is symbolic of the birth of the Jewish nation, as well.

3) The greenery is also symbolic of the hyssop which was dipped in the blood of the Paschal lamb to mark the doors of the Israelits in Egypt, so it is also a symbol of redemption.

4) And finally, we eat the karpas, which is dipped in salt water, symbolizing the tears of our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, in order to arouse the curiousity of the children at the table, to inspire them to ask questions about the seder so that we may explain the story of the Exodus from Egypt.


1) As was explained earlier, usually, there are just two loaves of bread on Shabbat or a holiday, why is there three matzahs on the seder nights? Two are for the holiday and need to remain whole so that we may say the blessing over bread on them, and the third matzah is to break in half, one half is the Afikomen which is hidden away (and we'll explain it later) and the remaining half is ultimately eaten when it comes time to eat the matzah.

2) The three matzah's also have symbolic meanings: they represent the three Patriarchs of the people of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They also represent the three stratas of ancient Israelites, Kohanim (Priests), Levites (Temple workers), and Israelites (everyone else). They also represent the three occasions when a Thanksgiving sacrifice would be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem a) on being released from Prison, b) upon recovering from a sickness, and c) upon crossing an ocean or desert. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt combined all of these together!

3) The matzah is also referred to in the book of Deuteronomy (16:3) as Lechem Oni, or "the bread of poverty or affliction". This is because matzah was the type of bread which the Israelites made in Egypt when they were slaves. Since their time wasn't their own, they had to make whatever provisions they could in the little time they had. Matzah is also flat and lowly, a symbol of humility, servitude. and degredation. So matzah was a slave bread. But it is also the bread of freedom, for another translation of Lechem Oni is "bread of haste", for when the Israelites were redeemed, they had little time to prepare and so were only able to bake matzah in the little time they had to prepare to leave Egypt.

4) Another explanation of Lechem One is "bread over when we talk", for the seder nights are to be spent in discussion of the Exodus from Egypt, when each Jew is obliged to consider themselves as if they themselves had been in Egypt and were redeemed. This discussion involves and takes place around this Lechem Oni, the matzah.

5) Also, Ya-chatz involves breaking the middle matzah but not eating it, which is also to arouse the curiousity of the children at the seder.


1) The Magid is the central part of the seder and the longest, as it contains the repetition of the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

2) It begins with the recitation of a paragraph indicating that the matzah is Lechem Oni, "the bread of affliction", and is actually an invitation to anyone who is needy to come and join the seder.

3) Next comes the four questions which are usually asked by the youngest person at the seder. These four questions concern the rituals and customs of the seder and are framed from a child's perspective who sees the actions but doesn't comprehend the meaning and significance behind them. The answers then given tell the story of the Exodus

4) There are actually two sets of answers to the four questions based on an argument between two rabbis in the Talmud. These two rabbis argued over the starting point of the story of our liberation; was our true liberation from physical servitude, and so we need only begin the story with the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, or does the story of "servitude" and liberation go even further back to before the beginning of monotheism? The Haggadah actually gives both answers, but begins with the answer, "We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt..." In other words, first we are obliged to discuss our physical bondage and liberation. Later on, the Haggadah re-tells the story of our liberation from a deeper, more spiritual point of view, beginning with the words, "In the beginning, our ancestors were worshippers of idols..." and proceeds to outline the development of the people of Israel coming to worship the One God of Heaven and Earth.

