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Passover FAQ

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Feast of Unleavened Bread

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(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)
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Passover marks the liberation of the Children of Israel, who were slaves in ancient Egypt, and recounts the story of their exodus to the Promised Land. Key things to remember: Moses, Ten Plagues, matzo, the parting of the Red Sea.


Passover 2015 begins at sundown on Friday, April 3—the night of the first Seder—and lasts eight days, ending at sundown on Saturday, April 11.


The first mention of the holiday that kicks off with a seder appears in the book of Leviticus, where it is referred to as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, owing to the fact that when the ancient Israelites left Egypt they hadn’t enough time to let their dough rise before fleeing. Indeed, the holiday commemorates and celebrates the flight of the Israelites, led by Moses, from Pharoah’s tyranny to freedom. Its Hebrew name is Pesach, which comes from the word pasach, commonly translated as “passed over”—a reference to the Exodus passage that tells of God passing over the blood-marked door of Jewish homes while he undertook to kill the first born sons of the Egyptians. Some scholars, however, suggest that a more accurate translation of the passage is that God “hovered over” the homes in question, signifying the Lord’s eternal protection of his chosen people.

With Shavuot and Sukkot, Passover is also one of the three harvest festivals in which the Jews of Ancient Israel historically trekked to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices and first fruits. Since the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, we are no longer obliged to make the journey, but we still honor its memory by including a recitation of the Hallel prayer during the seder.

In the Diaspora, Passover is observed for eight days with two seders, while in Israel it lasts for seven with a single seder.


Passover’s two major observations have to do with chametz, or unleavened bread, and the celebration of a seder.

The avoidance of chametz, referring to all grain products that have either already been fermented (bread, cake, some alcoholic beverages) or can cause fermentation (yeast), is at the heart of numerous rituals. Weeks before Passover, Jews embark on a serious spring cleaning. Although the halacha states no obligation to rid the home of any bit of chametz smaller than an olive, it is customary to clean out every nook, and tradition calls for a candlelight search of the premises on the morning of the first seder, a ritual called bidekat chametz, using a feather to inspect and sweep out even the hardest-to-reach corners. But tradition won’t have us looking in vain (that would be a bracha le’batala, a blessing for naught), so the head of the family must hide 10 small packets of chametz in different rooms; once they’re found, they are burned, a proceeding known as biyur chametz, and the house is considered kosher for Passover. Alternatively, chametz can be symbolically sold to a non-Jewish neighbor for the duration of the holiday, either by an individual or by a rabbi acting on behalf of an entire community.

The seder, which means order, is rich in meaning and in its aspiration for a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Through Torah readings, midrashim, songs, and discussion, seder participants relive, as commanded, the events of Exodus.

The seder is also a culinary celebration with foods symbolizing elements of the Israelites’ story. It originally revolved around the Paschal lamb, which was delivered to the Temple, sacrificed, roasted whole, and eaten. In the absence of a Temple, Jews are prohibited from animal sacrifice, removing from the seder its most prominent offering—though it endures on the seder plate symbolically in the form of a shank bone. There are plenty of other meaningful dishes: maror, bitter herbs, which symbolize the hardship of slavery in Egypt; the karpas, a root vegetable dipped in salt water to symbolize spring and the Israelites’ tears; charoset, a sweet paste made of fruits and nuts symbolizing the mortar with which our ancestors built the houses of Egypt; and, of course, the matzo. In addition to the fact that it hearkens to the haste with which the Israelites fled their oppressors—so fast they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise—it also is known as lechem oni, the bread of affliction, a reminder of humility.

Food aside, the seder’s other greatest hits include the recitation of the Four Questions, asked by children to encourage a discussion of the meal’s symbolism, and the search for the afikoman, a hidden piece of matzo which children look for after the meal and the consumption of which marks the end of the eating portion of the seder. Children often trade in their afikoman findings for a prize from their parents.

Another less-frequently-observed tradition is the fast of the firstborn: To commemorate God sparing the Israelites while the firstborn sons of Egypt were killed, males of bar mitzvah age and older are required to fast on the morning before Passover, traditionally until after the end of the morning prayers.


The haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus, is the holiday’s key text. According to tradition, the haggadah was compiled sometime between 200 and 500 CE. The oldest complete manuscript is included in a prayer book compiled by Saadia Gaon in the 10th century, and the oldest printed version dates back to 1486, commissioned by Italy’s Soncino family. While most of the haggadah’s texts have remained unchanged since they were originally compiled, some—like the Aramaic Chad Gadya, for example—are later additions and are said to be drinking songs, with their repetitive refrains and crescendoes. Also, as the haggadah is, at its core, a compilation, many communities or families add their own traditions, rituals, and texts to the original, often pertaining to social or political issues such as women’s rights or the plight of African refugees.

Five More Things You Can Do:

• Take an audio tour of a matzo factory.
• Celebrate the seder in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.
• Steep yourself in symbolism with a musical explanation of the seder plate.
• Dance to a Passoverized remake of a Miley Cyrus hit.
• Relive the Exodus through an extended Internet search.

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If you’re looking for relevant social commentary to add to your Passover celebration, you should check out the JCPA’s Child Nutrition Seder at

Using one of the most evocative lines from the traditional Passover Seder – “Let all who are hungry come and eat” – the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger have re-contextualized the historical message of redemption from slavery with the modern struggle faced by hungry children across our country by creating the Child Nutrition Seder mobilization.

Beverly Newhouse says:

Thank you for your fascinating suggestions we will definitely try to incorporate some of your suggestions into our sedar. A few years ago we were priviledged to have our sedar at a very innovative friends home. He had each peron read the haggadah in a language they knew best. It was read in spanish, french, hebrew, and english. At the end of the sedar when you read the names of the animals you were expected to meow or bark at the approproate time perhaps we will try this also this year. Chag Sameach

Your article about Passover is informative and innovative. Another interesting and relatively new idea for Passover, which is only now becoming a “tradition” in many Jewish households, is incorporating a Miriam’s cup into the seder. Readers can learn more at

Here is an excerpt from Risa Borsykowsky’s article entitled “Miriam’s Cup – A New Tradition that Brings Women into the Heart of Judaism.”

“Giving Miriam a special place at the Passover table is a new concept in Judaism. Like most religions, Judaism developed within a male-dominated society and there are few pages dedicated to women in the Bible. Honoring and celebrating Miriam at Passover is a great opportunity to introduce Miriam, and the role she played in the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.”

Please see the rest of the article to learn about the significant role this remarkable woman played in the life of Moses and the Exodus.

This is very inlighting for a secular like me. It’s one of those articles that make me want to be more Jewish.
Thank you.

This is a fascinating insight into the cultural aspects. Something of which is nice to learn and gain an understanding to appreciate, not only the history and relevance of Passover as such, but also the insight into what the two main observations of chametz and seder are and what they are about.

Some Haggadot put “Miriam’s Cup” filled with water on the Seder Table. I prefer to…

_Drink From Miriam’s Well_

[Large pitcher of fresh, tasty drinking water from which all will drink at end of Seder stands on table throughout Seder. Also a bowl(s) to empty remainder of wine in cups before drinking from Miriam’s Well available. I usually put slices of orange and sprigs of fresh mint at the bottom, fill the pitcher with ice, then fill remainder of space with cold water.]

[Empty whatever wine remains in the wine glasses into the empty bowls then pour some water from the pitcher that has stood on the table into everyone’s wine glass.]

We have escaped bondage & crossed the sea. We enter the arid land before us, made hesitant by generations of servitude—mixed with our recent struggle, & yet heady in our new freedom.

We have thirsted for freedom, now we thirst for water. As with so many people in the world who do not have water, we face bitterness [Exodus 15:23] & quarreling[Exodus 17:6-7, Numbers 20:11]. Our ancient texts tell us Moses was able to turn the bitter into sweetness & bring forth water. But many disputes over water remain.

Further, we are told that Miriam, midwife of our liberation stands ready, waiting to sustain us in the time ahead as we come to grips with our tasks & responsibilities.

Our Sages spoke of Miriam’s Well, created in the twilight of creation’s week. It now lies hidden in the sea of Galilee for Elijah to restore to us. Ishmael received water from it as “the well of living & seeing”; Rebecca drew from it when she greeted Eliezer; the well first appeared to our people when Moses struck the rock on Miriam’s account at the place of bitterness in Sinai— & it traveled with us throughout the desert years.

Its waters, we are told, taste of old wine & new wine, of milk and of honey.

[more here: ]

All drink from Miriam’s well.

matzo balls not bombs!

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Passover FAQ

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Feast of Unleavened Bread

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