Passover is celebrated every year and has been for millennia. Even before the Jewish people went to Egypt, Abraham and his descendants kept a spring festival at the time of the ripening barley.
However, today, Passover is a celebration of freedom and a remembrance of the time the Israelites were held captive in a foreign land. Let’s explore the story!
The Story of Passover
Because of a famine a long time ago, the Israelites left their homeland and ended up in Egypt where there was plenty of food. Everything was fine for a while, and some of the Israelites even lived in Pharaoh’s palace!
Fast forward 400 years, and things aren’t so good. In fact, the new Pharaoh doesn’t exactly like these foreigners in his country. To keep them from becoming too powerful, even though there were a lot of them, he made them slaves. They had to work on all kinds of building projects in the land.
After a time, conditions became so bad that the people cried out for help. A man named Moses heard the call and went with his brother Aaron to ask Pharaoh to let their people go. Pharaoh denied their requests, and because of this, many plagues were unleashed on Egypt.
Frogs, locusts, hail, and skin problems were just a few of the plagues. Because Pharaoh was stubborn, none of the plagues made him want to free the slaves. But the last plague was the worst! All of the firstborn sons of Egypt would die.
To keep the Israelite firstborn safe, the people were instructed to use the blood of a lamb to mark their doorframes so the Angel of Death would pass over their house that fateful night. They also had to be packed and ready to leave, because this last plague would change Pharaoh’s mind.
One of the things the people had to do was make bread to take with them. Since they didn’t have time to use yeast (leaven) and wait for the bread to rise, they had to make an unleavened bread called matzah for the long journey ahead.
Sure enough, the last plague was too much, and Pharaoh sent the Israelites away. But after they left, he changed his mind! He sent his soldiers chasing after the people, and suddenly they were trapped between the army and the sea.
Freedom for the Israelites
Moses raised his staff and the sea parted, allowing the Israelites a passage to the other side. Then the sea crashed onto the soldiers, Israelites were safe. They moved on to their final destination, but it took them 40 years to reach it!
For all of those 40 years, the Israelites celebrated Passover to remember the time when they were captives in a foreign land, but they were set free.
On the night that is Passover every year, families today gather for a special feast called the Seder (SAY-der.) But before they can celebrate, they must clean their houses to get rid of any products that may contain yeast. After that, they’re ready for the Seder.
Seder means “order” and the meal follows a special order from a plan called the haggadah. The feast is a multi-sensory celebration designed to immerse the family in the story of Passover.
Special Foods at the Seder
There are special foods presented on a Seder plate. Each food symbolizes something from the time when the Israelites were slaves but then were freed.
There are 15 different steps in the haggadah during which the Seder foods are eaten and special passages are read.
The special foods presented on the Seder plate are:
- Roasted lamb shankbone – represents the lamb that was sacrificed for its blood during the original Passover night.
- Roasted egg – a symbol of springtime, new beginnings and rebirth
- Maror, or bitter herb – horseradish is most commonly used. It brings tears to the eyes and brings to mind the bitterness of slavery
- Charoset – a sweet salad of nuts, fruit, wine and cinnamon that represents the mortar used by the Israelite slaves when making bricks and buildings for Pharaoh.
- Karpas, or green vegetable – parsley or other spring green to represent new life. It’s dipped in salt water before being eaten.
- Chazeret, or bitter herb – another green, often romaine lettuce, to symbolize the bitterness of slavery and also new life.
- Salt water – used for dipping the herbs and vegetables and represents the tears the Israelites shed while enslaved as they cried out for freedom.
- Matzah - unleavened bread used when the Israelites were traveling to represent the haste with which they had to depart Egypt.
- Wine – everyone drinks four small cups of wine during the celebration and each cup traditionally represents a special promise made to the Israelites in ancient times.
The Four Questions
One of the steps includes a retelling of the Passover story and has a child of the family ask four questions:
“Why is this night different from all the other nights?” When asked what they notice is different, the child says:
- On all other nights we eat bread or matzah, while on this night we eat only matzah.
- On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables and herbs, but on this night we have to eat bitter herbs.
- On all other nights we don't dip our vegetables in salt water, but on this night we dip them twice.
- On all other nights we eat while sitting upright, but on this night we eat reclining.
All of these questions open the door for conversation around the Passover night and the events that took place when the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt.
Freedom Then, Freedoms Today
Since Passover is also a feast of freedom, some families discuss how they are enjoying modern-day freedoms as well.
What other freedoms does your family celebrate at Passover?
You can find recipes and fun facts about Israel in our eat2explore Israel box!