Passover is the most anticipated of all Jewish holidays, and also one of the busiest times of year in Israel. The first and the last days of Passover are religious and legal holidays, so all preparation work must be done during the days prior to those two Sabbaths. But all that work is worth it, as Passover is not only a joyous time of festivity, but a solemn remembrance of the most defining moments in the history of the people of Israel.
Passover is first and foremost a commemoration of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, a rebirth from slavery into freedom of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But it is not merely remembered as a piece of history. Jewish families are commanded to tell the Passover story to their children as though it happened to them personally. In so doing, the vital lessons of the Passover story remain just as relevant today as they were in the time of Moses.
In the run-up to Passover, most Jewish homes will go through what has become known in the West as "spring cleaning," an intense scouring of the house for all chametz, or leavened products. Often crumbs of bread will accumulate in hard-to-reach places, so the easiest thing to do is simply cleanse the entire house from top to bottom. In the final days before Passover, many families will participate in a symbolic candlelight search for the last bits of chametz, a reminder of the biblical commandment that no leaven is to be found during the week-long holiday.
In place of normal bread, Jews will eat special unleavened bread, or matzah, during Passover. This practice is a reminder of the hurried manner in which their ancestors had to depart Egypt, without even time to properly prepare bread for the journey (Exodus 12). Already then, God commanded Israel to mark the event as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
For those visiting the Holy Land during this season, the Saturday before Passover, known as "the Great Sabbath," is a wonderful time to visit local synagogues, where rabbis will be expounding on meanings behind the laws and regulations surrounding the commemoration of Passover.
The Seder meal on the first evening of Passover (Friday, April 6 this year) is the main event of this holiday season. Following along in a guide/prayer book known as the Haggadah (literally "narration" in Hebrew), families will engage in an evening of story-telling, prayers and feasting that often lasts into the late hours of the night.
At the center of the Seder table rests a special plate containing several particular foods: a roasted egg symbolizing the Temple sacrifices; a roasted shank bone in remembrance of the special Passover lamb offered and eaten during the Exodus and in Temple times; a delicious mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon known as charoset as a reminder of the mortar the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were forced to prepare day in and day out; sprigs of parsley and lettuce symbolizing the coming of spring; a bitter herb as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery; and salt water to recall the tears of the children of Israel in Egypt.
Another item of importance is a plate containing three sheets of matzah, one for each division of the Jewish people: the priests (cohanim), the Levites, and the general population. One of those matzah sheets is traditionally known as the afikoman, and according to later Seder customs, the Passover meal cannot be concluded until it is consumed. As a way of involving the younger Seder participants, the afikoman is as some during the evening hidden away, and must be found by one of the children. At this point, the child who found the afikoman will "ransom" it back so that the Seder may continue.
It is also customary, and important, to recall during the Seder the Ten Plagues visited upon Egypt both for its refusal to loose the children of Israel and to demonstrate the God of Israel's dominance over the pagan gods. But it is not a gloating remembrance. At this point in the Seder, Jews will recall the Ten Plagues by reciting each while simultaneously dipping their fingers in their own glasses of wine and removing a drop for each plague. The symbolism is that even though the Jews were oppressed by Egypt, nevertheless they do not rejoice in the Egyptians' suffering. Israel's own cups of wine cannot remain full while there remains suffering, even the suffering of their enemies.
The morning of Passover (remember, Jewish holidays run from evening-to-evening) is a full public holiday, and nearly all stores and businesses will be closed. This is again a wonderful time to visit local synagogues for festive and joyous readings of scripture both praising God for Israel's freedom and welcoming the latter rains and the start of spring.
The intermediate days of Passover, known as chol ha'moed, occur on weekdays this year (sunset on Saturday, April 7 until sunset on Thursday, April 12), and so are not full public holidays. While schools will still be closed, most businesses will be open, including post offices and banks, and newspapers will be published.
The seventh day of Passover (starting this year at sunset on April 12) is again a full public holiday accompanied by festive synagogue services and family meals.
A more recent addition to the Passover week is the festival of Maimouna, a custom brought to Israel by the Jews of Morocco and North Africa. While Maimouna is not an official public holiday, many Israelis nevertheless take a day off from work and gather in parks and other public venues to enjoy a day of feasting and fellowship.
Ryan Jones writes regularly for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.
Publication date: April 2, 2012