Happy Passover: ‘Festival of freedom’ marks birth of Jewish nation

Jews mark weeklong Passover holiday with traditions and symbolism inspired by the biblical exodus from slavery to freedom.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Every spring Jews around the world celebrate the festival of Passover that commemorates the biblical exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt more than three millennia ago to freedom and becoming masters of their own destiny.

Called the “time of our freedom,” Passover is looked at as the watershed event that gave birth to the Jewish nation. It is one of the three pilgrimage festivals that include Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

In Hebrew it is called Pesach, meaning ‘pass over’ and derived from the last of the 10 plagues in which God “passed over” the homes of the Jewish slaves and killed only the firstborn Egyptians.

The many biblical precepts and their interpretations make the holiday one that is full, filling and fun.

The Bible specifies that the holiday begins on the 15th day of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, which corresponds in 2020 to sundown on April 8, and continues for seven days.

The first and last days are consecrated and no “servile work” can be done, while the interim days are marked by eating matzah – the same “bread of affliction” that had no time to rise in the haste the Israelites fled to freedom.

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Central to Passover is the prohibition on eating or even owning “chametz” – food products containing wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has in any way fermented or been allowed to rise after coming into contact with water.

Matzah (unleavened bread) and other Passover foods are made from specially milled flour that is guarded so that it remains totally dry.

“Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15)

Religious law forbids Jews from owning any chametz during Passover, even if they lock the foods away and out of sight. This is problematic not just for individuals with an expensive collection of Scotch, but also for food producers who over Passover cannot own the raw ingredients for baked goods.

Homes are cleaned top to bottom to remove all breadcrumbs, bakeries are closed and restaurants either super-clean and modify their menus to remove anything chametz (like sandwiches and pastas), or close for the holiday.

But not everything has to be thrown out, as unused chametz can be kept. The traditional workaround developed centuries ago is to “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew who “owns” the goods for the duration of Passover, with the sale nullified afterwards.

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The holiday begins after sundown with the “Seder” meal at which the “Haggadah,” the story of the exodus is read aloud in which it is written that “in every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt” from slavery to freedom.

The word Seder in Hebrew means order, and the Haggadah has an order of the evening’s 15 different steps from start to finish and filled with symbolism in the ritual storytelling. According to Jewish custom, outside of Israel an extra day is added so that two Seder meals are held on the first two nights of Passover.

The Seder itself is a traditional gathering of extended family and its not uncommon for dozens of people to be present. The Chabad organization is known for holding Seder meals around the world attended by hundreds of Jewish travelers.

The many symbolic features in the Seder include:

  • eating of Matzah, known as the “bread of affliction” or “bread of the poor”
  • eating of bitter herbs to remind of the bitterness of slavery
  • asking four questions to learn about the significance of the Exodus
  • spill a drop of wine when reciting the 10 plagues on Egypt, reminding that joy cannot be complete when some of God’s creatures had to suffer
  • ending the Seder with the saying “Next year in Jerusalem” in the hope for unity
  • singing Passover hymns to remind of God’s gift of delivering the Jews from slavery
  • sitting while leaning on a pillow, as slaves did not have that luxury
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Normally one of the most festive times of the year, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way people are celebrating Passover in 2020.

In order to prevent a resurgent outbreak of the virus, the government and rabbinical authorities in Israel banned people from going out of the house for the Seder, restricting the evening to immediate family only.

A government-ordered curfew was put into place to ensure compliance. Medical workers will be missing the Seder as they continue to treat Israelis infected and carry out more tests.

The virus also caused the cancellation of the traditional priestly blessing at the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple, the Kotel, that would normally see tens of thousands of Israelis crowd shoulder-to-shoulder to be blessed.