What Is Passover (Pesach)?

Seder plate
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Passover is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays. It commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus, when Hebrew slaves were released by God from bondage in Egypt. Called Pesach (pay-sak) in Hebrew, Passover is a celebration of freedom observed by Jews everywhere. The name derives from the story of God's angel of death "passing over" the homes of Hebrews when God sent the tenth plague upon the Egyptians, the killing of the first-born children.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (late March or early April in the Gregorian calendar).  Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel and for Reform Jews around the world, and for eight days for most other Jews in the Diaspora (those outside of Israel). The reason for this difference has to do with difficulties in reconciling the lunar calendar with the Jewish calendar in ancient times. 

Passover is marked by several carefully structured rituals enacted over the seven or eight days of the celebration. Conservative, observant Jews follow these rituals carefully, though more progressive, liberal Jews may be more relaxed about their observance. The most important ritual is the Passover meal, also known as the Seder. 

The Passover Seder

Every year, Jews are commanded to retell the Passover story. This usually takes place during the Passover Seder, which is a service held at home as part of the Passover celebration. The Seder is always observed on the first night of Passover, and in some homes on the second night, as well. The Seder follows a carefully prescribed order of 15 steps. On both nights, the Seder includes a dinner that serves highly symbolic foods that are carefully prepared on a Seder Plate.The telling of the Passover story (the "Magid")  is the highlight of the Seder. It begins with the youngest person in the room asking four ceremonial questions and concludes with a blessing recited over wine after the story is told. 

Kosher for Passover?

Passover is a holiday that has certain dietary restrictions associated with it. Jews are instructed to each only foods that follow certain preparation rules that make them kosher for Passover The most important rule has to do with eating unleavened bread, called matzah. This custom is said to derive from the part of the Passover story in which the Hebrew slaves fled Egypt so quickly that their bread didn't have time to rise. Eating of matzah, which is unleavened bread, is an act of remembrance of the extreme haste with which the Hebrews were forced to flee Egypt to freedom. Some suggest that it represents followers assuming a humble, subservient attitude for Passover -- in other words, to be slave-like in the face of God.

In addition to eating matzah, Jews avoid any leavened bread or foods that might include leavening ingredients during the entire week of Passover. Some even avoid leavened foods for the entire month before Passover. Observant Jews also avoid eating any food products containing wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats. According to tradition, these grains, called chametz, will naturally rise, or leaven, if they are not cooked in less than 18 minutes. For observant Jews, these grains are not only forbidden for Passover but are carefully searched out and expelled from the home before Passover begins, sometimes in highly ritualized ways. Observant families may keep an entire set of dishes and cookware that are never used for cooking chametz and reserved only for Passover meals.​

In the Ashkenazi tradition corn, rice, millet, and legumes are also on the forbidden list. This is said to be because these grains resemble the forbidden chametz grains. And because things like corn syrup and cornstarch can be found in many unexpected foods, the easiest way to avoid inadvertently violating the rules of kashrut during Passover is to only use food products that are specifically labeled "Kosher for Passover."