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What is Passover? - Definition, Story, Traditions & Significance

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Despite the fact that many non-Jews are familiar with the story of Passover, relatively few have an appreciation for the greater meaning of the festival's rituals. Far beyond special dishes and unleavened bread, Passover is a reminder of the trust that the Israelites once put in God.

What Is Passover?

Passover is among the most important festivals on the Jewish calendar. Lasting eight days, it is, alongside Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the most widely celebrated holiday for the Jewish people. The festival involves time with family, remembrance of the Israelite people, and commemoration of the bond Jews believe that God has with His chosen people. Typically, Passover happens during the spring.

What Does Passover Commemorate?

In Jewish tradition, the Israelites, who would eventually become the Jewish people, had been invited to Egypt during the time of Joseph, as a reward for the latter's service to the Pharaoh. However, in time the Israelites had become the slaves of the Egyptians and were treated with great injustice. Moses, despite a legend stating that he had been pampered by Egyptian royalty as a child, stood up to the Pharaoh for the treatment of the Israelites, with God unleashing a number of plagues upon the Egyptians as retribution for refusal to free the slaves.

Moses
Moses

The most severe of these was the death of the firstborn son. In order to mark themselves as separate from the Egyptians, the Israelites indicated in lamb's blood on their door that they were not Egyptian as the power of God killed the firstborn son of all unmarked doors. As such, the feat commemorates the fact that the Jews were 'passed over' this fate.

What Are Some of the Traditions of Passover?

As with any religious holiday, Passover is rich with tradition. Some of the more notable are as follows.

In commemoration of the lamb's blood that kept the Israelites safe, a lamb without blemish is sacrificed shortly before the start of Passover, with the expectation that it will be eaten during the week.

As the Israelites were forced to leave Egypt so quickly that even bread could not rise, all risen bread, or chametz, is cleared from the house. Routinely, the whole family joins in the search for any bread, with the head of the household often hiding some pieces so as to not disappoint the children. The bread is then burned, and a prayer is offered requesting that any remaining bread turn into dust and thus is rendered useless.

As even the smallest amount of chametz can contaminate a dish during Passover, many observant Jews use an entirely separate set of plates for the week. Often the finest china in the household, it is kept fastidiously clean. In some houses, utensils are boiled as a way of removing chametz, while in others, ovens are cleansed by either using the self-clean option or through the use of a blow torch.

The most important part of the first night, and sometimes the second night as well, of Passover is the seder, which is a festive dinner markedly different from the usual Shabbat seders held on Friday nights. Importantly, the order of certain blessings, rituals, and invocations is completely changed, almost as if symbolic of the chaos of life in the desert. Modern Jews have taken advantage of the changes as a natural opportunity to invite questions from children, thus imparting an appreciation of the festival on the next generation.

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