Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is a major Spring festival lasting seven or eight days (depending on your community’s observance). It commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is one of the most widely observed, and calls for the most intricate home ritual, the seder. Passover has many unique symbols, songs, rituals, and stories, which vary from country to country and family to family.
The themes of Passover are: freedom, hope, and remembering.
In the first of the Ten Commandments, God says, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of Egypt.” It is critical to note that God includes a reference to leaving Egypt (when God could have just said, “I am Adonai your God.”). The reason lies in the singular importance of God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. This event is crucial to God’s relationship with the Jewish people from biblical times until today. Redemption from Egypt is the ultimate paradigm of freedom and hope in Judaism. God parts the Red Sea to save the Israelites from the Egyptian armies in one of the greatest symbols of hope in the darkest of hours.The leading of the people of Israel from slavery to freedom has become enshrined in Judaism’s commitment to freedom. We are reminded to be grateful for the freedom that we have and to truly seek freedom for others. And, we are commanded to remember the story of the exodus. Passover is the only holiday in the Bible where the Jewish community is explicitly told to pass the meaning of the holiday to our children. The Torah requires us to value memory and we are religiously obligated to keep this story alive.
Observances for liberal Jews during Passover include refraining from eating leavened bread (chameitz), eating matzah, and attending or hosting a seder (on the first or second night). The seder meal for Passover is the only one with a special sequence of readings and symbolic rituals, thus its name literally means “order.” A seder table is usually set with the following: a Haggadah for each participant (the book from which the story is read), festival candles, a Kiddush cup, Elijah’s cup, three whole matzot, a seder plate and symbolic foods from the seder plate for each participant. Although seders have evolved over time, the essential features were established by the end of the first century. In the Haggadah it states, “Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover.” So, in addition to inviting family and friends, it is a mitzvah to invite those who would not otherwise have a Seder to attend.