Explaining Passover to Newcomers & Those Who Want to Know

When our oldest son brought his girlfriend—who isn’t Jewish—home for the first time to meet us, it was for the Passover seder. She was raised in a very small town in central Illinois. I was charmed and proud of her when she had the courage to announce to our table of twenty-five people, “I’ve never been on an airplane, never seen the ocean, and never attended a Passover seder, and here I am, doing it all in one week!”

That was twelve years ago. Since then, she and our son, married ten years, have not only attended our seders many times, but have put on several of their own. The same is true of our daughter and her husband who isn’t Jewish, and our other son and his wife, who is Jewish by choice. In the years since their marriages, our “in-law children” have integrated into our holiday celebrations, and Passover is a favorite. Since they all live out of town, they are not always with us, but when they are, they participate fully, much more comfortably than they did at first, I suspect.

Understanding the following information about the holiday has helped them to better appreciate just what Passover is all about.

The holiday of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) commemorates the biblical exodus of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. Its observance centers around two mainstays: the ritual of the seder, which recreates the story of the exodus, and the prohibition from eating certain foods during the days of the holiday. The retelling of the story reminds us of how precious freedom is, and the food restrictions remind us of the difficult times of Jewish slaves prior to and during the exodus.

The foods prohibited during Passover are:
1. Any breads, cakes, biscuits or crackers (except for matzah, which is an unleavened cracker).
2. Most leavening agents, such as yeast. The Jews left Egypt in such a hurry they were not able to bake bread for the journey. We eat matzah to remind us of the flatbread they had to eat on their journey.
3. Traditionally observant Jews don’t eat processed foods unless they are marked “Kosher for Passover.” Of course, fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish–foods that are not processed–can be eaten without that special mark.
4. Dried peas, beans, lentils, and the like, are customarily not eaten by Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe.

Despite these restrictions, we eat very well during the holiday. Many Jewish people simply observe the prohibition against eating bread or rolls, and eat everything else. Those of us who do observe the restrictions have collected enough recipes over the years to compensate, and we have plenty to eat. One of my favorite recipes was first brought to the seder by our daughter-in-law, who is Jewish by choice. Since she has moved away, it is now part of my repertoire for the holiday.

Preparing one’s home for the holiday is a major part of the observance. One is supposed to rid the house of all hametz, or forbidden foods, for the duration of the holiday. In addition, traditional Jews change their dishes, pots, pans, cutlery, etc., and only use special dishes reserved for this holiday. It is reported that Blu Greenberg, a traditional Jewish woman and author, once said that in addition to the date of their birth and death, Jewish women should have the number of Passover seders they prepared engraved on their tombstones!

The seder is a family ritual which takes place around the dinner table on the first two nights of Passover, although some Jews today consider the second night optional. When our new daughters (our daughters-in-law) joined our family, I used to sit them near me for two reasons. The most important was that it was closest to the kitchen and they were very helpful to me, and the second was so that, when it was needed, I could explain things quietly as we went along. To tell the truth, it wasn’t really necessary.

During the seder ritual, we read from the hagaddah, our guidebook for the evening. The hagaddah includes special songs and prayers, tells the story of the exodus, and explains which symbolic foods to eat and when to eat them. Hagaddot (plural) commonly used in this country are written in English with some parts in Hebrew, often with transliteration. (Hebrew written with English letters.)

Each family has its own way of conducting the seder. Our family involves all of the guests by going around the table with each person taking a turn to read portions of the service. I remember many years ago when folks and books weren’t p.c. (politically correct) enough to be gender sensitive, and one of our guests corrected the problem. We had been out to dinner at a restaurant the night before. Our waitress was a lovely young Jewish woman who, we discovered, had no place to go for seder. Naturally we invited her to join us, and she came.

When it was her turn to read, she read every “he” as a “she,” every “his” as a “hers.” In this way, our seder became gender sensitive. Now we have hagaddot which include these changes in the text.

One of the highlights of the service is the asking of the four questions, traditionally asked by the youngest person at the table. Under the theme of: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” there follows these four questions:
1. On all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread; why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread? [To commemorate the flatbread the Jews took on their journey through the desert.]
2.On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs; why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs? [To recall the bitterness of slavery.]
3. On all other nights we are not required to dip at our meal; why on this night do we dip twice? [First we dip karpas (greens) into salt water symbolizing the slaves’ tears, and then we dip charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, and cinnamon) into bitter herbs symbolizing their bitter lives.]
4. On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining; why on this night do we recline? [To resemble royalty, who reclined as they ate, as opposed to slaves who did not.]

The hagaddah then tells the story of the Exodus, not only in narrative form, but with appropriate action as well. For example, when we recall the ten plagues God brought to the Egyptians to encourage Pharoah to let the Jewish people go, we either spill a drop of wine onto a dish or dip our finger into a glass of wine to recall each plague. When we invite Elijah to come to the seder table, we open the door to allow him to come in.

One of the favorite rituals of the seder is the children’s search for the afikomen, which is a piece of matzah hidden away at the beginning of the meal and saved for dessert. The seder cannot continue until it is found, and the children search for it and receive prizes for their efforts. It becomes a major event for the children, who remember from one year to the next who found it last year, and how many times they did or didn’t find it. One year, when our youngest son was feeling particularly miserable because he hadn’t found it, his nana, (who couldn’t stand seeing him unhappy) told him where to look. In a flash, he emerged triumphant with the precious piece of matzah in his hand. It was never as important for him to find it thereafter, having been successful once.

Each seder table has a cup of Elijah, the biblical prophet who is believed to be the harbinger of the Messiah. The legend is that Elijah will come to every seder and will drink from the wine in his special cup. Each family perpetuates the legend in its own particular way, somehow ensuring that the level of wine in the cup goes down to show that he did come. In our family, the children go outside to call for Elijah, and when they are gone, someone drinks the wine. One of my favorite memories of this custom was when our son Joel, then aged seven, returned to the table and saw someone drinking from Elijah’s cup. He came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, “I saw Mr. L……. drinking from the cup. Elijah doesn’t really come to the seder, does he?” The time had come to tell him the truth, so I quietly said, “No, he doesn’t.” He looked at me once again, and then said, “And now I suppose you’re going to tell me there is no tooth fairy.” And right on cue, I said, “You’re right. There is no tooth fairy either!” He is now thirty-seven years old, and the memory still makes me smile.

If you are invited to attend a seder and do not understand something, or want the Hebrew translated, you should feel free to ask questions. That is part of the purpose of the seder. If you wish to bring a gift to your hostess, it is a good idea to stay away from food items; flowers are much safer.

The hagaddah tells us, “In every generation, every Jew must regard himself/herself as though he/she, personally, was brought out of Egypt.” Once we were slaves, now we are free. This is the Passover message.

This article is excerpted from Lois Sussman Shenker’s forthcoming copyrighted book, Welcome to the Family! A User-Friendly Guide to the Jewish Experience.

Lois Shenker

Lois Shenker is the author of Welcome to the Family: Opening Doors to the Jewish Experience, available through bookstores or on-line through www.WelcomeToFamily.com. She also wrote an advice column, “Letters to Lois.”


Author: Lois Shenker