The first of the seven feasts, according to scripture, is at the beginning of the year – and was called Pesach (Passover).
This first appointed feasts is still a major Jewish holiday today and celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt on the 15h day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. It is the first month of Aviv, or actually in Hebrew, spring. Lasting seven days in the land (and eight outside the land) the word Pesach/Passover can refer to the paschal lamb that was offered or to the actuall Passover Seder (ritual meal on Passover evening), or to the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
As we search the scriptures, it doesn’t take long to find the ‘story’. Reading in Exodus we see YHWH (God) commanding Moses to instruct the Israelites to place the lamb’s blood on the outside of their doors in order that the Angel of Death would pass over them. After the last and final plague, the death of the firstborn, Phraoh ordered the Israelites to leave Egypt. They were allowed to plunder Egypt and take whatever they wanted on their way out.
At the Passover Seder, the story is recounted in the form of the Haggadah to commemorate the words of God “And thou shalt tell (haggada) they son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.”
During this seven (or eight) day festival, leaven (representing sin) is also removed from the home, as well as our spiritual homes (the heart) so that we are ready for the giving of the law at Pentecost/Shavuot.
Leaven, is known in Hebrew as chametz (Hebrew: חמץ ḥamets, “leavening”) is made from one of five types of grains which were then combined with water and left to stand for more than eighteen minutes. Eighteen being the number of ‘life’. The eating, owning or even having chametz is forbidden during this feast season. It is not the yeast and fermentation themselves that is not permitted, nor is baking soda, baking powder or like products forbidden. Let’s look at what the Torah commandments regarding chametz actually are:
- To remove all chametz from one’s home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover. It may be simply used up, thrown out (historically, destroyed by burning), or given or sold to non-Jews.
- To refrain from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover.
- Not to possess chametz in one’s domain (i.e. home, office, car, etc.) during Passover.
SEARCH FOR LEAVEN
The search for leaven begins on the night of the fourteenth of Nisan, the night before the Passover Seder. Many homes do a formal search in their homes known as bedikat chametz for every crumb of remaining leaven (chametz).
The Talmud in Pesahim (p. 2a) instructs from their interpretation of the scriptures that the search for chametz must be conducted by the light of a candle, done at night, and then burnt up the next morning. A blessing is made at night for the search and the preparation of destroying all chametz from one’s household.
Probably the best known element of the Passover is the bread called ‘matzo’, which is an unleavened flatbread made solely from flour and water, which is not allowed
to rise. The entire week of Pesach only matzah is approved to be consumed as bread.
The Torah says that because the Hebrews left Egypt in such a hurry they had no time to allow their bread to rise. Because it was flat and unrisen it is a reminder of their flight. Of course, there is another theory – and that is because it was flat and easy to carry (and preserved well), that it was something they intentionally baked and took for the journey ahead. Either way, tradition carries on.
This element of the seder is interesting – it’s called Maror (bitter herbs) and symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Read what the scriptures say about maror: “And they embittered (Hebrew: וימררו ve-yimareru) their lives with hard labor, with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of labor in the field; any labor that they made them do was with hard labor” (Exodus 1:14).
FOUR CUPS OF WINE
And now we come to the four cups of wine that are to be drunk by everyone attending during the seder meal. Even the poorest man, according to the Mishnah, is has an obligation to drink the four cups. Each cup represents a certain part of the Exodus: first cup is for Kiddush, the second cup is represents the recounting of the Exodus, then the third cup concludes Birkat Hamazon and finally, the fourth cup is associated with Hallel. After the four cups are drank and the seder is concluded, a fifth cup of wine is poured in anticipation of the prophet Eliyahu HaNavi. This fifth cup is a symbol of the future redemption. The door is open, an invitation for Elijah is given … and with great anticipation we await the Messianic era.
THE FOUR QUESTIONS
As in each feast day, children play an important role. In this feast day, the youngest child in each family is prompted to ask questions. First they are prompted to ask ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ One of the outpourings of this type of questions from the young ones is that it brings about a discussion among everyone about the significance of the symbols in the meal. This time of question/answer allows a ‘story‘ to be told and children love stories!
Some of the other questions the children ask are:
- Why is this night different from all other nights?
- On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
- On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?
- On all other nights, we do not dip [our food] even once, but tonight we dip twice?
- On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline?
During this part of the seder there are many traditional readings, special stories and more to recount this story of Exodus. Some households make up their own commentary to make it more memorable for all attending!