Significance: Remembers the Exodus from Egypt
Observances: Avoiding all leavened grain products and related foods; Family or communal retelling of the Exodus story
Length: 8 days (Some: 7 days)
And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall
observe it as a festival for the L-RD, for your generations, as an eternal
decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but
on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes ... you shall
guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the
land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal
decree. - Exodus 12:14-17
Pesach, known in English as Passover, is one of the most commonly observed
Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 2000-01
National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 67% of Jews routinely hold or attend
a Pesach seder, while only 46% belong to a synagogue.
Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of
Nissan. It is the first of the three major
festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are
Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the
beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but
little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances
of Pesach are related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery.
This story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesach observances are
instituted in Chs. 12-15.
The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottish "loch") comes from
the Hebrew root
meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the
fact that G-d
"passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of
Egypt. In English, the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is also the name
of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was
made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday
is also referred to as Chag he-Aviv
(the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzot
(the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cheiruteinu
(the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).
Pesach Laws and Customs
Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves avoiding
chametz (leaven; sounds like "hum it's" with that Scottish "ch") throughout the
holiday. This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a
hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way
of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from our souls.
Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley,
oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after
first coming into contact with water. Orthodox
Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid
rice, corn, peanuts, legumes (beans) and some other foods as if they were
chametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, or are grown and
processed near chametz, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion
or cross-contamination. Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot."
(usually pronounced as in Yiddish, KIT-nee-yohs).
We may not eat chametz during Pesach; we may not even own it or derive benefit
from it. We may not even feed it to our pets or cattle. All chametz, including
utensils used to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew
(they can be repurchased after the holiday). Pets' diets must be changed for
the holiday, or the pets must be sold to a non-Jew (like the food and utensils,
the pets can be repurchased after the holiday ends). You can sell your chametz
I have noticed that many non-Jews and non-observant Jews mock this practice of
selling chametz as an artificial technicality. I assure you that this sale is
very real and legally binding, and would not be valid under Jewish law if it
were not. From the gentile's perspective, the purchase functions much like the
buying and selling of futures on the stock market: even though he does not take
physical possession of the goods, his temporary legal ownership of those goods
is very real and potentially profitable.
The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Pesach is an
enormous task. To do it right, you must prepare for several weeks and spend
several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and
fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact
with food with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc. After the cleaning is
completed, the morning before the seder, a formal search of the house for
chametz is undertaken, and any remaining chametz is burned.
The grain product we eat during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened
bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the
bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. We have come up with many
inventive ways to use matzah; it is available in a variety of textures for
cooking: matzah flour (finely ground for cakes and cookies), matzah meal
(coarsely ground, used as a bread crumb substitute), matzah farfel (little
chunks, a noodle or crouton substitute), and full-sized matzah (sheets about 8
inch square, a bread substitute).
Some people observe an additional strictness during Pesach known as gebrochts,
from a Yiddish word meaning "broken," although
I'm not sure what brokenness has to do with this restriction. Those who observe
gebrochts (or more accurately, "no gebrochts") will avoid any matzah product
that has come into contact with liquid after being baked. The rule arises from
a concern that matzah may contain bits of flour that were not completely cooked
and that would become leavened upon contact with liquid. People who observe
this strictness cannot eat many common traditional Pesach dishes, such as
matzah ball soup, and cannot even eat charoset on matzah at seder. They are
careful not to spill seder wine on their matzah, and promptly remove the wine
spilled as part of the seder. Observance of this additional restriction is not
common, but many people become exposed to it because it is followed by the
Chabad-Lubavitch, who are active in Jewish
education. Some have criticized gebrochts for unnecessarily complicating Pesach
and taking some of the joy out of this celebration of freedom for no good
reason, noting that the premise of this rule contradicts codes of Jewish law
that explicitly say it is impossible for matzah to become chametz once it is
baked. Nevertheless, this effort to more fully observe G-d's law is worthy of
respect, even if you are not inclined to add this restriction to your own
The day before Pesach is the Fast of the
Firstborn, a minor
fast for all firstborn males, commemorating the fact that the firstborn
Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague.
