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Pesach (Passover)

The waves of the Red Sea parted

Pesach is the 8 day observance commemorating  the Jewish people's freedom from Egyptian bondage that took place approximately 3,300 years ago, as told in the first 15 chapters of the biblical Book of Exodus.

Pesach begins on the night of the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan and lasts for eight days. This holiday commemorates the departure of the nation of Israel from Egypt. Pesach marks the birth of the Jewish people as a nation led by Moshe (Moses) over 3000 years ago. This is a as much a celebration of spiritual freedom as the physical liberation from slavery. The highlight of Pesach is the observance of the Seder, a unique ceremony performed on the first evening of Passover.

The Story of Passover

About 3000 years ago the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians under the rule of the Pharaoh Ramses II. According to the Book of Exodus - Moses, a simple Jewish shepherd, was instructed by God to go to the pharaoh and demand the freedom of his people.

Moses' plea of let my people go was ignored. Moses warned the Pharaoh that God would send severe punishments to the people of Egypt if the Israelites were not freed. Again the Pharaoh ignored Moses' request of freedom. In response God unleashed a series of 10 terrible plagues on the people of Egypt:

  • Blood
  • Frogs
  • Lice (vermin)
  • Wild Beasts (flies)
  • Blight (Cattle Disease)
  • Boils
  • Hail
  • Locusts
  • Darkness
  • Slaying of the First Born
Applying the blood on the two side posts and on the upper door-post of the house (from bible-history.com)

The holiday's name -Pesach, meaning 'passing over' in Hebrew, is derived from the instructions given to Moses by God. In order to encourage the Pharaoh to free the Israelites, God intended to kill the first-born of both man and beast. To protect themselves, the Israelites were told to mark their dwellings with lamb's blood on the two side posts and on the upper door-post of the house, so that God will pass over their homes.

The Pharaoh was unconvinced and refused to free the Jewish slaves, until the last plague. When the Pharaoh finally agreed to freedom, the Israelites left their homes so quickly that there wasn't even time to bake their breads. So they packed the raw dough to take with them on their journey. As they fled through the desert they would quickly bake the dough in the hot sun into hard crackers called matzos. Today to commemorate this event, Jews eat matzo in place of bread during Passover.

Though the Jews were now free, their liberation was incomplete. The Pharaoh's army chased them through the desert towards the Red Sea. When the Jews reached the sea they were trapped, since the sea blocked their escape.

It was then that a miracle occurred. The waves of the Red Sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross to the other side. As soon as they all reached the other side the sea closed trapping the Pharaoh's army as the waves closed upon them.

Then as the Israelites watched the waters of the Red Sea sweep away the Pharaoh's army they realized they were finally free.

The Passover Seder

Matzos, the substitute for bread during Passover

Taking place the first 2 nights of the 8 day holiday, the Seder is the most important event in the Passover celebration. Usually gathering the whole family and friends together, the Seder is steeped in long held traditions and customs.

Leading up to the first night of Passover, the home is cleaned and cleared of all yeast foods, called hametz. All hametz is either eaten before Passover begins or "sold" to non-Jewish neighbors and friends.

With its Passover dishware and silverware, the Seder table is different than the regular dinner table. The centerpiece of which is the Seder plate, a special plate containing the 5 foods that remind us of the struggle of the Israelites in their quest and journey to freedom.

Three pieces of matzo are placed in a Matzo Cover (a cloth sleeve or envelope) and placed in the center of the Seder table. Before the meal begins the middle matzo is removed and broken in half.

One half is returned to the Matzo Cover, the other - the Afikomen - is hidden, to be hunted by the children at the end of the Seder meal. The child who finds the Afikomen wins a special prize. Some homes break the Afikomen in to many pieces assuring that each child present can find a piece and receive a prize.

The Seder plate contains foods that have special meaning for this holiday:

  • Haroseth - A mixture of chopped walnuts, wine, cinnamon and apples that represents the mortar the Jewish slaves used to assemble the Pharaoh's bricks
  • Parsley (dipped in salt water) - Symbolizing Springtime, it is dipped in salt water to remind us of for the tears of the Jewish slaves
  • Roasted egg - Another symbol of Spring
  • Shank Bone - Symbolic of the sacrificial lamb offering, the bone can come from whatever the family is eating, such as the leg bone of a roasted turkey
  • Bitter herbs - Freshly grated horseradish reflects the bitter affliction of slavery

During the Seder 4 glasses of wine are poured to represent the 4 stages of the exodus:

  • freedom
  • deliverance
  • redemption
  • release
The Seder plate

A fifth cup of wine is poured and placed on the Seder table. This is the Cup of Elijah, an offering for the Prophet Elijah. During the Seder the door to the home is opened to invite the prophet Elijah in.

After the meal is eaten, the children search for the Afikomen. The Seder is finished when the children have found the Afikomen and everyone has eaten a piece.

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