Passover 101: 8 Days, 8 Questions

By Dan Brosgol

Ben Shahn Haggadah
Haggadah for Passover, copied and illustrated by Ben Shahn – Image (c) www.lornebair.com, all rights reserved

The Passover holiday begins at sundown on Friday, April 22, and concludes 8 days later on Saturday evening, April 30.

Passover is one of the more universally celebrated holidays in Judaism, so for all of you who have always wondered about words like seder, charoset, and kitniyot, this post is for you. For those of you who have never asked yourself, or your Jewish friends, those questions…well, hopefully you’ll learn a few things anyway. Here are 8 questions, one for each day of the festival.

Why is Passover celebrated?

The Book of Exodus tells us that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt to a cruel and wicked Pharaoh, who feared the multitudes of Hebrews living in Egypt, imposed hard labor upon them, and decreed that first-born Hebrew males be thrown into the Nile. The Passover story celebrates the freedom of the Hebrews from slavery thanks to the 10 plagues and miracles wrought by God through Moses and Aaron. Thanks to this great moment of salvation and redemption, the Hebrews fled Egypt, marched through the Sea of Reeds(now known as the Red Sea, which split for them),and proceeded into the wilderness of Sinai, where they wandered around for 40 years led by Moses, and finally crossed the Jordan River and entered the Land of Canaan with Joshua as their leader. The name “Passover” refers to the 10th plague, when the Jewish households in Egypt marked the lintels of their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death would pass over their homes instead of killing their firstborn.

What is a seder?

The seder (SAY-der), is a meal that is eaten on the first two nights of Passover (although in Israel there’s just one seder, but let’s put that in the parking lot). The seder is a/can be a very formal, very lengthy meal featuring the reading of a prayerbook-guidebook called a haggadah, which leads participants through a prescribed series of rituals, prayers, foods, and songs over the course of the evening. While there are 15 distinct parts of the seder, some are longer than others, and the actual length is really up to the leader. I’ve been at seders that have only taken a half hour before dinner is served, and I’ve been to knock-down, drag-out affairs that last long into the evening, although the required/suggested/encouraged drinking of four cups of wine during the seder as a part of the script may help pass the time a little more enjoyably (and most people don’t actually drink 4 cups, sorry). You can also fully participate in a seder if you’re not Jewish, so if you’re interested in partaking in one this year, you’ve definitely still got time to finagle an invitation.

What is on a seder plate?

You will almost always spot a seder plate (or multiple seder plates) on Passover tables, which usually features five items, each representing something different about the holiday. The seder plate featured a space for:

  • An egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice made in the ancient Temple, also a symbol for life and renewal;
  • A sprig of parsley, to commemorate spring and growth, and during the seder is dipped in saltwater to commemorate the tears of the slaves;
  • Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, to signify the bitterness of slavery. The real tough guys and girls grate their own horseradish root and serve that sinus-clearing potion to their guests. Be warned;
  • A shank bone, to signify the Passover sacrifice in the Temple. Some vegetarians use a beet or sweet potato instead of the bone;
  • Charoset, which has no real translation, but is a delicious blend of fruits and sweet ingredients, usually mixed with wine, to represent the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves. More on this later…

Some fancy seder plates also feature a built-in matzah holder and a spot for the salt water. Some also have a sixth space for something called hazeret, which is similar to the bitter herb and is usually represented by bitter lettuce.

What can you eat and what can you not eat,during Passover?

Definitely a popular question. First of all, the usual un-kosher foods are still, well, un-kosher. I’m looking at you pork, shellfish, rabbit, locust, snake, and others. There are also still prohibitions on mixing dairy and meat, the consumption of wild birds, and a whole litany of other food types. But the laws of kashrut are a whole other, much longer, story, and all Jews make their own choices on how diligently they follow those restrictions, if at all, and that includes those relating specifically to Passover.

The Kosher-for-Passover ban covers the following grains: wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt. Those grains, per se, are still kosher, but only if they are not leavened, which for all intents and purposes means that they cannot be in contact with water for more than 18 minutes. (Feel free to read the classic The Mouse in the Matzah Factory for a whimsical story about this process.)

