The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Passover (Pesach)
Holiday of: Judaism and Jews
Name: Hebrew: פסח
Translation: "Pass/Skip-over"
Begins: 15th day of Nisan
Ends: 22nd (in Israel 21st) day of Nisan
Occasion: One of the Three Pilgrim Festivals. Celebrating the Exodus and freedom from slavery of the Children of Israel from ancient Egypt that followed the Ten plagues.
Beginning of the 49 days of Counting of the Omer.
Symbols: Two Festive Seder meals (in Israel only one), and reciting the Haggadah, eating of Matzah, drinking four cups of grape wine and filling the Cup of Elijah.
Related to: Shavuot ("Festival of Weeks", "Pentecost") which follows 49 days from the second night of Passover.

Passover, also known as Pesach or Pesah (פסח pesaḥ), is a Jewish holiday (lasting seven days in Israel and among some liberal Diaspora Jews, and eight days among other Diaspora Jews) that commemorates the exodus and freedom of the Israelites from Egypt; it is also observed by some Christians to commemorate the deliverance from sin by the death of Jesus.


Origins of the feast

The term Passover comes from the Bible, first mentioned in the Book of Exodus. It came into the English language through William Tyndale's translation of the Bible, and later appeared in the King James Version as well. As God pronounced to the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt that he would free them, he said he would "Smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt." However, he instructed the Israelites to put a sign of lamb's blood on their door posts: "and when I see the blood, I will pass over you." (Exodus 12:13, King James Version) The original verb in the Hebrew Torah is posach. The noun form, pesach, also appears in that same chapter, in reference to that lamb, which was sacrificed earlier that day and then eaten on that night: "and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord's passover." (Exodus 12:11, King James Version)

Although the term itself is not mentioned until the Book of Exodus, there are indications that at least parts of the feast were observed in earlier times. For example, in Genesis 19:3 reference is made to "unleavened bread" without any reason given for it. The scholar Maimonides leaves a short commentary on the end of the verse ("It was Passover" "פסח היה"), indicating that it wasn't necessarily a standard practice to prepare and eat unleavended bread, rather, that Lot was in a rush to serve the angels, and therefore did not have time to prepare proper, leavened bread.

The three main applicable groups of commandments associated with the holiday are: eating matzoh, or unleavened bread; the prohibition of eating any foods containing leavening during the holiday; and the retelling of the Jews' miraculous exodus from ancient Egypt (Mitzrayyim). In ancient times (until today among the Samaritans) there was a fourth: the offering of a lamb in the evening on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (also known as Aviv) and the eating that night of the Passover sacrifice. The commandment of retelling the Exodus is fulfilled through a communal ritual called the seder, celebrated on the first two evenings of the holiday (in Israel, only on the first evening). Other customs associated with Passover include eating bitter herbs and other foods specified for the seder meal. While many reasons are given for eating matzoh, the Book of Exodus explains is that it recalls the bread the Israelites ate at the time of the Exodus: in their rush to leave Egypt, they did not have time for the bread to rise.

Traditions and those who celebrate the Passover

There are many peoples throughout the world who celebrate the Passover feast. Jews have continued to celebrate it, and many Christian groups also celebrate the appointed Holy Days.

Modern Jewish customs

Before the holiday begins, observant Jews will remove and discard all food with leavening (called chametz) from their households. Although many do a thorough job, so that not even a crumb remains, the law only requires the elimination of olive-sized quantities of leavening from one's possesion. There is a custom to conduct a formal search for overlooked leavening, on the evening prior to the start of the holiday. This tradition is called bedikat chametz. Throughout the holiday, they will eat no leavened food, replacing breads, pastas, and cakes with matzoh and other specially prepared foods.

Passover is a family holiday and a happy one. The first and seventh days are observed as full holidays, as are the second and eighth days for Diaspora Jews.

It is traditional for a Jewish family to gather on the first two nights (only one night in Israel) for a special dinner called a seder (derived from the Hebrew word for "order", due to the very specific order of the ceremony) where the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt is retold by the reading of the story in the seder prayer book, the Haggadah.

At the seder three matzohs are used. During the seder, the middle matzoh is broken in half. The smaller piece is returned to the set of matzohs while the larger piece is designated as the afikomen, or the dessert matzoh. Two distinct customs have arisen among some Jews regarding the afikomen, both of which involve the afikomen being hidden as a means of keeping the children interested in the proceedings. In one custom, a child "steals" it and the parent has to find it. If the parent can't find it, the child is given a reward for the return of the afikomen. In the other custom, an adult hides the afikomen and the children look for it at the end of the meal. If the children find it, they receive a reward or ransom, as the seder cannot end until the afikomen is found.