5) Perhaps one of the most well-known sections of the Magid part of the seder is the story of the Four Sons to whom we should address our answers regarding the telling of the story of the Exodus; these four sons are the Wise son, the Wicked son, the Simple son, and the son Who Doesn't Know How to Ask. The origin of these four "types" of children are actually in the Torah where, in reference to Pesach, the Torah describes what you should say to your children when they ask you about the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach. However, each of the four times this is mentioned in the Torah, the child's question is framed somewhat differently and the answers given are somewhat different. These difference were later expanded upon and became the bases of the four types of children.

a) Deuteronomy 6:20-1; "When your child asks you tomorrow, 'What are the testimonies, the statues, and the judgements which the Lord our God commanded you?' Then you shall say to your child, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand..." This became the basis for the Wise Child.

b) Exodus 12:26-7; "And when your children say to you, 'What is this service to you?' Then you shall say, 'This is the Passover sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt..." This became the basis for the Wicked Child, because he says "you" and doesn't include himself.

c) Exodus 13:14; "And when your child asks you tomorrow, 'What is this?' You shall say, "With a mighty hand God brough us out of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.'" This became the basis for the Simple Child.

d) Exodus 13:8; And you shall tell your child on that day, 'Because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.'" This became the basis for the Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask.

6) The next and longest section within the Magid is a lengthy rabbinic exposition called, "Tzei U'le-Mad", or "Go and Study". The Haggadah quotes Deuteronomy 26:5-8, which deals with the story of the Exodus, and gives the copious rabbinic commentary on this passage. The type of commentary that is included is called Midrash. The reason this Midrashic commentary is so long is that the rabbis of the Talmud believed that everthing in the Torah, every phrase, every word and individual points in the text, contained hidden meansings which Moses was only able to hint at, and therefore, it was left for later generations of rabbis and commentators to uncover and expound all of these hints.

7) This Midrashic section culminates in the recitation of the Ten Plagues which God sent against Egypt. There is a Midrash which states that when god ultimately drowned the Egyptian army in the Sea of Reeds, the Heavenly Angels wanted to sing praises before God, but God rebuked them saying, "Silence! Would you sing to Me while my children are drowning?!" this Midrash shows that even though God was delivering the Israelites, God still had feelings of pity and mercy towards the Egyptians whom God was drowning! Based on this sentiment, as each of the Ten Plagues are recited, we dip a finger into our cup of wine and spill out a drop for each of the Ten Plagues on to the rim of our plates to show that our cup of gladness has been diminished because our redemption had to come about through the death of others. It is also important to remember not to lick our fingers after we are through with this as that would contradict the entire symbolic act of spilling out 10 drops of wine for it would seem as if the death of the Egyptians was "sweet" to us!

8) The next part of the Magid is a quote from the Mishnah of Pesachim, the volume in the Talmud which deals with the proper way to conduct a seder. It is a quote by one of the greatest of these early rabbis, Rabban Gamliel who said that a seder is not complete unless three fundamental elements of the seder are mentioned and explained, and these three things are:

a) The Paschal Lamb which used to be sacrificed then eaten, and is a symbol of the fact that God passed over the houses of the Israelites.

b) The Matzah which is a symbol of the speed and haste in which the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, not having the time to bake full loaves of bread.

c) The Maror, which in Hebrew means, "bitter", for the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Israelites through slavery and hard work.

9) The Magid section concludes with the recitation of the first part of the Hallel, the series of Psalms, (113-118) which are sung in synagogues on festivals.

10) The second cup of wine is drunk at the conclusion of the Magid section.


1) On Shabbat and holidays, before the traditional blessing over the bread is made, it is a custom to wash your hands and recite a special blessing over washing your hands. This is because in ancient times, when the Temple still stood, the common Jews would obliged to pay certain taxes in order to sustain the Priests and Levites, the Temple workers. Part of these taxes were paid in actual food and produce. Because this food was donated to the Temple, and thus to God, it acquired a certain holy status. Therefore, the priests who would eat this food, had to eat it in a state of ritual purity, which meant undergoing a ritual immersion in water.

2) After the destruction of the Temple and the elimination of sacrifices, Temple taxes and priests, the rabbis who created Judaism, sought to retain as much of the symbolism of the Temple as possible. Therefore, the rabbis of the Talmud instituted the ritual washing of hands, accompanied by a blessing, so that all Jews may experience, at least symbolically, the significance of what it must have been like to eat Shabbat or holiday food in a similar state of ritual purity. The washing of the hands takes the place of an actual immersion.