On the first night of Pesach (first two nights
for traditional Jews outside Israel), we have a
special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the
holiday. This meal is called a seder
from a Hebrew root
word meaning "order," because there is a specific set of information that must
be discussed in a specific order. It is the same root from which we derive the
(prayer book). An overview of a traditional seder is included
Pesach lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). The first two days and last
two days of the holiday (first and last in Israel) are days on which no
work is permitted. See
Extra Day of Holidays for more information.
Work is permitted on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which
work is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate
days of Sukkot.
When Pesach Begins on a Saturday Night
Occasionally, Pesach begins on a motzaei
Shabbat, that is, on Saturday night after the
sabbath has concluded. This last occurred in 5768 (2008), and will not occur
again until 5781 (2021). This complicates the process of preparing for Pesach,
because many of the preparations normally undertaken on the day before Pesach
cannot be performed on Shabbat.
The Fast of the Firstborn, normally observed
on the day before Pesach, is observed on Thursday instead. The search for
chametz, normally performed on the night before Pesach, is performed on
Thursday night. The seder should be prepared for as much as possible before
Shabbat begins, because time should not be taken away from Shabbat to prepare
for Pesach. In addition, there are severe complications dealing with the
conflict between the requirement of removing chametz no later than mid-morning
on Saturday, the prohibition against eating matzah on the day before the seder,
and the requirement of eating three meals with bread during Shabbat! For
further details, see an excellent summary from the
Union, the world's largest, oldest and perhaps most respected kosher
The Pesach Seder
And if your son asks you in the future, saying, What are
the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, that the L-RD our G-d
commanded you? You will say to your son, We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt;
and the L-RD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The L-RD gave signs
and wonders, great and harmful, against Egypt, against Pharaoh, and against all
his household, before our eyes: And he brought us out of there to bring us in,
to give us the land that he promised our fathers. -Deuteronomy 6:20-23
The text of the Pesach seder is written in a book called the haggadah. The
haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and explains some of the
practices and symbols of the holiday. Suggestions for buying a haggadah are
included below. The content of the seder can be summed
up by the following Hebrew rhyme:
- Kaddesh, Urechatz,
- Karpas, Yachatz,
- Maggid, Rachtzah,
- Motzi, Matzah,
- Maror, Korekh,
- Shulchan Orekh,
- Tzafun, Barekh,
- Hallel, Nirtzah
Now, what does that mean?
1. Kaddesh: Sanctification
- A blessing over wine in honor of the
holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.
2. Urechatz: Washing
- A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the
3. Karpas: Vegetable
- A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The
vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish
people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our
slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you
shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.
4. Yachatz: Breaking
- One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the
pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).
5. Maggid: The Story
- A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach.
This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of
questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the
seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it
different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often
sung. See below.
- The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of
people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one,
who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who
needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't even
know enough to know what he needs to know.
- At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine
and it is drunk.
6. Rachtzah: Washing
- A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation
for eating the matzah
7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
- The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used
as a meal, is recited over the matzah.
8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
- A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
- A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish;
sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of
slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon
and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their
slavery. (I highly recommend it -- it's the best tasting thing on the holiday,
and goes surprisingly well with horseradish! My recipe is included
- Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled Maror
and one labeled Chazeret. The one labeled Maror should be used for Maror and
the one labeled Chazeret should be used in the Korekh, below.
10. Korekh: The Sandwich
- Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the
maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a
sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some
charoset (we don't do animal sacrifice
anymore, so there is no paschal offering to eat).
11. Shulchan Orekh: Dinner
- A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what
to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among
Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball
soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or
turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket.
12. Tzafun: The Afikomen
- The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "dessert," the last food
of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the
afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find
it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the
children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for
13. Barekh: Grace after Meals
- The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat
ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that
would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a
blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured,
including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the
Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do
this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but
historically because Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of
Christian babies in matzah, and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that
we weren't doing anything unseemly).
14. Hallel: Praises
- Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine
and it is drunk.
15. Nirtzah: Closing
- A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next
year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the
Messiah will come within the next year). This is
followed by various hymns and stories.
