Friday marks the beginning of a special time for many Jewish people around the world. It’s Passover, also called Pesach, which celebrates the Exodus, the liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Passover happens every year during the month of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. That’s typically in March or April. In Israel, it lasts seven days; everywhere else, it’s eight days. This year’s Passover is from Friday to April 23.
But how is the holiday celebrated and why is it so important? We talked to a few experts.
Why is Passover important?
The holiday is named for the story behind it, when the angel of God passed over the houses of Israelites and saved them, said Clémence Boulouque, associate professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at Columbia University in New York.
People celebrate it over conversation and dinner, telling stories about liberation, the end of enslavement and those who are still fighting for freedom. It’s meant to make people appreciate freedom and push for social justice, she said.
This year, it’s especially powerful because of current events and conflicts around the world, said Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston.
“My congregation, we’re thinking about Ukrainians, we’re thinking about Afghans, we’re thinking about the situation at the southern border of the United States,” he told USA TODAY. “We’re living in a time of massive waves of refuge, so there’s a lot of resonance with what’s happening in the world.”
How are the dates determined? Why are Easter and Passover so late in 2022? Blame the moon and a cacophony of calendars.
Is Passover related to Easter?
And it is. Jesus was Jewish and had a Passover meal with his followers the day before his crucifixion on the Thursday before Easter Sunday. The last supper was actually a Seder, Boulouque said.
As Christianity developed and focused more on Jesus specifically, Hebrew practices were dismissed, said Simeon Chavel, associate professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. The calendars, practices and meanings eventually diverged.
Also, for those wondering, Passover is not always before Easter. According to Holzman, Hebrew and Catholic authorities have separate systems for calculating their calendars. Most of the time they line up, but sometimes they don’t.
Are Good Friday and Passover the same?
No. Passover celebrates the liberation of Israelites from slavery, while Good Friday is a Christian holiday remembering the crucifixion of Jesus, Boulouque said. It just so happens that this year, Passover begins on a Friday.
How is Passover celebrated?
Passover always starts and finishes in the evening, but traditions depend largely on where families are from.
Most commonly, there are Seders or ceremonial dinners with symbolic foods, guidelines and other traditions. Foods with leaving agents are prohibited, or considered “chametz,” as a reminder of the haste in which the Jews fled Egypt.
Passover in the United States:
- Day 1: Seder dinner (ritual retelling of the Exodus and a traditional meal with six symbolic foods following chametz guidelines); there are also work prohibitions depending on observance.
- Day 2: Seder dinner (ritual retelling of the Exodus and a traditional meal with six symbolic foods following chametz guidelines); there are also work prohibitions depending on observance.
- Days 3-6: Regular meal following chametz guidelines.
- Days 7-8: Regular meal following chametz guidelines; there are also work prohibitions depending on observance.
seder plates ideas? 6 Seder plates for your next Passover meal.
Before Passover, families cleanse their homes – like spring cleaning – and the night before the holiday, they search for “chametz” items, such as bread crumbs. If found, these items are burned, said Boulouque, associate professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at Columbia University in New York.
“It’s almost something that indicates a comfortable life,” she said. “It’s something that you want to take out of your daily life as a reminder of the toll it took to be slaves and to get out of Egypt.”
In the United States, the first two nights of Passover involve a Seder, which means “order” in Hebrew. It’s a ceremonial meal and retelling of the Passover story in a specific order using the Haggadah, the book that tells the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, she said.
There are activities for children as well, including reading from the Haggadah. Some children will also hide bread so their parents can go find it, Chavel said.
Once Passover ends, families from North Africa or the Middle East celebrate the Mimouna, a festival in which they decorate with lights and have a feast and return to eat the forbidden foods during the holiday, Boulouque said.
What is the ‘bread of affliction’?
During Passover, families eat symbolic foods such as matzo, or unleavened bread, as well as eggs.
Each item represents part of the story, such as the unleavened bread. It’s sometimes called the “bread of affliction” as a reminder of the pain of slavery, Boulouque said.
There are also bitter herbs like horseradish to represent the bitterness of slavery, as well as charoset, a paste made from fruits, nuts and other ingredients that “symbolizes the mortar Jewish people made while building pyramids for Pharaoh and thus their enslavement when they were under the yoke of a megalomaniac tyrant,” she said.
Some of the foods that are off limits during Passover are flour that has been risen with yeast, as well as wheat and grain products that have been in touch with water or have risen, Holzman said. He said that during Passover, Jews consume flour that has been in contact with water only for less than 18 minutes before it was baked, creating bread that hasn’t risen, or matzo.
Even the prohibited foods are symbolic, Boulouque said.
“This is a holiday in which humility is key,” she said. “This idea of being humble and eating food that is not sweet – you’re not swollen by pride. It is a story of people being grateful for not being slaves anymore and taking whatever they had and leaving immediately.”
Some people even pay their respect to women during Passover by adding an orange to represent their inclusion in Jewish leadership, Holzman said.
“There’s a lot of creativity that goes into Passover food, with people wanting to honor and respect different Jewish traditions from around the world. You might find a family that’s not connected to the Middle East making Middle Eastern Passover food.”