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the story of passover

Updated on April 5, 2012

Passover Dates for 2012

April 6–14
April 6–14

Ma Nishtana

Passover is an eight day holiday celebrating the Biblical liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Passover marks the birth of the Jewish nation more than 3,000 years ago. The holiday is rich with traditions meant to help us achieve "freedom" in own own lives. The celebration begins with the seder on the evening of the 14th of Nissan. And it is on this night that the youngest at the table asks the four questions, known to Jews all over the world as 'Ma Nistanah" - and so we ask why is this night different from all the other nights.

No holiday in the Jewish calender is more complex or evocative than Passover. The spring holiday that celebrates the return of the sunlight and the first fruits of spring on the table also reflects on the profound religious themes of the autumn festivals, awakening life and death, rebirth and gratitude. The Passover story recalls critical events in the history of the Jewish people in which a group of slaves became a nation possessed of the dream of the Torah. And so on this night, we remember that once we were slaves and now we are free.



The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottish "loch") comes from the Hebrew root Pei-Samekh-Cheit , meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that G-d "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. In English, the holiday is known as Passover. For it was on the night before the last of the plagues that God unleashed on the Egyptians to force Pharoah to free the enslaved Israelites. The Jews were told to smear the doorposts with the blood of a lamb. The way the story goes , the Angel of Death stopped in all the unmarked homes, taking the first born son. But wherever the Angel of Death saw the blood on the doorpost , Death passed.

For this fragment of the story to make sense, the rest of the story must be told. For it tells the history of how the Jews came to Egypt as well as the story of Moses.

This is both the message and the method of Passover - to tell the story so that is becomes part of the memory and consciousness of one generation to the next.

As It Is Said

in Exodus "and you shall love"
in Exodus "and you shall love"
On Passover we eat Matzah
On Passover we eat Matzah

The Jewish Holiday of Passover

Passover is, first and foremost a teaching holiday. Its central ritual is the seder.The word seder literally means 'order'. It is a talking feast held on the first and second nights of Passover. It is a very demanding holiday for it requires a drastic change of diet for the week long observance. Eating bread is forbidden, even owning leavened foods acts as a reminder of the times when Jews were a hunted people who did not have enough time to wait for the dough to rise before baking it.

The ritual act of preparing a house for Passover is a search for chametz. You could also think of this ritual in a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from our souls. Chametz makes bread puff up, think of this as the ego. "Leaven represents the evil impulse of the heart," . We must get ego out of our lives. We should strive to be as humble as a flat piece of unleavened matzah.

Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. The grain product we eat during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt.

Passover is also a time to reflect on those less fortunate than ourselves, as well as a time to to be thankful for all the good fortunes we do have. Matzah is a symbol of affliction and poverty. The Maggid is the telling of the story of Passover, and it tells us of the hardships and suffering of that our ancestors endured.. It reminds us today of those who are in need, so we say "whoever is hungry, come share our food and celebrate Passover". To those who are poor or oppressed, we pray for them and hope that the coming year will bring a better life for all.

The Agam Passover Haggadah
The Agam Passover Haggadah

The Haggadah

The Haggadah is the "instruction manual" for the Jewish Passover seder meal and lists the rituals that have been compiled and ordered into 15 steps by Talmudic scholars roughly in the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E.. Probably the best ways of putting Passover story into context is to read the Book of Exodus. It has all the elements of an exciting story, slavery and oppression followed by freedom and redemption......with hope for the future. The Haggadah educates us about the past while it helps us to appreciate what we have today.

It encourages dialogue with our children by asking questions, giving examples and telling stories. It is also traditional of read Songs of Songs, the biblical cycle of loves poems that are filled with images of nature. Clearly it is a time of rebirth as is Springtime which emphasizes all the elements of the holiday.

The Seder Plate
The Seder Plate

Seder Plates on Amazon


Most Passover seder plates have six dishes for the six symbols of the Passover seder. These are:

  • Maror (bitter herbs) Bitter Herbs (usually horseradish) a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.
  • Karpas (vegetable) Vegetable a green vegetable (usually parsley) representing spring. In the course of the seder, the parsley is dipped in a bowl of salt water, a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.
  • Charoset (apple, nut, spice and wine mixture) A paste made usually of chopped apples, cinnamon, and wine, symbolic of the mortar used by the slaves for making bricks
  • Zeroa (shankbone)The Shankbone A roasted shankbone-symbolic of the pascal sacrifice.
  • Beitzah (egg) a roasted egg symbolic of the Passover sacrifices from the time the Temple was still standing. It is also symbolic of life.
  • Matzah, 3 pieces of matzah.

4 Cups of Wine on Passover
4 Cups of Wine on Passover

4 Times the Torah Commands Us to Tell the Story of the Exodus to Our Children.

Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20

In the Torah there are four different phrases used to describe how G-d saved the Hebrews from Egypt. Taken from two verses in the book of Exodus (6:6-7), they were the rabbinic basis for establishing the obligation to drink four cups of wine.

When it comes to Passover, Four is a Lucky Number

We drink 4 Cups of Wine

Each cup corresponds to the four statements made by God in Exodus 6:6-7:

  • Freedom ~ "I will bring you out."
  • Deliverance ~ "I will deliver you."
  • Redemption ~ "I will redeem you.
  • "Release ~ "I will take you."

