Illustration for article titled The True Story of the PassoverPhoto: Tupungato (Shutterstock)

Passover, like many other Jewish holidays, remains a mystery to people who do not practice the Jewish faith. You may be familiar with some of its more notable hallmarks – namely, gastronomic delights like matzah, brisket, and matzo ball soup – but the history of the Passover festival contains teachings that go beyond just eating a traditional seder ceremony, but also about the Jewish religion itself.

Given that it is currently Passover (this year’s holiday is March 27 through April 4), it is time to fix a seder plate and turn to history to understand what this great festival is of triumph and renewal signifies our very modern age. So saddle up and bring your appetite, just don’t expect bread.

Illustration for article titled The True Story of the Passover

The story of the Passover

Passover or Pesach is told in the Exodus book of the Old Testament and is a central part of the wider Jewish story told in the sacred text of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). As the text says, when the Jews lived in ancient Egypt about 2000 years ago, the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh worried that the Jews would soon be more than his own people. To exercise control over this growing population, the Pharaoh forcibly enslaved the Jews and demanded that all newborn Jewish sons drown in the Nile.

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One of these babies, Moses, did not drown by his mother, but was bundled up and floated down the river in a basket, where – somewhat by accident – he found his way to Pharaoh’s daughter. who adopted the orphaned child. Moses grew up in the opulent confines of Pharaoh’s court, with the tyrant’s daughter as his mother. Moses was well aware of his Hebrew origins and longed for the freedom of his people throughout adolescence and into adulthood. This feeling gnawed at him more reluctantly until one day Moses witnessed the brutal beating of a Jew by an Egyptian slave trader.

Moses killed the slave trader in a fit of blind rage and immediately fled into the desert, fearing Pharaoh’s retribution. While spending decades in the Midian desert, Moses worked as a shepherd for the priest Jethro and married his daughter Zipporah. Eventually Moses met a burning bush deep in the desert that spoke to him through God. The bush pleaded with Moses to return to Egypt to free the Jews from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches, particularly with this request. courtesy of the book of Exodus::

This is what the Lord says: let my people go that they may worship me.

Oh, and did Moses ever do, though his initial pleas to Pharaoh were ignored. Because of Pharaoh’s intransigence, God sent a different plague to Egypt every time the ruler said no to the release of the slaves. The Ten epidemics of Egypt remain a more popular part of the wider Passover cultural tradition. Some of the more notable plagues God caused on Moses were an all-consuming darkness that covered the land day and night, locusts devouring crops, and a scourge of boils that all Egyptian men, women, children and animals called Pharaoh , had haunted included.

The tenth and final plague ultimately contributed to the liberation of the Jewish people, and it was particularly cruel: the killing of the firstborn Egyptian sons by 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 identity and leave them alone – hence the concept of “bypassing”.

After Pharaoh’s son is killed, he first frees the Jews before immediately changing his mind. Because of the sudden change, the Jews were again persecuted by the ruler’s armed forces and forced to flee in a hurry. They could not let their bread rise, but only took unleavened flatbreads, which we all know today as matzah.

On their hectic journey, Moses and the Israelites encountered the vast Red Sea. Divine intervention followed; God cut the waterway and eventually led the Israelites to salvation or to trek through the desert for forty years before finally relocating to Israel.

Illustration for article titled The True Story of the Passover

How is it celebrated?

This story of triumph and liberation is remembered every spring by a seder, which is basically a festive dinner that keeps the story in mind. Not all seders are created equal – not all denominations of Judaism are created equal, as Conservative, Orthodox, Hasidic, and Reform groups maintain different standards – but the meals all involve the same general rituals. The most common greeting used by a seder is chag sameachwhich means “happy holidays”.

Each ceremony will have a Haggadah which is some sort of guide to the process. In addition to various stories and songs, participants are guided through traditional foods and their symbolic meanings. The Seder usually revolves around telling the story of the Passover festival (called the Maggid), which begins with the youngest person at the table asking the four questions (Mah Nishtanah).

These questions, preceded by: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” are as follows:

On all other nights we eat sourdough products and matzah, why only matzah that night?

On all other nights we eat all vegetables, why only bitter herbs that night?

All other nights we don’t even dip our food, why do we dip twice that night?

On all other evenings we eat sitting or lying down, but why do we just lean back that evening?

All of these foods are also symbols of Jewish oppression and triumph. The bitter herbs stand for the bitterness of slavery, a hard-boiled egg for renewal and the cycle of life. Charoset – a nutty, fruity spreadable mixture – symbolizes the mortar with which the Israelites built the pyramids. These symbolic foods appear on a Seder plate even though they are not the main food in a Seder meal. The fine dining consists of beef brisket, matzah ball soup, filtered fish, and other goodies – although you’re welcome to cook anything you want, as long as it suits the host’s preferences. Of course, matzo is in abundance as it symbolizes Egypt’s desperate task by Egypt.

Seders can be intense, though for many denominations they are easy, solemn affairs. As Rabbi Stephen Chicurel-Stein of Orlando, Florida explains to Lifehacker, the Seder is designed to strengthen belief in freedom through oppression.

He explained:

The common telling (at a dining table) of history, the pouring over of our time and the use of food as a symbol for different points serve a common and critical purpose: the renewed belief in and gratitude to God and the continued belief that freedom will – and must – triumph over oppression.

Of course, there is a bit more to the paperwork involved with a seder and you can seek advice My Jewish learning More background information on the events during the event.

Illustration for article titled The True Story of the Passover

Passover broader meaning

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, Passover conveys a message of perseverance, triumph, and the need for social justice. This message has not been lost to civil rights activists outside of the Jewish faith Freedom sederWhen black and Jewish activists came together in April 1969 to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King for a meal.

This spirit of solidarity still loosens the broader message of Passover today. As Rabbi Chicurel-Stein explains:

The tale of an oppressed people who long for their freedom and who gain freedom by believing in God is a story that resonates strongly with Islam in many cultures (the Exodus story as it is written in the Bible is repeated four times repeats other times and narrative, almost literally, in the Koran!) to the experience of the black and Asian Americans of our time.

It remains that way to this day: if you are struggling with social justice, feel free to visit a seder.