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How Is Passover Celebrated?

Passover, which began at sundown on Wednesday April 5, and will last for eight days, is celebrated in a number of ways. On Passover, Jews are instructed not to eat any leavened products (called chametz (kha-maetz)), such as bread, pasta, cake, or cookies—anything that has risen—because when the Israelites fled Egypt, they left in a rush, so they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. Not eating any chametz is called keeping kosher for Passover. For many Jews, such as Ms. DeHaan, a Spanish teacher at South and one of South’s Jewish staff members who was interviewed for this article, keeping kosher for Passover is an important part of observing the holiday. “I do try [to keep kosher for Passover],” she said. “… I do my best.”

Other Jews don’t keep kosher for Passover, or interpret it differently, like Mr. Jones, a robotics teacher, and another of South’s Jewish teachers interviewed for this article. “I take a creative interpretation to all of these things. . . I’m thinking, in the process of creating this thing, did it rise?” For Mr. Jones, while bread is not kosher for Passover, he views pasta as kosher for Passover. “I don’t think anybody says pasta is kosher for Passover, [but] I will do it.” 

The main way that Passover is celebrated, however, is through a Seder, a meal on the first and second nights of the holiday. Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and is a “dinner, with a sort of prescribed process, and a deliberate set of traditions that go along with it,” as Ms. Weinsaft, a Jewish psychology teacher at South interviewed for this article, described it. The Seder consists of fifteen steps, including blessings, telling the story of Passover, traditional foods, and a festive meal. It is celebrated with friends or family—even those who are not Jewish.

“I always end up introducing new people to the Passover traditions,” Mr. Jones said. One of the core ideas of Passover is that Jews were strangers in Egypt, so they should be welcoming to others in their community, including non-Jews. Many Jews invite non-Jews to celebrate with them at their Seders. Nevertheless, most Jews also try to celebrate with family when possible, whether that is their immediate family, extended family, or their partner’s family.

During the Seder, families and friends read from a Haggadah. “It’s like a prayer book and a checklist formed into one,” Mr. Jones said, as it includes blessings, added readings, and discussion topics for those at the Seder table. Different families use different Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah), and some rely on the Haggadah more than others. “We used to stick to the Haggadah, and then we stopped because we have a lot of little kids in the [extended] family now,” Ms. DeHaan explained. 

When using the Haggadah, families or friends often go around the table, each reading a section or blessing. Before the main meal, “we keep [the Seder] to forty-five minutes to an hour,” Ms. Weinsaft said, as seders are often notoriously long, and the main meal falls near the end.

Different families make different foods for their main meal, including brisket and chicken, and Passover desserts include unleavened sweets like macaroons, merengues, and flourless cakes. Throughout the earlier part of the Seder, though, there are many blessings, readings, and songs. There are also many traditional foods that are eaten then.

A main food eaten at Passover is matzo (matz-ah), or unleavened bread, representing the Israelites who didn’t have time for their bread to rise when they fled Egypt. Though most Jews respect its significance, “it gets a little boring if that’s the only bread product you eat for a week,” Mr. Jones admits.

During the Seder, matzo is eaten with different foods on it, such as maror—bitter herbs—that symbolize the suffering of the Israelites. Maror is typically horseradish at Seders. “I’m really just here for the horseradish,” Ms. Weinsaft joked. Not everyone likes maror, though. “I’m not a huge horseradish fan,” Ms. DeHaan admitted. “I’ll do it for the Seder.”

Another food eaten with matzo is charoset, which symbolizes the bricks that the Israelite slaves used in their backbreaking labor. Charoset can be made from many things, but is usually a blended mix of fruits like apples and dates, nuts, and grape juice or red wine. “We’re an apple, walnut, and red wine family,” Mr. Jones said. 

Traditionally, charoset is sweet, and it complements the spicy maror. Though they can be eaten separately on matzo, when they are eaten together, they are known as a Hillel sandwich, named after a famous historical rabbi. Another Passover food eaten in the Seder is karpas, or greens (usually parsley or celery), that are dipped in salt water to commemorate the tears the Israelites shed while enslaved in Egypt.

Aside from blessings and readings about karpascharosetmarormatzo, and more, a main part of the Seder is the telling of the story of Passover (called Magid). The Four Questions are a part of this section. The Four Questions discuss why the Seder is different from all other nights, and they are traditionally sung in Hebrew by the youngest person at the Seder table. “I remember as a child hating doing the Four Questions, but I also kind of secretly loved it,” Ms. DeHaan explained. Ms. Weinsaft said lightly, “I’m an only child, so I’ve been stuck with that for years and years and years.”

After the main meal, the kids at the Seder table play another important role: the hunt for the afikomen. Meaning “dessert” in Hebrew, the afikomen is not actually dessert, but is a piece of matzo that has been set aside and hidden by an adult for the kids to find. The kid who finds it typically gets a small prize. “Finding the afikomen is always the best,” Ms. Weinsaft said. She recalled one specific afikomen hiding place. “There was one year that it got hidden and taped underneath the table.”

“They used to hide enough so that everyone could find one,” Ms. DeHaan remembered. “They would put them on a windowsill behind closed curtains. They would put them in random bowls of candy. There was always one under a random part of the couch. And it was always in a napkin.”

Mr. Jones recalled an interesting afikomen year, as well. “One time it was hidden behind the person’s back while they were sitting at the table. That was a good one. I did not find it that year. But we all got prizes, whether we found it or not.”

After the search for the afikomen, most Seders begin to wrap up. They often conclude with traditional Jewish songs sung at Passover like Eliahu or Chad Gadya, as families and friends begin to wind down after the Seder. 

Traditionally, at the end of the Seder, the whole table says, “Next year in Jerusalem!” By saying this, Jewish communities across the diaspora—around the world—are able to join together in their Jewishness, united in their common experiences as Jews and on Passover.

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