Passover is a central holiday on the Jewish calendar and is one of the three Jewish festivals (the other two are Shavuot and Sukkot), all of which date from the biblical era and have historical and agricultural significance. For all three Jewish festivals, the Children of Israel are commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The festival of Passover tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt – the freeing of the Israelites from 400 years of bondage and exile. In order to preserve the miracle of the Exodus in the Jewish consciousness, the Children of Israel are commanded in the Torah to observe this festival on the date of their exodus from Egypt. The seven-day festival of Passover (outside Israel, the festival lasts eight days) begins with the Passover Seder meal on the first night of the festival (outside Israel, there is also a Passover Seder meal on the second night). At this meal, Jews celebrate the holiday with four cups of wine, whose consumption is part of the ceremony set forth in the holiday’s “manual,” the Haggadah, as they relate to each other the story of the Exodus from Egypt. On the first day and the last day of Passover (outside Israel on the first two and last two days) Jews are restricted from working.
The festival’s name, Passover (Pessach in Hebrew) is derived from the Hebrew root P-S-KH, which means to pass over. In the Passover narrative in the Book of Exodus, God passes over the homes of the Israelites on the night of the tenth plague – the Plague of the Firstborn – when all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died. Another name for Passover is the Festival of Spring, which symbolizes the festival’s agricultural importance: The holiday falls at the beginning of the harvest period in Israel.
There are many laws, customs and traditions connected with Passover, the preparation for which entails considerable time and effort. In the Passover narrative in the Bible, the Israelites must leave Egypt in a hurry and thus they are unable to even bake bread for their journey, because there is not enough time to allow the dough to rise. They must make do with unleavened bread, matzah in Hebrew; to commemorate the Exodus, Jews are commanded to avoid hametz, that is, any food item such as bread, various kinds of baked goods, etc., that is leavened and which contains one or more of the five major kinds of grain: wheat, barley, buckwheat, oats and rye. The prohibition concerning hametz applies not only to its consumption but even to the possession or sale of hametz; thus, throughout the seven days of Passover in Israel you will not find bread or baked goods that are leavened in most restaurants and eating establishments. In addition, the prohibition concerning hametz has brought with it the development of the custom of a thorough spring cleaning in both homes and many businesses. The purpose of this spring cleaning is to ensure the total removal of any hametz from the premises. Because of the prohibition concerning hametz, the days preceding Passover and the festival’s intermediate days (hol hamo’ed, when one is permitted to work) have become a period when many people renovate their houses and businesses.
The prohibition concerning hametz and the considerable amount of time and effort spent in cleaning one’s house and/or business prepare Jews for the climax of the festival of Passover – the Passover Seder meal, which takes place in Israel on the night that begins the festival’s first day (and, outside Israel, on the first two nights of the festival). The Passover Seder, which is conducted in accordance with the festival’s “manual,” the Haggadah, includes the reading out loud of the Haggadah, which, in addition to the instructions for conducting the Seder, consists of stories and traditions written by classical rabbinical authorities. The Haggadah is presented in the form of questions, songs and stories, all of which are meant to teach and explain and to arouse the curiosity of those seated around the Passover Seder table, especially the children –because the Torah commands Jews to tell their children about the Exodus from Egypt on Passover. The Haggadah contains many customs, which include the consumption of bitter herbs, symbolizing the suffering of the Children of Israel in Egypt; the drinking of four cups of wine to recall the four different kinds of salvation involved in the Exodus; and the afikoman, the part of the matzah (unleavened bread) that signifies the end of the meal and which is customarily hidden in order to encourage the children to search for it.
In addition to its main customs, the festival is connected with other customs, traditions and commandments. Passover symbolizes the transition from the damp seasons of fall and winter in Israel to the dry seasons of spring and summer; on the first morning of the festival, Jews stop praying for rainfall and begin praying for the morning dew (the shift back to praying for rainfall will take place six months later on the last day of the festival of Sukkot). The prayer for dew, recited during the Additional Service on the first day of Passover, focuses on the importance of dew for human existence. Besides the recital of the prayer for dew, Jews begin counting the Omer on the second night of Passover: This is essentially a countdown, lasting 49 days, to the festival of Shavuot.
Another well-known custom associated with Passover is the celebration, on the day immediately following the last day of Passover, of the Maimouna, a custom practiced originally among North African, mainly Moroccan, Jews. In Israel, Maimouna has been transformed from an ethnic holiday to a national holiday. It is regarded as a day of good fortune and many of its celebrants believe that it can herald prosperity and the finding of a suitable match for marriage. In the traditional observance of this holiday, families keep their front door open so that friends as well as strangers can come in and enjoy the various sweet delicacies customarily served on Maimouna.