The seder table also has a cup of wine for Elijah, it is there on the table as a symbol of hope for redemption and a healed world. Some people may put an empty cup there and pass it around so that everyone may add a little of their wine symbolizing that we all must work together to bring harmony and world peace.

Passover Has 4 Names:

  • Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover)
  • Chag HaMatzot (the festival of matzah)
  • Chag Ha'Aviv (the festival of spring)
  • Z'man Cheiruteinu (the time of our freedom)

Ma Nishtana
Ma Nishtana

The Four Sons.

  • The Wise
  • The Wicked
  • The Simple
  • The Young

Some look at these sons as symbolic of the four types of Jews and their attitude towards their religion. The Wise son refer to the Jews who are observant, the Wicked son represents the Jews who are not respectful to their heritage and religion and reject them altogether, the Simple son is the one who is indifferent to all the religious activities and do not even try to understand them while the Young one represents the Jews who are ignorant of their culture and traditions.

Others may look at the sons as them representing four qualities within each of us.It is a good time to reflect on each one of the sons own strengths and weaknesses. The Four Sons live in all of us. Sometimes we are genuinely searching, other times we are rebelling; sometimes we connect through our heart first, then our head, and other times we are just too tired, stressed or burned out to care anymore. The lesson of the Four Sons is to appropriately nurture that spark for learning that lives within all of us.



One of the most important rituals to be followed at Seder is those of four questions that are customarily asked by the youngest child capable of memorizing the words. The main objective, however, of the Ma Nishtanah is to train the child in asking questions, because only through questions does one truly learn. Each question leads to more questions, and the answers to each of these succeeding questions leads to greater and greater knowledge.

The four questions that are asked are given here along with some basic answers:

1. Why do we eat only Matzoh on Pesach and not all kinds of breads and crackers like other nights?

When Pharaoh finally ordered Jews to get out of Egypt after the tenth plague, they were in such a hurry to get away from slavery that they hadn't time to let their dough rise and bake their bread. Thus, they took the raw dough with them on their journey and baked it into hard crackers in the hot desert called Matzoh. Thus, we eat only Matzoh on this day to remind us of their struggles.

2. Why do we eat bitter herbs or Maror at our Seder?

Maror or the bitter herbs are eaten to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and harsh and cruel ways in which Jewish people were treated as slaves under the Pharaoh in Egypt.

3. At our Seder, why do we dip the parsley in salt water and the bitter herbs in Charoset?

Parsley represents new life and Spring while salt water represents tears of Hebrew slaves. Parsley dipped in salt water thus represents new life that emerged from the tears and hardship of the Jewish slaves. Bitter herbs dipped into Charoset represent the bitter days of slavery. Charoset has a coarse texture like clay used to make bricks for the Pharaoh's buildings.

4. Why do we lean on a pillow while eating tonight and do not sit straight like other nights?

Leaning on a pillow signifies the comforts of freedom. As slaves, our ancestors had little comforts. Thus, we lean on a pillow to assert that we are free now and can sit straight or lean on a pillow as much as we like.

The Exodus

Happy Passover
Happy Passover
Passover Facts
Passover Facts


Interesting Passover Facts

  • Passover, the popular Jewish holiday, is celebrated in remembrance of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
  • There is no fixed date of the Passover. The date of this festival is dependent on the phases of the moon.
  • The term, Passover, specifically refers to the passing over of the first-born Jewish males, when the death plague hit Egypt.
  • "Seder" meal takes place on the first, sometimes even second, night of Passover, and comprises of a festive family meal.
  • Even if Moses is the most important human figure in the Passover story, he is mentioned only once in the Haggadah.
  • During World War I, in Vilna, Poland, when it was very difficult to find kosher wine, the rabbinical authorities made a special announcement to allow sweet tea in the Seder ceremony, instead of the traditional four cups of wine.
  • "Haggadah" is the name of a religious Jewish text, explaining the complete story of Passover.
  • A popular and traditional Hebrew song performed during Passover is called "Dayeynu" This means "Enough" This song lists the miracles that G-d performed in freeing the Jewish people. Dayenu literally means "it would've been sufficient for us"
  • During the seven or eight days of Passover, only unleavened bread is eaten and foods containing yeast are strictly avoided.
  • It is believed that festival of Passover has some connection with Bible, as it refers to the Biblical story of the 10th Plague.
  • Matzoh is the name of the unleavened bread that is eaten during the seven or eight days of Passover.
  • Among Orthodox Jews, the day before Passover is a fast day, when every firstborn Jewish male has to fast, to commemorate the original deliverance of the firstborn sons on the first Passover eve.
  • Passover usually coincides with the Christian holiday of Easter.
  • Many centuries ago, Jewish people who lived in the Sahara used to abandon their fortified villages on the Passover day and march into the desert, in memory of the first Passover, when the ancient Israelites left Egypt to follow Moses to the Promised Land.

Seder Plate
Seder Plate
Always expect a Miracle on Passover
Always expect a Miracle on Passover


The traditional phrase that ends the seder is "l'shana haba-a b'Yerushalayim" - meaning "next year in Jerusalem "

To me that has always been a statement that expresses the hope that next year all will be free and no one will be a slave to anyone or anything.



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