Pesach or Passover – What You Need to Know

Knowing and understanding about the major and minor holidays in Israel will help you appreciate the country’s culture and traditions better. It also allows you to be informed about what to expect and do whenever these holidays occur, especially if you’re a foreigner visiting Israel.

Pesach or Passover is one of the most sacred, important and widely observed holidays in Judaism. In Israel in particular, there are lots of happenings, rituals and customs going on during this festival.

But why is Pesach that significant to the Jews?

Pesach or Passover commemorates the story of the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, and the “passing over” of the forces of destruction, when God struck down all the firstborns in Egypt while sparing the Hebrew firstborns. To quote Exodus 12:29 –  “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharoah, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.”

Thus, this event marks the first and most momentous event in Jewish history. Pesach or Passover is also one of the biblically ordained Three Pilgrimage Festivals, together with Shavuot and Sukkot.

Pesach or Passover falls on the 15th to 21st (or 22nd outside of Israel and among Reformed Jews) in Nisan of the Hebrew calendar, or March or April of the Gregorian calendar.

If you are a first-time tourist in Israel and you happen to catch Pesach or Passover during your visit, you may like to know about the traditions in this week-long Jewish holiday (and perhaps participate in some of them if allowed or possible).

Removing all leaven

One of the most common and important Pesach traditions among observant Jews is removing all leaven (chametz) from bread and other food products. But there are a few exceptions:

  • Yeast and fermentation are not themselves prohibited in certain products, such as wine, because they’re required rather than permitted.
  • Baking soda and baking powder, although leavening agents as well, are not prohibited because they leaven through chemical rather than biological reaction. Thus, it’s fine to use baking soda and baking powder during Pesach.

Only an unleavened flatbread, called matzo, is eaten during the entire week of Pesach or Passover. Matzo is a symbol of this holiday, and consequently, it figures prominently in Passover Seder. Pesach is sometimes called the Festival of Unleavened Bread. So why do the Jews eat matzo during Pesach?

Tradition says that the Hebrews were in haste to leave Egypt that they had no more time to allow their bread to rise. But there may have been a more practical reason: compared to regular bread, matzo was easier, lighter and less bulky to carry through the desert.

Seder (Passover meal)

It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first two nights of the Pesach or Passover for a ritual feast known as “Seder”.

Seder begins with reciting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is read aloud from a special text called the Haggadah, which is Hebrew for “telling”. The family members then perform the rituals that correspond to the various aspects of the story. For example, vegetables are dipped into the salt water, an act which represents the tears that the Hebrews shed when they were slaves. Maror is another traditional dish eaten at the Seder. It consists of herbs, mainly horseradish, and its bitterness symbolizes the pain and agony of slavery in Egypt.

On the Seder table, the plate at the center contains the customary Pesach or Passover foods with particular significance to the story of the Exodus. These foods include matzo, maror, a lamb shankbone and charoset, a sweet mixture that consists of fruits (fresh or dried or both), nuts, spices, and honey. Sometimes, wine is also added. The charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Hebrews used during their time as slaves in Egypt.

Children can play important roles at the Seder and are expected to play their part in some of the customs and traditions. At one point during their meal, the youngest child may recite the four questions, which ask what makes this night special from all other nights.

In several households, young people can also have fun in the customary hunt for the afikomen, a piece of matzo bread that is hidden early in the evening. The one who finds the matzo bread is rewarded with money or any other prize.

If you are visiting Israel during the Pesach or Passover, it’s vacation time for the locals and as said before, there are lots of events happening around the country. Check out the things you should do and the places that you may go during Pesach or Passover.