Passover In A Nutshell : A Short / Brief Summary of Passover
Note: Regarding all dates on this Passover Overview web page, see the footnote near the bottom of this web page.
Passover celebrates the Jewish people's freedom from Egyptian bondage that took place approximately 3,300 years ago, as told in the first 15 chapters of the biblical Book of Exodus. To remember the miraculous events that G-d performed for the Hebrews which led to their freedom, G-d commanded Moses and the Hebrews to slaughter and eat a roasted paschal lamb which symbolizes the Passover sacrifice, and eat it with bitter herbs and matzah. G-d also instructed the Hebrews to spread the blood of the paschal lamb on the two doorposts and on the beam above the door of the houses in which they will eat the paschal lamb ("doorposts and lintel"). This act was G-d's sign to pass over the Hebrews' homes during the 10th plague, which was the killing of the first born sons of the Egyptians as punishment for enslaving the Hebrews and disrespecting G-d by believing that their multiple G-ds had more powers than the one true G-d. G-d also instructed the Hebrews to eat matzah for the seven-day period of the Passover festival and to clear their home of leavened items by the first day of Passover. G-d also stated that the first and seventh days of Passover were to be sacred holidays for the Hebrews which were to be spent in sustaining themselves with food. If this meant that one had to work on those days then that was permitted, but no other work was permitted for any other reason. Since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans, the slaughtering of a paschal lamb was replaced by the roasting of a hard-boiled egg and the shankbone which are two of the symbolic foods on the Passover Seder plate. However, there are still certain groups that are offshoots of Judaism who still slaughter lambs for Passover as instructed in the Book of Exodus by G-d. For instance, the Samaritans who reside in Samaria - a region in an area today known as Nablus - go up Mount Gerizim which overlooks Nablus on the 10th day of the month of Nissan with tents and other equipment. Once at the summit of Mount Gerizim, a lamb is then given to the heads of each of the clans that represent the seven principal families of the Samaritans who only number about 500. Each of the clans then prepares for the sacrificial ceremony on the mountain on the 14th day of Nissan. The Samaritans literally follow all the instructions for Passover as prescribed by G-d in the Book of Exodus.
Since the time of Jewish freedom from Egyptian slavery, the celebration of Passover was organized into a feast called the Passover Seder. The Passover Seder feast was patterned somewhat after the Greco-Roman feasts that rabbis observed during the time of the Romans' presence in Jerusalem in the 1st century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. The word 'Seder' means 'order' or 'procedure' in Hebrew and refers to the order of historical events recalled in the Passover meal as well as the meal itself. The story of Passover is read from a book or manual called the 'Haggadah', meaning 'narration' or 'telling' in Hebrew. The Passover Haggadah was loosely organized by rabbinic scholars during the period just before and after the time when the Common Era (C.E. or A.D. to Christians) began. In addition to containing the story of Passover, the Passover Haggadah contains prayers, blessings, songs, biblical passages, and scholarly commentaries by rabbinic sages. While the main story of Passover is read at Passover Seders by Jews the world over, local customs - including musical and culinary traditions - have been added over time so that the Passover festival has been adapted to reflect the life and routines of Jewish communities in different countries. This explains why, for example, the festival of Passover is celebrated differently in Tunisia than in Canada. Moreover, the Passover Haggadah may be read either in the local language, or a mixture of the local language and Hebrew, or different combinations of the local language, Hebrew, and either Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews originating in Spain) or Yiddish (the language of Ashkenazic Jews originating in Central and Eastern Europe). For further information and to see images of various Haggadot (plural form of 'Haggadah'), you can take a quick detour and steer over to our Passover Haggadah page.
Passover is celebrated for 8 days (7 days for most Reform Jews and some Conservative Jews), and always begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (or Nissan). Since the Jewish day begins at sundown, Passover actually starts at sundown on the evening prior to the first full day of Passover in the Gregorian or Christian calendar.
Why is Passover celebrated for 8 days?
Glad I asked. Originally, Passover was celebrated for 7 days, with Day 1 being the day the Israelites left Egypt, to Day 7 when the Israelites came to the Yam Soof, which is the Hebrew phrase for the "Sea of Reeds" [which is possibly the "Red Sea", an arm of the "Red Sea", or another body of water in the Sinai Peninsula area (Gulf of Suez, or the large delta at the mouth of the Nile River in Northern Egypt)]. As a result, Passover is celebrated for 7 days in Israel. But since the Jewish calendar goes by the cycle of the moon (or lunar cycle), Jewish scholars in biblical times added the extra day to compensate for the different times the moon appeared in places outside of Israel. This meant that Passover would be celebrated for 8 days everywhere outside of Israel, but only for 7 days in Israel!
