Passover is the holiday which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and the next stage in the unfolding biblical story of the Children of Israel. In 2012 it begins on Friday night, April 6.
Here are eight things you may want to know about it:
1.What is Passover and is it the same as Pesach?
Passover and Pesach are the same thing. One is simply English and the other is Hebrew. In either case, it is the holiday which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and the next stage in the unfolding biblical story of the Children of Israel.
After centuries of slavery, Passover celebrates the passage into freedom for an entire people. The specific "passing over" for which the holiday is named refers to the way in which God passed over, or protected, the homes of the Israelites during the night they prepared to leave Egypt, as the last of the Ten Plagues was being visited upon the Egyptians.
2.When does Passover begin and how long does it last?
Passover 2012 begins at sundown on Friday, April 6. That is the date according to the Gregorian calendar. According to the Jewish calendar, Passover always begins on the 15th of Nissan, which is, according to the Hebrew Bible, the first month in the ancient Israelite calendar.
The holiday lasts for 7 days in Israel and 8 days everywhere else, reflecting a long-held custom honoring the fact that maintaining an accurate liturgical calendar far from Israel, where Jewish religious authority was centered in ancient times, was not so simple before people had modern communication technology.
3.What’s the deal with Matzah?
Matzah is the flat, cracker-like, unleavened bread which has become the central symbol of Passover, especially since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the end of the Paschal sacrifice.
The Bible specifically commands eating Matzah on the first night of Passover, and prohibits all leavened products the entire week of the holiday.
Like most great and durable symbols, Matzah invites multiple, and even contradictory interpretations. Sometimes referred to as “bread of poverty”, Matzah recalls the food that the Israelites ate when they were slaves. It also recalls the rapid liberation of the Israelites, which happened so fast that they did not even have time to allow the bread for the journey to rise before setting out from Egypt.
4.What does the word Egypt mean and how can knowing that help you?
Egypt, is not “Egypt” in the Bible. In the original Hebrew, it is called “Mitzrayim”, which means tight places, or in narrow straights. To be in Mitzrayim/Egypt is not simply to be a slave in a story from long ago.
It is the paradigmatic experience of being stuck between a rock and a hard place – an experience which virtually all people have at some point in their lives. Passover reminds all people that while getting jammed up can, and likely will, happen to each of us, there is always the possibility of redemption and release.
Whoever you are, and whatever faith you follow, Passover invites us to take stock of where we are stuck, and seek the help we need to get un-stuck.
5.Why is Passover the most widely celebrated ritual among American Jews?
American Jews, not to mention increasing numbers of others, celebrate Passover because it just works.
To put it simply, Passover is about freedom, family, and food. At least that is how it works for most people, and what more could one ask for in a holiday?
But it’s more than that.
Nowhere, and at no time, in 3,000 years of Jewish history have Jews known the kind of centuries-long freedom and security which are the American Jewish experience. The Passover story of freedom -- of the journey from oppression to opportunity -- is also the American story at its best, not just for Jews but for all people, and it rings deeply true when it is told at Seder tables across this nation. It makes perfect sense that this holiday has “won,” at least for now.
6.How is Passover celebrated, or, What's a Seder?
Seder is the Hebrew word for ‘order’ and it refers to the carefully ordered Passover dinner party/symposium, typically held at home, which brings people together to experience the move from slavery to freedom in story, song, and conversation – especially the raising of questions about what it means to go free and to be free.
The evening is anchored by rituals including drinking, over the course of the evening, four cups of wine recalling the four times when the Israelites are described as being redeemed, eating the Matzah, and also bitter herbs, meant to evoke the bitterness of slavery. Those bitter herbs are dipped in a bit of sweet apple or date relish, reminding those gathered of the sweetness that can be found at even the most difficult of times, and of the promise of even greater sweetness to come.
7.Was the Last Supper a Seder?
The Last Supper is often explained, based on readings of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, as having been a Passover Seder. Certainly the time of year at which Jesus came to Jerusalem fits, and the communal meal at which he gathered his disciples is suggestive of something like a Seder, with ritualized eating, drinking and teaching through conversation. Of course, those are also regular features of any classically Jewish meal of religious import. Also, according to the Book of John, the Last Supper was the day before Passover. Scholars can continue to fight this out, but one thing is clear: both the Last Supper and the Seder point to power of celebrating ones most deeply held values in the presence of those about whom we care, in the context of a freely offered table.
8.How are Passover and Easter related?
While the tradition of calculating the date of Easter based on the date of Passover ended many centuries ago, the holidays share some very deep truths of which all people can avail themselves. Who doesn't need to be reminded that however dark and cold the winter has been, the promise of spring -- of rebirth and renewal is always there? Whether discovered in the story of a nation that goes from freedom to slavery and back to freedom again, or in the story of one who lives, dies and is born again, we must all locate how to celebrate that life holds more possibility and potential than we first imagine -- that there is reason for hope, and that in celebrating triumphs of hope from the past, we can unleash new stories of hope in the present and in the future.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.