Pesach: Passover
Pesach (in Hebrew)

Level: Basic

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
Seder Plate

Seder Plate

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 Shavu'ot and 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 Pei-Samekh-Cheit Pei-Samekh-Cheit (in Hebrew), 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 Chag he-Aviv (in Hebrew), (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzot Chag ha-Matzot (in Hebrew), (the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cheiruteinu Z'man Cheiruteinu (in Hebrew), (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 online through Chabad-Lubavitch. 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 Pesach experience.

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 Seder (in Hebrew), 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 word "siddur" Siddur (in Hebrew), (prayer book). An overview of a traditional seder is included below.

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 Orthodox Union, the world's largest, oldest and perhaps most respected kosher certification agency.

Ha-Seder Shel Pesach (The Pesach Seder, in Hebrew)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
Kaddesh, Urechatz, Karpas, Yachatz, Maggid, Rachtzah, Motzi, Matzah, Maror, Korech, Shulchan Orech, Tzafun, Barech, Hallel, Nirtzah (in Hebrew)

Now, what does that mean?

Kaddesh (in Hebrew) 1. Kaddesh: Sanctification
A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.
 
Urechatz (in Hebrew) 2. Urechatz: Washing
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.
 
Karpas (in Hebrew) 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.
 
Yachatz (in Hebrew) 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).
 
Maggid (in Hebrew) 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.
 
Rachtzah (in Hebrew) 6. Rachtzah: Washing
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah
 
Motzi (in Hebrew) 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.
 
Matzah (in Hebrew) 8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.
 
Maror (in Hebrew) 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 below.)
 
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.
 
Korech (in Hebrew) 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).
 
Shulchan Orech (in Hebrew) 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.
 
Tzafun (in Hebrew) 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 this part.
 
Barech (in Hebrew) 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).
 
Hallel (in Hebrew) 14. Hallel: Praises
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.
 
Nirtzah (in Hebrew) 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.

Pesach Music

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?) MIDI
This is the tune sung during the youngest participant's recitation of the Four Questions.
Why is this night different from all other nights, from all other nights? Mah nishtanah ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht, mi-kol ha-layloht?
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, twice. 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 m'soobin.
Dahyenu (It Would Have Been Enough For Us) MIDI
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 s'fateem dahyenu.
(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 beyloheyhem dahyenu.
Chorus, etc.  
Eliyahu Ha-Navi (Elijah, the Prophet) MIDI
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 the Gileadite Eliyahu ha-Navi, Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Giladi.
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 David.
Adir Hu (He is Mighty) MIDI
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
Chorus:
May He soon rebuild his house
Speedily, speedily and in our days, soon.
G-d, rebuild! G-d, rebuild!
Rebuild your house soon!
Chorus:
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
(Chorus)
Bachur hu, gadol hu, dagul hu,
(Chorus)
He is glorious, He is faithful, He is faultless, He is righteous
(Chorus)
Hadur hu, vatik hu, zakay hu, chasid hu,
(Chorus)
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
(Chorus)
Tahor hu, yachid hu, kabir hu,
Lamud hu, melekh hu, nora hu,
Sagiv hu, izuz hu, podeh hu, tzaddik hu
(Chorus)
He is holy, He is compassionate, He is almighty, He is omnipotent
(Chorus)
Kadosh hu, rachum hu, shaddai hu,
takif hu
(Chorus)

Charoset (in Hebrew)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 with horseradish.

Haggadah (in Hebrew)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' The 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 Passover 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 using their International Seder Directory.

Key Terms

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.

Term Meaning Pronunciation Hebrew
Pesach Passover PAY-sahkh or PEH-sahkh Pesach (in Hebrew)
Matzah Unleavened bread MAHTZ-uh Matzah (in Hebrew)
Chametz Leavened things KHUH-mitz Chametz (in Hebrew)
Seder Home ritual performed on the first two nights of Pesach SAY-d'r Seder (in Hebrew)
Haggadah The book read during the seder huh-GAH-duh Haggadah (in Hebrew)

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 5773: sunset March 25, 2013 - nightfall April 2, 2013
  • Jewish Year 5774: sunset April 14, 2014 - nightfall April 22, 2014
  • Jewish Year 5775: sunset April 3, 2015 - nightfall April 11, 2015
  • Jewish Year 5776: sunset April 22, 2016 - nightfall April 30, 2016
  • Jewish Year 5777: sunset April 10, 2017 - nightfall April 18, 2017

For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish Calendars.


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