Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most commonly observed, even
by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 1990 National Jewish
Population Survey (NJPS), more than 80% of Jews have attended a Pesach
Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. 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 Pesach are related to the
Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus,
Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesach observances are instituted in Ch. 12-15.
The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottich "loch")
comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet , meaning to pass through, to
pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that God "passed over"
the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. In English,
the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial
offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is
also referred to as Chag he-Aviv , (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth ,
(the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cherutenu , (the Time of Our Freedom)
(again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).
Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves the
removal of chametz (leaven; sounds like "hum it's" with that Scottish ch).
This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and
did not have time to let their bread 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 18 minutes
after coming into contact with water. Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic
background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they
were chametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, thus use
of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are
referred to as "kitniyot."
Jews may not eat chametz during Pesach; Jews may not even own it or derive
benefit from it. They may not even feed it to their pets or cattle. All chametz,
including utensils used to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold to
a non-Jew (they can be repurchased after the holiday). Pets' diets must be
changed for the holiday, or the pets must be sold to a non-Jew (like the food
and utensils, the pets can be repurchased after the holiday ends). Many
non-Jews and non-observant Jews mock this practice of selling chametz as an
artificial technicality. However, such sales are very real and legally binding,
and would not be valid under Jewish law if not. From the Gentile's
perspective, the purchase functions much like the buying and selling of
futures on the stock market: even though he does not take physical
possession of the goods, his temporary legal ownership of those goods is very
real and potentially profitable.
The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Pesach is
an enormous task. To do it right, one must prepare for several weeks and
spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of their
stove and fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come
in contact with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc. After the cleaning is completed,
the morning before the Seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is
undertaken, and any remaining chametz is burned.
The grain product we eat during Pesach 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 for their flight from Egypt. Jews
have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah; it is available in a
variety of textures for cooking: matzah flour (finely ground for cakes and
cookies), matzah meal (coarsely ground, used as a bread crumb substitute),
matzah farfel (little chunks, a noodle or bread cube substitute), and full-sized
matzahs (about 10 inches square, a bread substitute).
The day before Pesach is the Fast of the Firstborn, a minor fast for all
firstborn males, commemorating the fact that the firstborn Jewish males in
Egypt were not killed during the final plague.
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for traditional Jews outside
Israel), Jews have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind them of
the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a Seder , from a Hebrew
root word meaning "order," because there is a specific set of information that
must be discussed in a specific order. It is the same root from which is
derived the word "siddur" , (prayer book). An overview of a traditional Seder
is included below.
Pesach 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. Work is permitted on the intermediate days. These
intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol
Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.
When Pesach Begins on a Saturday Night
Occasionally, Pesach begins on a motzaei Shabbat, that is, on Saturday night
after the Sabbath has concluded. This occurred in the year 5761 (2001). This
complicates the process of preparing for Pesach, because many of the
preparations normally undertaken on the day before Pesach cannot be
performed on Shabbat.
The Fast of the Firstborn, normally observed on the day before Pesach, is
observed on Thursday instead. The search for chametz, normally performed
on the night before Pesach, is performed on Thursday night. The Seder should
be prepared for as much as possible before Shabbat begins, because time
should not be taken away from Shabbat to prepare for Pesach. In addition,
there are severe complications dealing with the conflict between the
requirement of removing chametz no later than mid-morning on Saturday,
the prohibition against eating matzah on the day before the Seder, and the
requirement of eating three meals with bread during Shabbat! For further
details, see an summary from the Orthodox Union, the world's largest, oldest
and perhaps most respected kosher certification agency.
The Pesach Seder
The text of the Pesach Seder is written in a book called the Haggadah.
Suggestions for buying a Haggadah are included below. The content of the
Seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew rhyme:
Now, what does that mean?
1. Kaddesh: Sanctification
A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second
cup is poured.
2. Urechatz: Washing
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the
3. Karpas: Vegetable
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable
symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes
the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for
this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
4. Yachatz: Breaking
One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile,
the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).
5. Maggid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This
begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of
questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the
seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it
different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often
The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people:
the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who
excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who
needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't 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.
6. Rachtzah: Washing
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for
eating the matzah
7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a
meal, is recited over the matzah.
8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish;
sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of
slavery. The maror is dipped charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon
and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during
Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled Maror and
one labeled Chazeret. The one is labeled Maror should be used for Maror and
the one is labeled Chazeret should be used in the Korech, below.
10. Korech: The Sandwich
Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with
matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some
maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset (we don't do animal sacrifice
anymore, so there is no paschal offering to eat).
11. Shulchan Orech: Dinner
A festive meal is eaten. 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. Roast chicken or turkey are common as a main
course, as is beef brisket.
12. Tzafun: The Afikomen
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the
meal. Different families have different traditions relating to 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
The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is
recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the
end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is
poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to
herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do this. The door is
opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but historically because
Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of Christian babies in
matzah, and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that we weren't doing
14. Hallel: Praises
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and
it is drunk.
15. Nirtzah: Closing
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next
year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come
within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.