Religious Observances: Passover

Right now, many Jews around the world are observing Passover (Pesach) as part of the celebration that marks the flight from Egypt and slavery. Passover is an eight-day celebration that has been observed for more than 3,000 years.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the month Nisan, and usually falls around the same time as Easter on the Christian celebration calendar, and often takes place within a few weeks of the spring equinox. The name comes from the story of the Ten Plagues in Egypt. The final plague was the death of the firstborn in every household. In order to be “passed over,” the blood of a lamb had to mark the doorposts.

Seder: The Highlight of the Passover

For many, the highlight of Passover is the Seder meal. Special foods are eaten as the flight from Egypt is recounted. The Seder meal is laden with symbolism, and follows a ritual order. Traditionally, the Seder meal is consumed in individual homes, with families. However, in many cases there are also community meals. It is also encouraged to invite guests to share in the meal. (I have attended a number of Seder meals, and always find them interesting.)

Part of the Seder meal involves recitations from Haggadah, and those attending can participate. The leader of the meal can also add commentary, and explanations to help enhance knowledge, and to expound upon points of history and practice. A Seder plate is used, and includes symbolic foods used in the retelling of the story of the flight from Egypt. These six foods are:

  1. Bitter Herbs: To represent slavery of the Israelites, there are bitter herbs, referred to as Maror and Chazeret. Some of the common items used as bitter herbs in a Seder meal include horseradish and romaine lettuce roots.
  2. Charoset: This is actually a paste made from fruit and nuts. It’s meant to symbolize the mortar that was used as part of the process of building for the Egyptians.
  3. Karpas: You need something that can be dipped into salt water, vinegar, or even the charoset. Usually this is a vegetable that is different from what is used for the bitter herbs. Celery, parsley, or a boiled potato are popular options.
  4. Lamb bone: The lamb bone, roasted, is known as the zeroa. It represents the sacrifice of a lamb. Later, when the temple was built in Jerusalem, the korban Pesach was roasted at the temple, and eaten as part of the Seder meal.
  5. Hard boiled egg: The Beitzah is the symbol of the festival sacrifice, and part of the Seder meal.
Other special foods are included in Seder meals. And, throughout Passover, only unleavened bread — bread that has not been given time to rise — is eaten. Often, Matzo is eaten during this time.

Adding Traditions

While most Seder meals follow the same traditions, there have been additions to the meal throughout the years. Some add an orange to the Seder plate, to represent the inclusion of those on the margins of society. This practice has become especially poignant in some communities that work to include homosexuals. Another addition, often made by feminists, is to set out a cup for Miriam, in addition to the extra cup set out in honor of Elijah.


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