Purpose. The Festival of Pesach commemorates the Israelite's deliverance from Egyptian bondage and with it the birth of the Hebrew nation. It is also the Festival of Spring - Chag Ha'aviv - when nature comes to life again after the dark winter.
Date. Pesach is kept for eight days (seven days in Israel) from the 15th Nisan. The four middle days are semi-holydays known as chol hamo'ed (weekdays of the Festival).
Chag Hamatzot - "Festival of the Matzot." Named for the commandment to eat matzah - "unleavened bread," and for the prohibition against Chametz - "leavened bread" (Exodus 12:15). This recalls the hasty Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites had time to prepare only unleavened bread.
Pesach - The word means, "to pass over" and is related to the passing of the Angel of Death over the homes of the Israelites during the tenth plague, the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn (Exodus 12:27).
The name Pesach also refers to the paschal lamb (which was the god of the Egyptians) and its sacrifice by the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12: 3-20).
Zeman Cheiruteinu - "Season of our Freedom" The festival is so described because it marks the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and its birth as a free nation.
Chag Ha'aviv - The Spring Festival. Pesach must take place in the spring, a period of rebirth that matches the birth of the Jewish nation.
The Fast of the Firstborn. On the day before Pesach, the I4th Nissan, it is necessary for firstborn sons to fast. Called Ta'anit Bechorim, this fast commemorates the deliverance of the first born Israelites in Egypt (Exodus I2: 23-4). It is usual for the first-born to attend morning service and to participate in a Siyyum, a religious celebration that marks the completion of a volume of the Talmud or any rabbinic work. In Jewish teaching, study is an act of religious joy and the participant is thus absolved from this very minor fast and able to partake of refreshment.
The Search for Chametz. On the eve of the I4th day, a search is made for leaven throughout the home. This is called Bedikat Chametz. After the search, the leaven is set aside to be burned on the following morning. It is customary to place a few pieces of bread in various parts of the house so that the search is not in vain. It is, however, not right to collect only these pieces without making a search throughout the home. For full details of the searching and burning of the chametz, see the Passover Haggadah.
Selling of Chametz. Leavened commodities that cannot be disposed of before the Festival and are intended for use after Pesach are sold to a non-Jew so that any chametz that is found in a Jewish household is, properly speaking, not in the possession of the Jew. This procedure is very common in orthodox communities and is usually carried out by a rabbi on behalf of the seller. After Pesach, the chametz reverts to the ownership of the Jew in accordance with certain prescribed legal procedures.
Tal - "The Prayer for Dew." Besides the usual Festival service, a special prayer for "dew" is recited on the first day of the Festival during the Musaph (additional service). This prayer was composed by the medieval poet and liturgist Eliezer Kalir (c.670 CE) and it is a beautiful petition for the blessing of abundant dew for the fields of the Holy Land.
Meaning and Purpose. The purpose of the Seder is to symbolize important features and lessons of the Exodus and the redemption. It is celebrated in the home on the first two nights (one night in Israel) of Pesach and is called Seder (order).
The Haggadah -"Narrative." - The Bible enjoins us to relate the history of the Exodus to our children. Hence, the Hebrew term, "Haggadah" (narrative), the name of the special book containing the order of service used at the Seder. Its history goes back to the early Talmudic period, c. 100 CE. From an educational perspective, the Haggadah has been arranged to keep the children's interest. The Seder service is divided into some fifteen sections, each indicated by a descriptive name.
Experiencing the Exodus. The rabbis advised that all those reading the Seder should see themselves as having personally experienced the Exodus. The symbols, singing, and discussions accompanying the formal service go a long way in creating this mood.
The Seder Dish. The Seder dish comprises the following:
The Egg - A slightly roasted hard-boiled egg placed on the left of the dish represents the special festal sacrifice offered on the 14th Nisan in Temple times in conjunction with the Paschal sacrifice.
The Shankbone - A roasted bone placed on the right of the dish symbolizes the Paschal lamb.
The Bitter Herbs - Horseradish (or lettuce) symbolizes the bitterness of the Egyptian bondage.
Charoset - This "delicacy" - a compound of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine - popularly represents the mixture of mortar used by the Israelite slaves in their labors.
Karpass - "The Vegetable" - The vegetable is usually parsley, which is dipped into salt water and eaten. According to the Talmud, this custom was instituted to excite the interest of the children. A further reason given is that on the Seder night all are in the category of nobility who partake of hors d'oeuvres before a meal.
Salt Water - A dish of salt water into which the vegetable is dipped represents the tears shed by the Israelites in Egypt.
Three Matzot - Three matzot are placed before the head of the family. Two of the matzot take the place of the usual two leaves of bread used at the Sabbath meal, and the third matza is for the purpose of making a special blessing for the ritual eating of matzot. It has been suggested, in addition, that these three matzot are indicative of the three sections of the Jewish people - Priests, Levites, and Israelites.
The Four Cups of Wine - Four cups of wine are drunk at the Seder in token of the four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 6: 6-7):
Vehotzeiti - "And I shall bring out"
Vehitzalti - "And I shall deliver"
Vega'alti - "And I shall redeem"
Velakachti - "And I shall take."
The Cup of Elijah. There was some doubt if a fifth biblical expression of redemption, Veheiveiti - "And I shall bring" - should also be symbolized, making it necessary for five cups to be drunk. It was therefore decided to have an extra cup and entitle it "the Cup of Elijah," since unsolved problems in the Talmud are said to "await the decision" of Elijah.
The figure of Elijah is especially appropriate for Pesach, since in Jewish tradition he is the herald of the Messiah and therefore points to a future period of perfect freedom and peace. During the Seder, the door is opened for the arrival of Elijah. At one time, it was usual to leave the door open throughout the Seder as an invitation to strangers to enter and participate in the Seder.
Afikoman. A Greek word meaning "dessert," this refers to the final piece of matza eaten at the end of the Seder meal. It symbolizes the last meal (the Paschal lamb) that the Israelites ate in haste prior to the Exodus.
There is a custom to hide the Afikoman and to allow children to find it and earn a reward for doing so, and thus to maintain their interest throughout the Seder.
The Counting of the Omer. The 49 days separating Pesach and the next Pilgrim Festival, Shavuot, are counted day by day. This counting begins on the second night of Pesach.