What is the significance of Passover?
Passover has three primary levels of significance: (1) Passover is an historical festival, commemorating the exodus from Egypt, notably the physical redemption of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt; (2) Passover is an agricultural festival, celebrating the Spring season and the new growth and harvest season, particularly the earliest barley and cereal harvest; (3) Passover is a religious festival, it celebrates the fact that G-d is the redeemer of the Hebrews from the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who forced the Hebrews into slavery in ancient Egypt. As the redeemer of the Hebrews, the Hebrews became the servants of G-d alone; and (4) a fourth significance rooted in mystical Kabbalistic traditions contends that that act of fulfilling G-d's commandment to observe Passover contributes to the overall cosmic process of redemption in which G-d's 'Attribute of Mercy' "sweetens" the 'Attribute of Justice'. In relation to Passover, this mystical interpretation means that the Passover lamb, which represents an 'Attribute of Mercy' in Kabbalistic tradition, must be eaten together with bitter herbs and unleavened bread such as matzah, where the bitter herbs and matzah together represent an 'Attribute of Justice' in Kabbalistic tradition.
The Passover Seder
What follows is a general overview of the Passover Seder. For a more comprehensive version of the Passover Seder plus a detailed version of how to prepare for the Passover festival, please check out our Passover Seder page and Passover Preparation page, respectively.
The Passover Seder is the focus of the Passover festival. The Passover Haggadah serves as the "instruction manual" for the Passover Seder, and a copy is given to each person at the Passover Seder table. There are 15 steps in the Passover Seder:
These 15 steps are the basic rituals and customs performed at the Passover meal, but the content of what one uses as vegetables and/or bitter herbs can vary with the country, region of a country, and/or city where Jews reside. One may ask: why are there 15 steps in the Passover Seder? The answer may lie with where the number 15 appears in the Hebrew Bible. There were 15 steps leading up to the Temple in ancient Jerusalem, where the assistants to the Hebrew priests, known as Levites*, would climb up these 15 steps to the Temple and sing 15 Psalms from the Book of Psalms, written by King David. These 15 Psalms were referred to collectively as the Song of Ascents. This was probably either referring to the fact that one 'ascended' to Jerusalem, since it sits atop hills, or to the fact that one 'ascended' to a House of G-d (Temple), or to an altar in the Temple. The connection between the 15 Passover steps and the 15 Song of Ascents lies with the holiness each step represents, leading up to communicating with G-d.
* The Levites constituted both a class or group of Hebrews who were originally members of the Hebrew Tribe of Levi I.E. descendants of Levi, who was the third of twelve sons of the Third Hebrew Patriarch Jacob (Jacob was also named Israel). The Tribe of Levi originally consisted only of priests (known as "Kohanim" in Hebrew; singular form: "Kohen") who were assigned to serve G-d on behalf of the 12 Hebrew tribes. Later on, the occupation of Kohen or priest was limited only to those members of the Tribe of Levi who descended from Moses' older brother, Aaron. The remaining members of the Tribe of Levi served as assistants to the Kohanim or priests and were simply known as "Levites". After Ephraim and Manasseh replaced Joseph and Levi as Hebrew tribes, the Levites constituted a class or group of Hebrews who accompanied the other Hebrew tribes in the service of G-d. One can say that from then on they constituted an unofficial Hebrew tribe.
As one moves through the 15 steps of the Passover Seder, there is a gradual transition from recalling past tragedies of slavery in the Passover story to discussing the future and the subjects of freedom and redemption. This is achieved by describing the food and wine rituals and the symbolisms they represent in recalling the past and in describing the future. This essentially means that from past sufferings can arise hope, happiness, freedom and justice for all in future times.
For the Passover Seder, there are laws stipulating minimum quantities that must be used to fulfill each custom and ritual. For instance, the minimum amount of wine poured in cups, who pours the wine, when wine is drunk other than when one drinks wine during "The Four Cups of Wine" ritual, the amount of matzah eaten from a square piece of matzah, the amount of what position in a chair should one be in (reclining or not reclining) when one eats the koreich, maror, matzah, and the afikoman matzah (regular matzah and the afikoman matzah are not the same in terms of symbolism; they are separate from each other), at what time must one eat the afikoman (especially on the 1st Passover Seder night), the amount of horseradish and matzah used in making the koreich, the positioning of a piece of afikoman matzah relative to other pieces of afikoman matzah on the table, when people can talk and when people are not permitted to talk as the 15 steps are performed, the amount of maror used depending on the type of maror used, and the amount of maror eaten per person. Now, with so many rules to follow before and after the Passover meal is served, you've just discovered the secret why us Jews like to eat!
