A brief history of Passover, which honours resilience amid adversity

On this important holiday, Jews around the world commemorate the Israelites' liberation from enslavement in ancient Egypt.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 8 Apr 2020, 11:46 BST
A family gathers for a seder, the ritual meal that celebrates Moses freeing the Israelites.

A family gathers for a seder, the ritual meal that celebrates Moses freeing the Israelites.

Photograph by Ilan Rosen, Alamy

As the days brighten and spring kicks into full swing, Jews all over the world prepare for Passover, a week-long holiday that is one of Judaism’s most widely celebrated and most important observances. Also known by its Hebrew name Pesach, Passover combines millennia of religious traditions—and it’s about much more than matzoh and gefilte fish.

The story of Passover can be found in the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, which relates the enslavement of the Israelites and their subsequent escape from ancient Egypt.

Fearing that the Israelites will outnumber his people, the Egyptian Pharaoh enslaves them and orders every newly born Jewish son murdered. One son is Moses, whose birth has been foretold as the saviour of the Israelites. He is saved and raised by the pharaoh’s daughter.

In adulthood, God speaks to Moses, urging him to tell Pharaoh to let his people go. But the pharaoh refuses. In return, God brings ten consecutive plagues down on Egypt (think: pestilence, swarms of locusts, and water turning to blood), but spares the Israelites. (Who was the Egyptian Pharaoh who challenged Moses?)

During the final plague, an avenging angel goes door to door in Egypt, smiting every household’s firstborn son. God has other plans for the Israelites, instructing Moses to tell them to slaughter a lamb, then brush its blood on the sides and tops of their doorframes so that the avenging angel will “pass over.” Then they are to eat the sacrificial lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened—without yeast—bread. This is the last straw for Pharaoh, who frees the Israelites and banishes them from Egypt.

A team of Orthodox Jewish teenagers flatten matzoh dough for Passover. The entire baking process must be completed within 18 minutes to prevent the dough from fermenting since leavened bread is traditionally forbidden during Passover.

Photograph by In Pictures Ltd., Corbis, Getty

Modern Passover celebrations commemorate and even reenact many of the biblical events. The seder (“order”), the ritual meal that is the centrepiece of Passover celebrations, incorporates foods that represent elements of the story. Bitter herbs (often lettuce and horseradish) stand for the bitterness of slavery. A roasted shank bone commemorates the sacrificial lamb. An egg has multiple interpretations: Some hold that it stands for new life, and others see it as standing for the Jewish people’s mourning over the struggles that awaited them in exile. Vegetables are dipped into saltwater representing the tears of the enslaved Israelites. Haroset, a sweet paste made of apples, wine, and walnuts or dried fruits, represents the mortar the enslaved Israelites used to build Egypt’s stone cities.

During a traditional seder, participants eat unleavened bread, or matzoh, three times, and drink wine four times. They read from a Haggadah, a guide to the rite, hear the story of Passover, and answer four questions about the purpose of their meal. Children get involved, too, and search for an afikomen, a piece of broken matzoh, that has been hidden in the home. Every seder is different, and is governed by community and family traditions. 

Passover observances vary in and outside of Israel. The holiday lasts one week in Israel and eight days in the rest of the world, in commemoration of the week in which the Israelites were pursued by the Egyptians as they went into exile. During those days, many Jews refrain from eating leavened bread; some also abstain from work during the last two days of Passover and attend special services before and during Passover week. Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel participate in two seders; Reform Jews and those inside Israel only celebrate one. (See inside an ancient Passover tradition according to biblical law.)

The Passover celebration underscores powerful themes of strength, hope, and triumph over adversity and anti-Semitism. But this year, seders will take place beneath the shadow of a pandemic. In the face of social distancing and closed synagogues, people will be forced to improvise—and the feast of resistance and renewal will take on even more significance as people celebrate apart.

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