Ask a Jew to explain Passover, and they might respond with a humorous sentiment that may very well summarize most Jewish holidays:
“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!”
As Passover approaches, I invite you to journey with me to explore the holiday beneath its service — and take a glance into to why on April 10th, Jews around the world will be gathering around their dinner tables to remember events that took place nearly 3,000 years ago.
Over the years, Passover has infused itself more into American pop culture than perhaps any other Jewish holiday (well, maybe not Hanukkah). And no matter our faiths, most of us have either stumbled across The Ten Commandments on late night television, seen matzah on sale at the local grocery store, or if you were into 90’s cartoons, heard Tommy from Rugrats proclaim, “Let my babies go!”
But aside from what a loin-clothed Charlton Heston has taught us, some of us may still have questions about the meaning of the holiday.
For instance, where did the name for the holiday come from? What are the restrictions of Passover? Does matzah really taste like cardboard?
On Passover, we celebrate the Jewish people’s freedom from Egyptian rule. As the Pharaoh of Egypt resisted pleas from Moses to free thousands of Jewish slaves, God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians, including biting insects and wild animals, hail, and darkness. The tenth and final plague would kill each Egyptian first-born child. Jewish families were instructed to mark their doorposts so that God could “pass over” their homes during this plague, creating the holiday’s name, Passover.
The Jewish people had a window of opportunity to leave Egypt, but they left in such haste that the bread they were baking didn’t even have the chance to rise. To remind ourselves of the flat bread that resulted, Jews eat matzah for the eight-day duration of the holiday. In fact, Jews are forbidden from eating any leavened products on Passover, so that donut you’re eating? Strictly off limits.
On the first two nights of Passover, Jews sit down for a Seder, or ceremonial dinner, that includes much discussion about the exodus, drinking four cups of wine, and eating other ceremonial foods. Maror, or bitter herbs, are eaten to help remind us of the bitter slavery in Egypt. Charoset is an apple-nut-wine-cinnamon mixture that serves as a reminder of the mortar Jews had to make when enslaved in Egypt. Vegetables are dipped into salt water as a reminder of the tears Jews shed while in Egypt.
The youngest child at the Seder is encouraged to ask questions about the differences of this night by reciting the song “Mah Nishtana” or “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Four main difference are noted: the eating of matzah and not bread, the eating of bitter herbs, the dipping of foods at the Seder, and the reclining while eating during the Seder. Reclining during meals was a custom of royalty, and on this special night we too have earned the right to indulge.
During the Seder, a large piece of matzah is broken and hidden to be eaten later in the meal. Children are encouraged to search for this piece of matzah, called the afikoman, which is usually redeemable for a gift when found. There are a few theories as to why we hide the afikoman. For one, it gives children a reason to not fall asleep during the Seder. More profound, however, is the idea that the afikoman signals that the most gratifying element of the world is yet to arrive – the moshiach, or Jewish Messiah.
Perhaps more than anything, Passover embodies the importance of showing gratitude for the simple things we tend to take for granted from time to time, like our freedom. Let us not forget those who in today’s era still struggle to earn their basic human rights.
As to whether matzah really does taste like cardboard, you’ll just have to try it out yourself. I hear they go on sale shortly after the holiday ends.