Understanding Jewish Holidays: Passover

By: Ellie Baden

Whenever someone asks me about Jewish holidays, my favorite descriptor for nearly every one is to say “they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.” Indeed, persecution, endurance, and food are defining traits of many of our religious stories and traditions. One holiday that this is especially true for is Passover.

Growing up, whenever someone asked me what my favorite holiday was, one of my first answers was always Passover. In my family, Passover meant going over to my grandparent’s house, playing with my cousins, and eating a huge, home cooked meal with my family. We told stories of the ancient Jews, sang songs, and—my personal favorite activity—participated in the Matzah hunt where each of my cousins and I would race around the house looking for a piece of unleavened bread knowing that the winner would receive a prize. However, as I grew older, I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for Passover and all that it represents to the Jewish people.

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, honors the Jewish exodus from the land of Egypt where we were enslaved. It is celebrated through a meal, called the Seder which literally translates to “order” in reference to the specific order each item is eaten. Each family member is given a Haggadah, which is essentially the book that contains the prayers and instructions for the night.

We begin with the first glass of wine (or sparkling juice for the kids), and the washing of the hands (although not completely accurate to the tradition, my family will usually pass around a scented hand sanitizer to complete this ritual). Then we go over the significance of each item on the Seder plate, the round plate that contains each of the symbols of the night. The parsley that gets dipped in salt water represents the tears of the Jewish slaves. The Matzah represents the bread that was not done baking when the Jews rushed out of Egypt. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The haroset, a combination of apples, nuts, and wine, represent the mortar and the bricks used by the slaves in Egypt. The shank bone represents the offerings the ancient Israelites made to the Temple. The egg represents life. And in my family, the orange represents the progress of society as women are now part of the rabbinate.

We then tell the story of how the ancient Jews, led by Moses, left Egypt and slavery. We hear about the 10 plagues God cast on the Egyptians after the Pharaoh refused to free the slaves. We hear about the splitting of the Red Sea and how the Jews rejoiced when they reached the other side.

Around this point in the night, the youngest person at the table who can read Hebrew asks the traditional four questions: why we do not eat leavened bread, why we only eat bitter herbs, why we dip the parsley into the salt water twice, and why we recline on pillows during the meal. The answers to these questions exemplify the reason we celebrate: because we are free to do so.

To me, Passover is the perfect example of what a Jewish holiday should be. Family, tradition, and the reminder that “they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat”.