There are 7 main symbolic foods on the Seder table that remind the Jewish people of their time of slavery in Egypt. This Seder plate shown below displays in Hebrew the names of each of the foods.
Seder Plate image courtesy of Congregation Beth Chaim, Princeton Junction, New Jersey.
What are the Symbolic Foods of Passover?
The 7 symbolic foods of Passover are as follows, in no particular order:
Wine is used for the Passover rituals involving both "The Four Cups of Wine" plus the fifth cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet. Children and those who for whatever reason cannot drink wine drink grape juice in lieu of wine, although there are rabbinic differences of opinion concerning the use of grape juice during the Passover Seder.
The Passover Seder not only symbolizes a Feast of Freedom from slavery, it also represents a reminder of gratitude for maintaining faith in one's beliefs. The leader of the Seder sits at the head of the table, and then washes his/her hands to symbolize a new beginning or 'passing over' from slavery to freedom. The traditional Kiddush is recited by the leader of the Seder, and involves the blessing over wine to G-d for having been taught the lesson of Passover, and its meaning of faith in one's beliefs. The matzah is broken into two pieces, not of the same size, and this splitting represents the "parting", or opening up, of the Yam Soof, which is the Hebrew phrase for the "Sea of Reeds" [which is possibly the "Red Sea", an arm of the "Red Sea", or another body of water in the Sinai Peninsula area (Gulf of Suez, or the large delta at the mouth of the Nile River in Northern Egypt)]. The larger portion is called the Afikoman (also called: Afikomen) and is placed under a napkin and the smaller portion is put between the other matzot. This is followed by an announcement from the Seder leader to people at the Seder table to join around, and have a piece of the Matzah, also known as 'the bread of affliction'. Interestingly, the word 'afikoman' is of Greek origin, and means 'after-dish' or 'that which is coming', meaning 'dessert' in the Passover meal. Some have thought it to mean 'he who is coming', because in the Jewish tradition, the Messiah will arrive at Passover to bring redemption to the Jewish people, and that is why a place at the Passover Seder table is kept for the Prophet Elijah, who is the forerunner of the Messiah according to the Book of Prophets.
As they goes through the Passover Seder steps, from the blessing of G-d and being grateful to reach the current year, to washing their hands to symbolically rid themselves of slavery, the people at the Passover table gradually eat the different symbolic foods, including two pieces of matzah surrounding the Maror mixture, called 'Hillel's Sandwich'.
After the first 10 steps are finished, the complete dinner is then served. People at the table now eat while realizing that just as they were hungry waiting for the meal to begin, they could imagine - in just a small way - what it was like for the Hebrews to experience the hardship of slavery and hunger. After the meal, the Afikoman is eaten, although there is a tradition in some households that the Afikoman is hidden prior to the start of the meal, and that the children look for it once the meal is finished. The child who finds it gets a chocolate coin or other prize.
Following the Passover Seder meal, the blessing "Grace After Meals" is recited, followed by singing all the beautiful Passover songs of praise to G-d and of freedom in general. The Passover Seder is then concluded with a statement to the future saying that although this year the Jewish people were 'slaves' in foreign lands - symbolized by the Diaspora - next year we hope to be in Jerusalem for the building of the Third Temple and the ultimate redemption of not only the Jewish people but of all people. One can see from all these rituals that there is a gradual progression from hardship and suffering to ultimate bliss and peace, reflecting the power of G-d to create hope for increasingly better times in the future. In other words, the Passover Seder is an exercise in achieving a happy ending for all.
There are lessons to be learned in the Passover story from the Passover Haggadah. Supporting these lessons are various themes that are found throughout the Passover Haggadah such as the four themes of redemption symbolized by the Four Cups of wine, the teachings of the Passover theme of freedom from slavery summarized by the Four Questions, the transmission of the Passover teachings to new generations as told in the story of the Four Sons, the human characteristics and hope for total redemption for all in future times that symbolize the Prophet Elijah, and the Passover Songs of praise to G-d and of G-d's powers to succeed over any obstacle. All these stories, rabbinic commentaries, prayers, blessings, and songs ultimately serve to reinforce the idea of learning from the past so that in the present one can choose to be personally responsible for achieving, maintaining, and enhancing one's personal and social freedoms.
Footnote regarding the dates on this Passover Overview web page: all dates discussed on this website are based on the modern Gregorian calendar, however, these dates are but one secular scholarly deduction; there are many other secular scholarly deductions as well as traditional Jewish chronological dates in addition to modern Hebrew/Jewish calendar dates regarding the timeline of events in Jewish history. To see a table of some important events in Jewish history discussed on this website and their various dates deduced from traditional Jewish sources, the modern Hebrew/Jewish calendar, and secular historical timelines, check out our Jewish History Timeline web page.