Passover, like many other Jewish holidays, remains mysterious for people who don’t practice the Jewish faith. Perhaps you’re loosely familiar with some of its more notable identifiers—namely, gastronomic delicacies like matzah, beef brisket, and matzo ball soup—but the story of Passover bears lessons that transcend not only the food of a traditional seder ceremony, but the Jewish religion itself.
Given that it’s currently Passover (this year’s holiday is observed from Saturday, March 27 to Sunday, April 4), it’s time we fix up a seder plate and turn to history in an effort to understand what this great festival of triumph and renewal means in our distinctly modern times. So saddle up and bring your appetite, just don’t expect any bread.
The story of Passover
Passover, or Pesach, is told in the Old Testament’s book of Exodus, and it’s a central part of the broader Jewish story told in the holy text of the Torah (which is the first five books of the Old Testament). As the text tells it, when Jews were living in ancient Egypt some 2,000 years ago, the ruler of Egypt, Pharaoh, grew worried that Jews would soon outnumber his own people. In an effort to exert control over this growing population, Pharaoh forcibly enslaved the Jews, demanding that all newborn Jewish sons be drowned in the Nile river.
One of these babies, Moses, wasn’t drowned by his mother, but was bundled up and set afloat down the river in a basket where—somewhat fortuitously—he found his way to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted the orphaned child. Moses grew up within the opulent confines of Pharaoh’s court, with the tyrant’s daughter as his mother. Aware of his Hebrew origins, Moses yearned for the freedom of his people throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This feeling gnawed at him in a more subdued way until one day, Moses witnessed the brutal beating of a Jew at the hands of an Egyptian slaver.
Moses killed the slaver in a fit of blind rage, immediately fleeing to the desert afterwards, fearing Pharaoh’s retribution. While spending decades in the desert of Midian, Moses worked as a shepherd for the Priest Jethro and married his daughter Zipporah. Eventually, Moses encountered a burning bush deep in the desert that spoke to him through God. The bush implored Moses to return to Egypt to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches, specifically with this demand, courtesy of the book of Exodus:
This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
Oh, and did Moses ever, though his initial entreaties to Pharaoh were ignored. Due to Pharaoh’s intransigence, God sent a different plague to Egypt each time the ruler said no to releasing the slaves. The Ten Plagues of Egypt remain a more popular part of Passover’s broader cultural lore. Some of the more notable plagues cast by God via Moses were an all-consuming darkness that blanketed the land day and night, swarming locusts that devoured crops, and a scourge of boils that afflicted all Egyptian men, women, children, and animals, Pharaoh included.
The tenth and final plague finally helped to liberate the Jewish people, and it was particularly gruesome: The killing of first born Egyptian sons at the hands of the angel of death. Before the angel of death swept through Egypt, the Israelites coated their front doors with a touch of lamb’s blood to identify their Jewish identities and leave them alone—hence the concept of “passing over.”
After Pharaoh’s son is killed, he initially sets the Jews free, before immediately changing his mind. Because of the sudden switch, the Jews were once again pursued by the ruler’s forces and forced to flee in haste. They were unable to let their bread rise, instead only taking unleavened flat breads with them, which is what we all know now as Matzah.
Along their frantic journey, Moses and the Israelites encountered the sprawling Red Sea. Divine intervention ensued; God parted the waterway, ultimately leading the Israelites to salvation, or, a forty-year trek through the desert until they ultimately resettled in Israel.
How is it celebrated?
This story of triumph and liberation is commemorated each year in early Spring through a seder, which is basically a festive dinner in which the tale is remembered. Not all seders are the same—to wit, not all denominations of Judaism are the same, as conservative, orthodox, Hasidic, and reform groups maintain different standards—but the meals all include the same general rituals. The most common greeting at a seder is chag sameach, which means “happy holiday.”
Each ceremony will have a Haggadah, which is sort of a guidebook for the proceedings. It walks attendees through the traditional foods and their symbolic importances, in addition to various stories and songs. The seder usually revolves around the telling of the story of Passover (called the maggid), which begins with the youngest person at the table asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah).
Those questions, which are prefaced with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” are as follows:
On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, why on this night only matzah?
On all other nights we eat all vegetables, why on this night only bitter herbs?
On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, why on this night do we dip twice?
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, but on this on this night why do we only recline?
All of these foods are also symbols of Jewish oppression and triumph. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, a hardboiled egg represents renewal and the circle of life, Charoset—a nutty, fruity spreadable mixture—symbolizes the mortar the Israelites used to build the pyramids. These symbolic foods will appear on a seder plate, though they’re not the main sustenance of a seder’s meal. The good eats consist of beef brisket, matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and other treats—though you’re more than welcome to prepare whatever you’d like, as long as it meets the host’s preferences. Of course, matzah is present in abundance, as it symbolizes the Jews’ frantic abandonment of Egypt.
Seders can be intense, though for many denominations, they are light, celebratory affairs. As Rabbi Stephen Chicurel-Stein of Orlando, Florida, explains to Lifehacker, the seder is meant to galvanize a belief in freedom over oppression.
The communal (at a dinner table) telling of the story, re-casting it in our own times, and using food to symbolize various points, all serve a common and critical purpose: to inculcate renewed faith in and gratitude to God, and the enduring belief that freedom will—and must—triumph over oppression.
Of course, there’s a bit more to the formalities involved in a seder, and you can consult My Jewish Learning for more background on what happens during the event.
Passover’s broader significance
If you haven’t picked it up by now, Passover imparts a message about perseverance, triumph and the of necessity of social justice. This message hasn’t been lost on civil rights activists outside of the Jewish faith: For example, consider the Freedom Seder, when in April, 1969, Black and Jewish activists joined one another for a meal on the one-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
This spirit of solidarity still ungirds the broader message of Passover to this day. As Rabbi Chicurel-Stein explains:
The narrative of a people oppressed, yearning for their freedom, and with faith in God, gaining their liberty, that is a story that will resonate powerfully in many cultures, from Islam (the Exodus tale as written in the Bible is re-told four different times, and narratively, almost verbatim, in Qur’an!) to the experience of Black and Asian- Americans of our time.
So it remains to this day: If you’re down with social justice, feel free to attend a seder.