For more information about how the Pesach seder compares to a traditional
Jewish weekday, Shabbat or
holiday meal, see Pesach
Seder: How is This Night Different.
Many people think of Pesach as a time of deprivation: a time when we cannot eat
bread or other leavened foods. This is not the traditional way of viewing the
holiday. Pesach is Z'man Cheiruteinu, the Time of Our Freedom, and the joy of
that time is evident in the music of the season. There are many joyous songs
sung during the seder.
|Mah Nishtanah (Why is it Different?)
This is the tune sung during the youngest participant's recitation of the Four
|Why is this night different from all other nights, from all
||Mah nishtanah ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht, mi-kol
|On all other nights, we may eat chametz and matzah, chametz and matzah. On
this night, on this night, only matzah.
||She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin chameytz u-matzah, chameytz u-matzah.
Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, kooloh matzah.
|On all other nights, we eat many vegetables, many vegetables. On this
night, on this night, maror.
||She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin sh'ar y'rakot, sh'ar y'rakot. Ha-lahylah
ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, maror.
|On all other nights, we do not dip even once. On this night, on this night,
||She-b'khol ha-layloht ayn anu mat'bilin afilu pa'am echat, afilu pa'am
echat. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, sh'tay p'amim.
|On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, either sitting or
reclining. On this night, on this night, we all recline.
||She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin bayn yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin, bayn
yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, koolanu
|Dahyenu (It Would Have Been Enough For Us)
This is one of the most popular tunes of the seder, a very up-beat song about
the many favors that G-d bestowed upon us when He brought us out of Egypt. The
song appears in the haggadah after the telling of the story of the exodus, just
before the explanation of Pesach, Matzah and Maror. I provide just two sample
verses from a rather long song. The English does not include all of the
repetition that is in the Hebrew.
|Had He brought us out of Egypt and not judged them, it would
have been enough for us.
||Ilu hotzi-hotzianu hotzianu mi-Mitzrayim, v'lo asah bahem
|(Chorus) It would have been enough for us.
||Dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu.
Dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu!
|Had He judged them and not done so to their idols, it would
have been enough for us.
||Ilu asah bahem s'fateem, v'lo asah beyloheyhem, v'lo asah
|Eliyahu Ha-Navi (Elijah, the Prophet)
Many people sing this song when the Cup of Elijah is poured and the door is
opened in anticipation of his return.
|Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah, Elijah, Elijah
||Eliyahu ha-Navi, Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu
|Speedily and in our days, come to us, with the messiah, son of David, with
the messiah, son of David.
||Bimhayrah v'yamenu, yavo aleynu, im Mashiach ben David, im Mashiach ben
|Adir Hu (He is Mighty)
Adir Hu is a great sing-along song, because it has a lot of repetition. You
don't need to know much Hebrew to get by with this one! It's also got a catchy
tune. It's sung as the seder comes to a close. It expresses our hope that the
messianic age will begin soon, and the Temple will be rebuilt. Each line of
praise begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical
order, a common gimmick in Jewish hymns.
|He is mighty, He is mighty
||Adir hu, adir hu
May He soon rebuild his house
Speedily, speedily and in our days, soon.
G-d, rebuild! G-d, rebuild!
Rebuild your house soon!
Yivneh vayto b'karov
Bim'hayrah, bim'hayrah, b'yamenu b'karov
E-yl b'nay! E-yl b'nay!
B'nay vayt'kha b'karov
|He is distinguished, He is great, He is exhalted
|Bachur hu, gadol hu, dagul hu,
|He is glorious, He is faithful, He is faultless, He is righteous
|Hadur hu, vatik hu, zakay hu, chasid hu,
|He is pure, He is unique, He is powerful,
He is wise, He is King, He is awesome,
He is sublime, He is all-powerful, He is the redeemer, He is all-righteous
|Tahor hu, yachid hu, kabir hu,
Lamud hu, melekh hu, nora hu,
Sagiv hu, izuz hu, podeh hu, tzaddik hu
|He is holy, He is compassionate, He is almighty, He is omnipotent
|Kadosh hu, rachum hu, shaddai hu,
Recipe for Charoset
This fruit, nut and wine mix is eaten during the seder. It is meant to remind
us of the mortar used by the Jews to build during the period of slavery. It
should have a coarse texture. The ingredient quantities listed here are at best
a rough estimate; I usually just eye-ball it. The recipe below makes a very
large quantity, but we usually wind up making more before the holiday is over.
