Passover always occurs on the fifteenth day of Nisan, (KNEE-son) the first month in the Hebrew calendar, which coincides with late March or early April of the secular calendar. It's the oldest festival of the Hebrew liturgical calendar, and has been observed by the Jewish people for more than three thousand years.
Passover is called by two names in the Bible: Chag Ha-Matzot (HA-gah MA-sewt), the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Chag Ha-Pesach (HA-gah PAY-sahk), referring to the Pesach or "paschal" offering of a lamb or calf. The term Passover comes from the story of the Exodus and the ten plagues suffered by the Egyptians. When Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, the angel of death was sent to slay the first born during the tenth plague, but "passed over" or "skipped" the homes of the Israelites. Seder (SAY-der) means order.
Held in the home, the Seder begins after sundown the evening before the first day of the Passover holiday. For generations, the arrangement of the Seder table, Seder plate, Seder meal, the readings, the songs, and the symbolic foods have followed a certain "order." The Seder is divided into three parts: Retelling the story of the Exodus, and partaking of the ceremonial foods; eating the Seder festive meal; and finally, reciting prayers of thankfulness, welcoming Elijah the prophet, and singing Passover songs.
A special book called a Haggadah (Ha-GOD-ah), meaning "to tell" or "relate," is used at the Passover Seder. Dated from the first century of the Common era, it provides the order in which the story of the Exodus is told. The Haggadah also explains the Passover symbols, and contains liturgical text, prayers and songs. The number four appears often in the Haggadah: the four cups of wine, the four questions, and the four sons. In ancient times the number four was thought to have some magical or mystical significance. Others say it relates to God's four promises made to the Israelites when they were freed from Egypt (Exodus 6:6-7): "I will bring you out of the land of bondage." "I will save you." "I will free you from slavery." "I will take you to be a chosen people."
Quick Tips for a Simple Seder from Zell Schulman's:
Let My People Eat! Passover Seders Made Simple
Don't feel that there is an ironclad way of celebrating Passover. Young families make their own traditions, intermarried couples often incorporate discussions from both religions in the Seder, and non-Jews bring a sense of community to the meal. Use the order of the Seder as an outline, not a mandate.
Buy or borrow a Haggadeh, the book which relates the story of Exodus. More importantly, it explains the order of the Seder, Passover symbols, and contains liturgical text, songs, and prayers. It literally tells you what to do and when. Consult with your local Temple or Judaica shop or surf the net look for sources specializing in or listed under Judaica. Call the gift shop of the local temple or synagogue and ask questions. Everyone likes to be helpful in preparing a Seder.
A handy reference guide is provided in Chapter II of Let My People Eat!, detailing which foods to purchase for Passover. The symbols for certified Kosher food labels are also outlined. Some easy substitutions for forbidden Passover foods:
Let My People Eat!
Passover Seders Made Simple
A Complete Guide to the Passover Seder
for Everyone: Jewish and Non-Jewish
by Zell Schulman
Macmillan USA 1998
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
This page modified February 2007
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