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In Hebrew, Pesach. Anniversary of Israel’s liberation from Egyptian bondage. The holiday begins on the fourteenth day of Nisan and lasts for eight days. It reminds each Jew that if God had not freed his forefathers “he and his sons and the sons of his sons would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Passover is also Hag Ha-Aviv, the Festival of Spring, the first of the three holidays when the agricultural population of Israel set out on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. They brought an offering of barley in thanksgiving for the spring harvest. (See also Omer.)

The matzot, or unleavened bread, which gives Passover the name Hag Hamatzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is eaten in memory of bread prepared by the Israelites during their hasty flight from Egypt, when they had no time to wait for the dough to rise. Since no leavened bread or food containing leaven may be eaten during Passover, special dishes and household utensils are used during the eight-day observance. Laws are prescribed for the cleaning or scalding in boiling water of utensils which are used throughout the year but also on this holiday.

On the eve of the 14th day of Nisan, the ceremony of B’dikat Hametz, the search for leaven and its removal from the house, is performed. Inspection for hametz is done by candlelight wherever food is usually kept or eaten. On the morning of the 14th day of Nisan, the hametz is burned as a special benediction is recited. This observance is called Bi’ur Hametz, the removal or burning of hametz. The day preceding Passover, the fast of the firstborn takes place to commemorate the “passing over” of the Israelite homes by the Angel of Death on his way to slay the firstborn Egyptians. In ancient times, the paschal lamb was slaughtered to recall the fact that God spared the Israelites.

While the holiday is celebrated for eight days in the Diaspora, in Israel it is observed for seven days. The first and last two days of the holiday are more festive than the four intermediate days called Hol Ha-Moed, or half-holidays. On the first two nights of Passover, the Seder (literally, “order”), the central event of the holiday, is celebrated. On this occasion, the Haggadah, or narration, is chanted as the events of the Exodus from Egypt are told and Israel’s gratitude to God for its redemption is expressed.

The Seder service is one of the most colorful and joyous occasions in Jewish life. It is adorned with ancient ceremonies and symbols which recall the days when the Children of Israel were liberated from Egypt. It also evokes hope that despite present trials and tribulations there is a brighter future for the Jewish people. The family gathers around the Seder table, on which are placed the traditional ceremonial objects. The Seder service begins with the Kiddush. The youngest son of the household asks the “Four Questions,” and all participants read the Haggadah in reply. During the Seder, traditional melodies are chanted and age-old ceremonies are performed. The Seder plate, or ka’arah, displays symbolic foods. Each one commemorates events connected with Passover. The roast egg stands for the festival offering at the time of the Temple; the roast shoulder bone, or z’roa, for the paschal lamb; bitter herbs, or maror, for the bitter lot of Jews under Egyptian bondage; haroset, a mixture of ground nuts, apples, cinnamon, and red wine, represents the clay with which Jews worked to make bricks; the parsley, or karpas, dipped in salt water was considered a delicacy in ancient times.

The three matzot which are placed on the table represent the three classes of Jews: Kohen (priest), Levi, and Israelite. The middle matzah is broken in two. One half called the afikoman, Greek for “dessert,” is hidden until after the meal. It is customary for the children to steal the afikoman and ask a prize for its return. The “stealing” enlivens the Seder service. The afikoman is the last food eaten. During the seder each person drinks four cups of wine, representing the four expressions of redemption used in the Bible. A fifth cup of wine, representing Vehayveiti—“And I will bring you in­to the land…”—is the cup of Elijah, reserved for the prophet. According to tradition, Elijah visits every Jewish house on the Seder night to herald the coming of the Messiah. The chanting of Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) adds a spring-like atmosphere at the end of the Seder service. Symbolically, it is a song of love between God and the people of Israel.

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