Passover will take place in Israel this year between sunset on Friday 19 April, and sunset on Friday 26 April. The first and last days of Passover – Saturday 20 April and Friday 26 April – are legal holidays in Israel. Passover marks the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Jews are commanded to tell the story as if it had happened to them personally and not as a mere historical event, in order to emphasize the importance of our hard-won and precious freedom.
Preparations for Passover
The period preceding Passover is marked by extensive preparations and several special ceremonies. The most important of these concerns the removal of hametz, i.e. any food product that contains leavened wheat, oat, barley, rye, or spelt products. In keeping with the Biblical command in Exodus 12:19 and 13:7, Jews will, before Passover, thoroughly clean their homes to remove any crumbs or bits of food, etc. that may be hametz. This cleaning culminates in a ritual candlelight search for hametz in one's home, accompanied by a special blessing and the renunciation of formal ownership over any remaining hametz. The hametz collected during the search is then burned on the morning before Passover. It is also customary to sell one's hametz to a non-Jew – usually by authorizing a rabbi to act as an agent for the sale – as a supplementary measure. While certain types of dishes and utensils can be made kosher for Passover, many Jews will have separate sets of dishes and utensils solely for use during Passover.
In the absence of leaven, Jews will eat specially prepared unleavened bread, or matzah, on Passover. Many Jews will also eat products made with matzah "flour" – unleavened bread that has been finely ground. Matzah dates back to the Exodus, where the Jews, not having had time to wait for dough to rise before leaving Egypt, journeyed into the desert with unleavened bread.
First-born males over 13 are required to fast on the day before Passover – in commemoration of the fact that first-born Jewish males were spared when first-born Egyptian males were killed during the tenth plague – but may be released of this obligation by participating in a special festive meal, such as accompanies the conclusion of study of a tractate of the Talmud or a circumcision, on the morning before Passover.
The Sabbath before Passover – 13 April this year – is known as “the Great Sabbath,” and is marked by a special reading from Malachi 3:4-24. In the afternoon, it is traditional for rabbis to give special sermons, usually on the laws associated with Passover.
The Seder and the First Day of Passover
On the evening of Friday 19 April, after festive evening prayers, families will eat a special ceremonial meal known as the seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The guide for the seder is detailed in a book known as the Haggadah, literally "narration," which relates the story of the Exodus from Egypt. A plate placed on the seder table contains several special foods: a roasted egg, symbolizing the special sacrifices which were brought in the Temple; a roasted shank bone, recalling the special Passover lamb offered and eaten in Temple times; a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon known as haroset, symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used to make bricks; sprigs of parsley and lettuce, symbolizing spring; a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; and salt water, recalling the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Three sheets of matzah – marking the division of the Jewish people into priests, Levites, and the general population – are also placed on the table.
During the course of the seder, the Ten Plagues are recalled. When each of the Plagues is mentioned, each participant dips a finger into his/her cup of wine and removes a drop; even though the Jews were oppressed in Egypt, we are reminded that we must not rejoice over the Egyptians' suffering. Our cups of wine cannot thus be full.
One of the more popular seder customs for children concerns the afikoman, a special piece of matzah that is the last food eaten during the Seder. The head of the household customarily hides the afikoman somewhere in the house, and the children then search for it. Once found, the afikoman is "ransomed," since the Sender cannot continue until the afikoman is eaten. This helps to keep the children focused on the seder and to pique their curiosity regarding the entire Passover epic.
On the morning of Saturday 20 April, festive prayers (including a prayer for abundant dew during the spring and summer) and special readings, including the Song of Songs, will figure prominently in synagogue services.
Saturday, 20 April is a full public holiday, i.e. there is no public transportation or newspapers, and shops will be closed.
The Intermediate Days of Passover
While the intermediate days of Passover (this year from sunset on Saturday 20 April until sunset on Thursday 25 April) are not full public holidays, special prayers and readings are recited in the synagogue. Schools will remain closed, as will many businesses. Post offices and banks will be open but will have reduced hours. Newspapers will be published.
Jewish tradition maintains that the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army occurred on the seventh day of Passover, but even though Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, Jews nevertheless do not rejoice over the death of the Egyptians in the sea and only an abridged version of Hallel (Psalms 113-118) – a holiday prayer – is recited after the first day of Passover.
From the evening of Saturday 20 April, Jews will keep a nightly count of the 49 days (seven weeks), until the evening of Friday 7 June, one day before the holiday of Shavuot. This count commemorates the Temple offering of the omer, or sheaf of new grain, in keeping with the Biblical injunction of Leviticus 23:15-16.
The Seventh Day of Passover
The celebration of the seventh day of Passover as a full holiday is specified in Exodus 12:16 and Leviticus 23:8. This year, the seventh day begins at sunset on Thursday 25 April and lasts until sunset on Friday 26 April. On Friday morning, there will be festive services and readings in synagogues; special memorial prayers for the departed will also be said.
Friday 26 April is a full public holiday, i.e. there is no public transportation or newspapers, and shops will be closed.
Maimouna – an informal, yet widely celebrated holiday which originated among the Jews of North Africa, particularly those from Morocco – is celebrated the day after Passover or the second day after Passover if the last day of Passover falls on a Friday as it does this year. Accordingly, Maimouna will be celebrated this year beginning at sunset on Saturday 27 April and lasting until sunset on Monday, 28 April. According to custom, families prepare elaborate tables with various sweets and baked goods and host friends and family members. Whole neighborhoods often close as celebrations spill out into the streets and parks.
Passover in Film
Following are clips from six films (courtesy of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive) that depict the various ways in which Passover has been celebrated:
Ideal Travel Talks 1934 – Travelogue shot in Eretz Yisrael in 1934. The film includes rare scenes of Samaritans celebrating Passover on Mt. Gerizim and their high priests sacrificing the paschal lamb in the presence of the British High Commissioner of Palestine, Arthur Wauchope (from 30:55 min). (Note: The Samaritan community will celebrate Passover this year beginning on Thursday evening 18 April.)
Road to Liberty 1946 – Film about the Jewish Brigade which fought in World War II as a unit of the British Army. Includes scenes of Jewish soldiers celebrating the seder in Europe (from 8:03 min.)
To Save One Life 1952 – Docudrama about two sisters who immigrated to Israel from Yemen through Youth Aliyah. Includes scenes of Pesach cleaning, preparations, and seder in a youth village. (from 39:55 min.)
Seder De Pesach 1980s – A Jerusalem family from North African conduct a model Sephardic seder. The film is interspersed with stories and animations depicting the Exodus from Egypt. (French)
Operation Exodus Honors American Troops At A Special Seder In Israel 1991 – American soldiers stationed in Israel participate in a special seder with new immigrants from the CIS and Ethiopia, shortly after the Gulf War.
Our Way: Sarajevo 1993 – The JDC and Jewish leaders in Sarajevo, Bosnia hold a special seder during the civil war in the presence of Moslem and Christian clerics. (from 3:28 min.)
Photo Stella Szpira