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Seder plate (seder ha-ke'ara), first half of the 19th century. Faience, hand-painted, 246 mm wide. Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute
During the time of Pesach, it is forbidden by Torah law to eat or to own any food with chometz, leaven. This includes any product with barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat, even if it’s only a trace amount. Ashkenazim likewise avoid kitniyos (kitniyot), legumes. This is based on a rabbinical custom derived from the Gemara part of the Talmud. Before Pesach begins, it is necessary to thoroughly clean one’s home and to ensure no leavened products will be left around. Chometz that cannot be thrown away can be ‘sold’ to a non-Jew and then be brought back after Pesach ends. The night before Pesach, a search for chometz takes place one last time, and on the morning before Pesach starts, the burning of the chometz ceremony takes place.
The short story of Pesach
Over 3,000 years ago, the Jewish nation was enslaved in Egypt, which was ruled by the Pharaoh. This story is recalled in the Torah – the Israelites were suffering greatly, and God saw the anguish they were going through. He sent Moses to the Pharaoh to ask him to release his people, so they could once again serve God. As the Pharaoh, numerous times, failed to take God’s order, God sent ten plagues upon Egypt, each plague getting progressively more severe in nature. Still, the Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites, even though his people were now suffering, too. The last plague, however, broke even the Pharaoh.
At midnight on 15 Nissan 2448 from creation, God killed all the firstborns in Egypt. At the same time, God passed over all the homes of the Jews, hence the name Passover, the Hebrew translation being Pesach. The Pharaoh was distraught, he wanted the Jews out of his land immediately. The reason why Jews don’t eat anything leavened during the entirety of Pesach is because, when escaping from their slavery in Egypt, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. Matzoh (matzah) is the food of choice during Pesach. It is a flat, unleavened bread.
The 8 different days of celebration
The first two and last two days of Pesach are holidays with stricter ‘rules’ – no form of working is allowed: it is forbidden to do activities such as writing, driving, separating a mixture of two types of food (for instance, roasted meat and cooked meat), or using anything electronic by turning it on or off, to name a few. It is, however, permitted to cook and to carry things outside of one’s home, meaning it differs from, for example, Shabbat, where these activities are also prohibited. On these days of Pesach, candles are lit, kiddush (sanctification over wine) is recited, and lavish meals are eaten. These days are referred to as Yom Tov.
The days that fall in the middle are called Chol HaMoed; on these in-between days most work is allowed and they are often days for relaxing, going out with family and friends, and soaking in the miracle of Pesach, that the Jewish people are free. During the entirety of Pesach, Hallel, a joyful prayer thanking and praising God, is recited during prayers. Sefiras HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) starts on the second night of Pesach until the day before Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, celebrated 50 days after the Passover); every day the Omer is counted for 49 days. The counting resembles the journey the Jews took in the desert, who spent there 49 days after the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach and the Giving of the Torah which took place on Shavuot.
The delicious Seder
The Seder is what Jews look forward to before Pesach! It is the traditional meal that includes reading the Haggadah, during which at certain points four cups of wine (or grape juice) are drunk whilst leaning to one side when sitting, and special foods are eaten. The reclining while drinking is meant to express that the Jews are free people; it was deemed a great luxury to recline whilst eating as only the free did it. Traditional songs are sung and it’s a time for children to get involved, too!
It is a Torah commandment to hold the Seder after nightfall on the first night of Pesach, as well as on the second night for those living in the Diaspora. There is a list of particular foods that must be part of the Seder plate, which is a round plate with six places for the six foods. These are: Zeroa (shank bone), Beitzah (egg), Maror and Chazeret (bitter herbs), Charoset (fruit and nut paste), and Karpas (vegetable – usually parsley). The Karpas is dipped in salt water, and, of course, matzoh is an integral and incredibly important part of the Seder. During the reading of the Haggadah, it is indicated at which point to eat which thing and why.
Three matzohs are placed on top of each other and are then covered. The middle one is broken, then the larger half of it is wrapped up and set aside, hidden somewhere. This is called the afikomen, and is eaten as a ‘dessert’ after the Seder. Children play finding the afikomen and bring it back to be eaten and enjoyed, thinking about liberation from Egyptian exile in ancient times.
Why is Pesach such a miracle?
The Jews were saved by God from slavery on Pesach, which commenced the Exodus from Egypt for the nation of Israel. Although the first nine plagues didn’t bother the Pharaoh enough to free the Jews, God knew what He was doing, and after the tenth plague the Pharaoh himself rushed the Jews out of Egypt to ensure nothing even worse could happen to the Egyptians. The Jews were finally free, and didn’t waste any time in leaving the land of Egypt towards incredible things.
All of these events can be considered among the greatest miracles in Jewish history. On Pesach it is of utmost importance to try to tap into humility; through being humble it is possible to really sense how the Pesach miracle is still within us. Thanks to divine intervention we are able to sit down at the Seder and remember what our ancestors went through to bring us to this time and place.