During the seder, a platter called the "Seder Plate," covered with symbols of Passover, is placed at the center of the table in view of all. There is a roasted shank bone of a paschal lamb called a "Z'roa" which represents the offerings at the temple at Jerusalem on Passover. It has a roasted egg called a "Beitzah" which represents the second offerings given at the temple in Jerusalem on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. There is a green, leafy vegetable (usually celery (Sephardic tradition) or parsley/lettuce (Ashkenazi tradition)) called "Karpas" which reminds the participants that Passover corresponds with Spring and the harvest, which, in ancient times was a cause for celebration itself. There is a dish of chopped fruits, nuts, and wine called "Charoset" which represents the mortar used by the Jews in bondage. There is a dish of "maror" or bitter herbs which represent the bitterness of slavery.

Another tradition during the seder ceremony is recalling the Four Sons: the Wise son, the Wicked son, the Simple son, and the son who does not know enough to inquire. According to some, these sons represent the different types of Jews, as follows. The Wise son is the learned Jew. The Wicked son is the Jew that mocks his religion. The Simple son is the Jew that is unlearned. The fourth son is the Jew so unfamiliar with his heritage and traditions that he cannot relate to the subject without personal attention.

Since "Seder" means "order", it is not unexpected that there is an order to the night's proceedings. The night goes as follows:

  • Kaddesh קדש (Saying of Kiddush blessing and the first cup of wine)
  • Ur'chatz ורחץ (The washing of the hands)
  • Karpas כרפס (Dipping of the Karpas in salt water)
  • Yachatz יחץ (Breaking the middle matzoh which becomes the Afikomen)
  • Maggid מגיד (Telling of the Passover story, including reciting the Four Questions)
  • Rochtzah רחץ (Second washing of the hands)
  • Motzi/Matzah מוציא / מצה (Saying of the matzah blessing)
  • Maror מרור (Eating of charoset and maror)
  • Korech כורך (Eating of Matzah, charoset, and maror)
  • Shulchan Aruch שולחן עורך (Dinner is served; lit., "prepared table")
  • Tzafun צפון (Eating of the Afikomen)
  • Barech ברך (After dinner blessing and wine; in Ashkenazi families: welcoming of Elijah the Prophet)
  • Hallel הלל (Song singing, more wine)
  • Nirtzah נירצה (Conclusion)

Christian Passover

The New Testament of the Bible depicts Jesus as the culmination of the Passover Lamb of God; therefore, some Christians continue to celebrate the Passover, but with different meaning. As it is recorded in the New Testament, Jesus has become the sacrificed Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). As it had previously commemorated physical deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Passover now represents a spiritual deliverance from the slavery of sin and is memorial of the sacrifice that Jesus has made for mankind.

Although observances differ between groups of Christian believers, many follow the instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples at the time of his Last Supper before he was crucified. Unleavened bread is used to represent Jesus' body, and wine represents his blood and the New Covenant. These are a substitute for the traditional lamb used by Israelites in the Old Testament. Some people also add the ceremony of washing one another's feet, as Jesus did to his disciples the night before his suffering.

Some differences between observing groups are: some observe the celebration on the night before Passover, at the same time that Jesus held his Last Supper, while others observe it at the same time that the Passover was sacrificed, that is, the time of Jesus' sacrifice and death, which occurred in the evening "at the ninth hour," just as the Jews were sacrificing their Passover lambs.

Similar traditions in Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs

According to Roman Catholic beliefs, their Holy Week occurs around the same time as Passover. Easter was set so as not to coincide with Passover, though it is determined by a lunisolar calendar as is Passover. Catholics believe that Easter replaces Passover in importance, as Passover represents the death of Jesus, and Catholics believe that Easter represents the resurrection.

The Roman Catholic Church developed its tradition of celebrating the resurrection, deviating from the celebration of God's appointed Holy Day of the Passover representing the death of Jesus, early in its history. In letters exchanged between the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) churches and the Roman Church as early as the second century, a dispute is laid out that is referred to as the "Quartodeciman Controversy". The Eastern Churches believed that Christians should continue in the tradition of the Apostles of celebrating the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, whereas the Roman Church had already abandoned Passover in favor of a celebration on the following Sunday.

Most Protestants follow in the Catholic tradition of celebrating Easter instead of Passover; however, some do not.

Gregorian dates

Starting after sunset Ending before sunset
5764 5 April 2004 13 April 2004
5765 23 April 2005 1 May 2005
5766 12 April 2006 20 April 2006
5767 2 April 2007 10 April 2007
5768 19 April 2008 27 April 2008

See also

Last updated: 05-10-2005 02:21:14
Last updated: 08-26-2005 03:20:50