3) Because the washing of the hands and saying the blessing is a direct preparation for making the blessing over the bread and eating it, the act of washing the hands is considered one act with blessing and eating the bread. Therefore, it is a custom that we should not distract ourselves with talking in-between the washing of the hands and blessing and eating the bread. After washing the hands, people are to remain silent until after eating the bread.


1) The eating of matzah is the single most characteristic element of celebrating Pesach, therefore, to emphasize our observance, there is a special blessing before eating the matzah.

2) Also, because participants in the seder are supposed to eat the matzah with gusto and appetite, it is a custom not to eat matzah at least several days before the seder. Some people refrain from eating matzah 30 days in advance of Pesach.


1) The bitter herbs are a symbol of the hardship and bitter servitude which our ancestors experienced as slaves in Egypt.


1) One of the great early rabbis, named Hillel, made it a practice to combine several elements of Pesach into one act. He used to make a sandwich of the matzah and the Paschal sacrifice, which was offered when the Temple still stood and would be eaten by the family that brought it.

2) We continue his practice, but because the Temple is destroyed and it is not possible to bring a Paschal sacrifice, we make a sandwhich, instead, of the matzah and Haroset, which is the admixture of chopped and pounded fruits, such as apples, nuts and almonds, mixed with cinnamon and wine, and is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves had to make in Egypt while constructing Pharoah's building projects.

3) The foods used to make the Haroset are also symbolic:

a) red wine= blood of Israelites spilled in servitude
b) cinnamon (sticks)= straw to make bricks
c) aples=reference to Song of Songs 8:5, which says,

"Under the apple tree I roused you;
It was there your mother conceived you,
There she who bore you conceived you."

This is a reference to a tradition that when Pharoah ordered male Israelites to be killed, the Israelite women went out into the apple orchards to give birth to their children to hide them from the Egyptians.

d) almonds=symbol of redemption because the Hebrew word for almond (Shaked) is a pun on the word "diligent work", for it is a tradition that ultimate redemption will only come about through diligent labor on our part to improve the world.


1) Afikomen is not a Hebrew word, but a Greek word probably meaning, "dessert". It says in the Talmud that this is to be the last thing eaten at the seder.

2) It has become a custom, however, for the seder leader to hide the afikomen and have the children look for it. Then, after it is found, the seder leader must "ransom" it back from the finder in order to complete the seder. Another custom is that the children hide it and the seder leader must still ransom it back in order to continue and complete the seder.

3) The word "tzafun" litterally mean "hidden" and is symbolic of the fact that the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people is still hidden away, and must ultimately, one day, be brought to light.


The third cup of wine is drunk at the conclusion of these blessings.


1) This is the conclusion of the Psalms of praise which were begun before the meal began, and must now be completed.

2) The fourth and final cup of wine is drunk at the conclusion of this section.


"Nirtzah" means, "according to Your will", and is the name of the final hymn of the seder which asks God to accept the performance of our seder. It's recitation completes the seder.


The word Pesach means to "passover", as the Angel of Death passed over the Israelites' houses during the final plague of the slaying of the first born children. Pesach is also the name of the lamb sacrificed in the Temple on this holiday, which would then eaten by the family that brought the offering to the Temple.

However, in Hebrew, it is possible to break up this word into two separate words, Peh-Sach, which means, "The mouth speaks". Although the Temple no longer exists and Judaism is no longer a sacrificial religion, the seder ritual is a dramatic ritual re-enactment of the Exodus from Egypt. Therefore, our words have come to replace the Paschal sacrifice; our seder is our offering to God. It is a celebration of language and interpretation. Therefore, during the seder nights, everything spoken of in connection with the Exodus from Egpt is considered "Peh Sach", the mouth speaking, our Pesach offering.

1 comment:

carina said...

Very informative! Thanks for sharing, more people should know more about our Kosher Holiday. What with all the reference to jewish traditions in movies, books and whatnot. People should know just how colorful the jewish culture is.