Beyond that, there have been additional laws prohibiting the consumption of kitniyot (rice, quinoa, peas, corn, beans, and a few other items) for those Jews who are Ashkenazi (with eastern European heritage). Ashkenazi historically have not eaten kitniyot, for somewhat murky reasons relating to their potential confusion with grains that can be leavened, or that water might expand in risky ways. However, Sephardic Jews (those with Middle Eastern or North African roots), had no restrictions on kitniyot, so you may know a whole lot of Ashkenazi folks who have miraculously claimed Sephardic heritage during Passover. Present company included.

But in a stunning reversal of an 800-year ban on the consumption of kitniyot, just this week the Conservative movement overturned the ban. If you are interested in that drama, read more here.

On the flip side, there are some yummy Passover foods out there, including charoset, a potpourri of ingredients like raisins, apples, wine, and nuts  that’s mixed into a paste that is supposed to symbolize the mortar between the bricks that Hebrew slaves had to make for their Egyptian taskmasters. There are a million variations on charoset, including delicious Israeli and Sephardi variations with apricots, figs, and dates thrown in. Just google charoset, or read this, for more information.

Also yummy (and unhealthy) are a bevy of Kosher-for-Passover chocolates and fruit slices, Manischewitz coffee cake from a box, and a handful of quite decent Kosher for Passover wines.

But the #1 Passover food in our house? Matzah bri, a very simple dish for which boiling water is poured over some broken-up matzah, then cooked in an egg batter, and sprinkled with either salt or cinnamon/sugar to make a delicious, and relatively healthy, breakfast treat. The idiot-proof recipe I use is here.

Why do you eat matzah?

Let me dispel all of the speculation—no, it’s really not delicious. In a best-case scenario it’s tolerable on its own, but you really need to spice things up to make it tasty and not totally blah (see matzah fry, above). But the reason it is eaten is quite straightforward. According to tradition, the Hebrews left Egypt in such haste that they didn’t even have time to let the bread rise on their way out of town—hence the quickly-baked sheets of wheat and water that we now call matzah. And a word of caution: chocolate-covered matzah might look tempting, but it’s really not worth it—at least according to this taster.

What are The Four Questions?

In one of the more adorable Jewish traditions, it is customary for the youngest child at each Passover seder to recite or (preferably) sing something called “The Four Questions” early on in the seder. The problem is that it’s really more like ONE question followed by FOUR statements… but what can you do…

The question:

  • Why is this night different from all other nights?

The statements:

  • On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.
  • On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.
  • On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.
  • On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

Don’t worry, the question(s) is/are not rhetorical- they are all answered over the course of the seder.

Are there any new Passover traditions?

For generations upon generations, a cup full of wine has been left in the middle of the seder table for the Prophet Elijah, who as legend tells us visits every seder in the world when the front door is opened for him after the desert has been served. Its name is very sneaky: “Elijah’s cup.” In recent years, many families now include a glass of water on the table for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who according to the Torah was always able to find water during the Israelites’ desert wanderings. “Miriam’s Cup” now proudly stands alongside Elijah’s Cup on many a seder table. Also, starting in the 1980s or so, an orange is sometimes also placed on the seder table to symbolize those people who have been historically marginalized in the Jewish community—women, LGBTQ people, and others.

Did the Passover story really happen?

Another popular question. The Passover story, which some refer to as “the greatest story ever told,” is absolutely mythic and transcends different faith traditions. It also spawned one of the great movies in the history of Western Civilization (The Ten Commandments) and another one which was a little less grandiose but probably made more money (The Prince of Egypt). Both are worth watching. But when it comes to the historicity of the events described in Exodus and retold in the Passover Haggadah, well, I’ll let you decide. There are those who claim that the dearth of archaeological evidence of slavery and plagues calls the whole story into question, but there are others who have found plausible scientific evidence that explains in real terms how things like the plagues could have happened. You will find people for whom the tale of slavery and redemption is a pillar of their Jewish belief, and you will also find others who claim that the Hebrews were not slaves, but mercenaries defending Egypt’s eastern borders from invasion and eventually decided to leave Pharaoh’s service and go back to the land of Canaan. Like most answers to this question, though, it doesn’t really matter if it actually happened, and we will never know with any certainty whether it did or not. History has slipped into memory and mythology, and I’m more than happy to tell the Passover story every year in this ritualized fashion as one of those things that’s a remarkable aspect of the Jewish tradition.


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