Celebration of the Exodus
by Shmuel Ross
The holiday of Pesach, or Passover, celebrates God's freeing the Jews from bondage in Egypt through the leadership of Moses. Passover begins on the 15th day of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar. It usually takes place in April, and may be the single holiday most widely celebrated among Jews. In 2015, Passover begins at sundown on April 3. Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel, and eight days in other countries. (Reform Jews observe seven days everywhere.)
Passover is most closely associated with two observances: the seder, and eating matzoh instead of leavened foods.
The story of Passover is told in the first third of the Biblical book of Exodus. The Jews had come to Egypt because of a famine, while Joseph was Pharaoh’s trusted advisor. Sometime after Joseph's death, they were enslaved by the Egyptians and forced to perform hard labor under bitterly cruel conditions for hundreds of years.
Eventually, the prophet Moses went to the new Pharaoh and asked him to let the Jews go. When he refused, God sent a total of ten plagues that devastated Egypt. In the first nine, the waters of the Nile turned to blood, frogs appeared everywhere, lice infested everything, wild animals menaced the land, cattle died, there was an outbreak of boils, hail destroyed the crops, locusts devoured whatever was left, and the land was covered in darkness.
After each plague, Moses asked Pharaoh to set the Jews free. Every time, Pharaoh refused.
The final plague was the killing of the firstborn sons. Moses instructed the Jews to sacrifice a lamb for each family and spread its blood on the doorposts of their house. (As lambs were considered sacred by Egyptians, this was a public test of faith.) God passed over the marked Jewish houses, and killed the firstborn male child in every Egyptian household. There was a great outcry, and Pharaoh finally told Moses to take the Jews and leave Egypt without delay. The Jews left in such a hurry that they didn't have the time to make bread for the trip; instead, they left carrying dough, which baked on their backs before being able to rise.
The holiday is called "Passover" because God passed over the Jewish houses, protecting them while killing the Egyptian firstborn sons.
The central observance of Passover is the seder. This word literally means "order," and it refers to the order of services in the banquet on the first night of the holiday. (In Orthodox and Conservative observance outside of Israel, it takes place on both of the first two nights.) In the course of the meal, the story of the Exodus is recounted, continuing the oral tradition stretching back to Biblical times.
Children are encouraged to ask questions about the narrative, and the youngest child present traditionally starts with the "Four Questions," which ask about the unusual practices of the seder itself. These practices evoke both the bitterness of the Egyptian slavery (e.g., eating bitter herbs) and the freedom granted by God (e.g., reclining luxuriously).
The seder also includes the eating of matzoh, which itself contains both themes. Matzoh is made with flour and water, prepared and baked very quickly so that it never has the chance to rise. Matzoh is identified on the one hand as the "bread of affliction" and "poor man's bread," being an extremely humble, plain sort of food that recalls the days of slavery; on the other hand, it also symbolizes freedom, as it was eaten by the Jews as they hurriedly left Egypt for good.