Other fruits or nuts can be used.
- 4 medium apples, 2 tart and 2 sweet
- 1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
- 1/4 cup sweet wine
- 1/4 cup dry wine
- 1 Tbs. cinnamon
Shred the apples. Add all other ingredients. Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until
the wine is absorbed by the other ingredients. Serve on matzah. Goes very well
Buying a Haggadah
If you want to know more about Pesach, the best place to start is with the
haggadah. The haggadah was written as a teaching tool, to allow people at all
levels to learn the significance of Pesach and its symbols.
There are a wide variety of Haggadahs available for every political and
religious point of view: traditional haggadahs, liberal haggadahs, mystical
haggadahs, feminist haggadahs, and others. I have even seen what might be
described as an atheist haggadah: one that does not mention the role of
G-d in the Exodus.
If you're buying a haggadah for study or collection, there are many haggadahs
with extensive commentary or with pictures from illuminated medieval haggadahs.
However, if you're buying haggadahs for actual use at a seder, you're best off
with an inexpensive paperback. Keep in mind that you'll need one for everybody,
you're likely to get food and wine on these things, and you'll be using them
year after year.
I'm particularly partial to the Artscroll/Mesorah series'
Family Haggadah. It has the full, Orthodox text of the haggadah in English
side-by-side with Hebrew and Aramaic, with complete instructions for preparing
for and performing the seder. The translations are very readable and the book
includes marginal notes explaining the significance of each paragraph of the
text. This book is usually only available at Jewish gift or book stores, and
usually sells for about $2.50.
Another good traditional one is Nathan Goldberg's
Haggadah. This is the familiar "yellow and red cover" haggadah that so many
of us grew up with. Believe it or not, it is frequently available in grocery
stores in the Passover aisle. It usually sells for less than $5, and is often
given away free with certain grocery purchases.
Watch out for Christianized versions of the haggadah. The Christian "last
supper" is generally believed to have been a Pesach seder, so many Christians
recreate the ritual of the seder, and the haggadahs that they use for this
purpose tend to reinterpret the significance of the holiday and its symbols to
fit into their Christian theology. For example, they say that the three matzahs
represent the Trinity, with the broken one representing Jesus on the cross (in
Judaism, the three matzahs represent the three
Temples, two of which have been destroyed, and
the third of which will be built when the
mashiach comes). They speak of the paschal lamb
as a prophecy of Jesus, rather than a remembrance of the lamb's blood on the
doorposts in Egypt. If you want to learn what Pesach means to Jews, then these
"messianic" haggadahs aren't for you.
Finding a Seder
Are you looking for a place to attend a Pesach seder? Chabad-Lubavitch sponsors
Pesach seders all around the country. You can search for a seder in your area
Note: Pronunciations are intended to reflect the way these
terms are most commonly pronounced by Jews in the United States, and may not be
strictly technically correct.
PAY-sahkh or PEH-sahkh
Home ritual performed on the first two nights of Pesach
The book read during the seder
Video: The Seder Plate
I've put together a video on YouTube that explains the items on the seder table
and another discussing the beginning of the seder. I hope to have more of the
seder on YouTube soon.
List of Dates
Pesach will occur on the following days of the secular calendar:
- Jewish Year 5777: sunset April 10, 2017 - nightfall April 18, 2017
- Jewish Year 5778: sunset March 30, 2018 - nightfall April 7, 2018
- Jewish Year 5779: sunset April 19, 2019 - nightfall April 27, 2019
- Jewish Year 5780: sunset April 8, 2020 - nightfall April 16, 2020
- Jewish Year 5781: sunset March 27, 2021 - nightfall April 4, 2021
For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish
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