Pesach, known in English as Passover, is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews.

Passover 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. The primary observances of Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery as told in the biblical Book of Exodus from chapters 1 to 15.

Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. Work is permitted on the intermediate days, referred to as Chol Ha-Mo’ed.

The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach which is based on the root “pass over” and refers to the fact that G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt during the last of the ten plagues. Passover is also widely referred to as Chag he-Aviv (the "Spring Festival"), Chag ha-Matzoth (the "Festival of Matzahs"), and Zeman Herutenu (the "Time of Our Freedom").

Many of the Passover observances still held were instituted in chapters 12 to 15 of the Exodus story in the Torah. Probably the most significant observance involves the removal of chametz (leavened bread) from homes and property. 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 coming into contact with water (Ashkenazic Jews also consider rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes as chametz). The removal of chametz commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt 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.

In fact, Jews are not only prohibited from eating chametz during Passover, but they may not own or derive any sort of benefit from it either, including using it to feed pets. This important stipulation requires Jews to sell all remaining leavened products before Passover begins, including utensils used to cook chametz.

The grain product we eat during Passover in place of chametz is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is traditionally viewed as the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. Matzah is also referred to as Lechem Oni ("Bread of the poor").



The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Passover is an enormous task. To do it right, most Jews spend several days and even weeks scrubbing down their kitchens, thoroughly cleaning the insides of stoves, fridges, and ovens, and covering all surfaces with foil or shelf-liner that came in contact with chametz during the year.

On the night before the holiday begins (14th of Nissan), a formal search of the house is undertaken - this is called B'dikat Chametz ("Searching for Leavened Bread"). A custom to disperse ten pieces of chametz throughout one's house before the search is widely followed and the actual search is ceremonially done with a candle and a feather (though most people today use a flashlight and dustpan).

After the search, a small paragraph is recited to nullify any additional chametz which could not be found: "All leaven or anything leavened with is in my possession, which I have niether seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered naught and ownerless as the dust of the earth."

The morning before Passover begins any remaining chametz in one's possession must be burned, a commandment called Biyur Chametz ("Burning of Leavened Bread"). Today, many towns will establish a community site where a large bonfire is created and all the residents come to destroy their chametz. Once destroyed, the paragraph said the night before (about nullifying chametz which was not found) is again recited.

The day before Passover is also a fast day for firstborn males, commemorating that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague. Many men do not fast on this day because they attend a celebration of the completion of the Talmud which allows the fast to be broken.

Last updated on: 10/20/2019
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