Passover: The Basics

What are the basics of Passover? This print-ready resource covers all the general information about this important Jewish holiday and how to celebrate as an interfaith couple/family. If you don’t want to download it, simply read on.

Passover resource cover
Click on the image above to download our beautiful, print-ready PDF all about Passover.

Getting Started

Passover is a holiday that is mainly celebrated at home. As a major Jewish holiday, it can require more of us to celebrate than other holidays. It’s also an opportunity to host a seder meal that reflects interfaith couples and families in all our diversity. We can choose or create a Haggadah (holiday book) that speaks to us and serve foods that reflect our family.

Origins of Passover

Passover comes directly from the Torah, and commemorates the story of the ancient Hebrews’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because they had to leave in a hurry, they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. That’s why matzah, a flat, cracker-like food, is one of the main symbols of the holiday, and an important food eaten during the week. It is also why some people choose not to eat any “chametz” or leavened bread—anything that uses a raising agent, like yeast—for the duration of the holiday.

As you may already be aware, the overlap that often occurs with Passover and Easter can make holiday meals (and other things!) tricky for those keeping kosher for Passover (abstaining from leavened foods). Look for tips and advice about navigating these holidays on our website.

The Hebrew name, Pesach, means “passing over.” It refers to the sacrifice of a lamb whose blood was put on the doors of the Hebrew households to guard against the Angel of Death—who was killing all Egyptian firstborns in the 10th plague. The Angel was “passing over” the Israelite households with lamb’s blood on the doors, and sparing them.

Passover takes place in March or April and lasts seven or eight days, depending on a family’s tradition. Like all Jewish holidays, it starts at sundown. Themes of the holiday include freedom, springtime, recognizing the sacrifices of our ancestors and passing our values on to the next generation.

How Do We Prep?

In the days and even weeks leading up to Passover, some people clean out their houses thoroughly, like a religiously-inspired spring cleaning. Some people try to get rid of all their leavened foods, including bread, pasta, many cereals and even beer, and some have a separate set of dishes used only on Passover. Others may clean as a symbolic gesture and store their leavened foods out of sight during the holiday, and it’s also perfectly fine not to do any of these things to prepare.

The Night Before

The night before the first seder, there’s an old ritual some families enjoy to search the house for leavened foods using a candle and a feather. Some people create a bread scavenger hunt with their kids, which is the first of many parts of the holiday designed to keep children interested.

There’s also a short prayer that translates roughly as, “Even if I didn’t find all the leavened foods, by saying these words, I’m nullifying their existence.” The tradition understands that no matter how hard you try, no one’s perfect.

Traditions

One reading at the beginning of the seder says, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” It serves as both an encouragement to help feed those who are hungry in our communities and an invitation to fill your seder table with guests. Friends and relatives of all backgrounds and religions are welcome at seder tables.

The particular story of liberation is a Jewish one, but its universal themes can foster cross-cultural conversations and provide opportunities to learn about our family and friends’ unique stories.

Ritual Items

The seder table is full of ritual foods and ritual objects. A traditional seder plate holds six special foods that are referenced throughout the seder:

Karpas (a spring vegetable, often parsley or celery)
Maror (bitter herbs, usually horseradish)
A roasted hard-boiled egg
Another bitter vegetable (like romaine lettuce)
Charoset (a mixture of fruit and nuts that symbolizes mortar)
A shank bone (though many vegetarians use a roasted beet)

Some people also add an orange to symbolize all who feel marginalized within the Jewish community (learn more here). An artichoke has more recently been added for interfaith families. There are many other modern additions that may be added to a seder plate to represent the uniqueness of their different families and experiences.

The table also has three matzot (plural of matzah) stacked on top of each other, bowls of salt water, and a Kiddush cup (wine glass) for each person, plus a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and a glass of water for the prophet Miriam.

The Seder

The central part of the Passover celebration is the seder, a ritual meal typically held on the first and sometimes the second night of the holiday. “Seder” means order in Hebrew, and many follow the 15 steps of the seder consecutively.

A “Haggadah” is a special book that takes participants through the steps of the seder, and there are many different versions: for families, for vegetarians, even for fans of certain movies or TV shows!

There are also websites like Haggadot.com to design your own Haggadah. You can add artwork, prayers, poetry or songs to fit a seder theme and your family’s vibe. Some popular additions include African- American spirituals, family immigration stories and lists of contemporary plagues to our society.

The longest part of the seder is called “Maggid,” which means storytelling. It includes the story of the Exodus as well as the story of the ancient rabbis telling the story. (Many stories within a story!) There are also four glasses of wine or grape juice blessed and drunk at specific points in the seder, and songs sung at the very end.

What Are the Kids Doing?

A major theme of the holiday is to teach the story of the Exodus to the next generation. Arguably the most important thing you can do to engage them is to get a Haggadah that’s meant for kids. At the beginning of the seder, the youngest child is invited to ask the Four Questions, which starts with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Children are also intrigued by dipping fingers in wine or grape juice during the recitation of the 10 plagues (toys, masks or finger puppets can make the plagues more fun and interactive). A favorite kid-friendly activity comes after dinner with the search for the afikomen: a broken piece of matzah (whose name comes from the Greek for dessert) which an adult hides during the seder. Children are encouraged to search for it and then return it to the seder leader in exchange for a prize.

Let’s Eat

Beyond the ritual foods on the seder plate, another seder step is shulchan orech, a festive meal. Any dishes that feel festive and do not contain leavened products are appropriate to serve for dinner. Some popular choices in Ashkenazi families—those from Eastern Europe—may include matzah ball soup, gefilte fish (fish cakes), brisket and tzimmes (stewed fruit and vegetables).

Sephardi families—those with roots in Spain and the Middle East—may serve lamb, rice or legumes, and often use lemons, leeks, artichokes and dates when cooking.

You can find lots of unique and multicultural Passover recipes here. If you’re observing the Passover diet beyond the seder, simple meals of vegetables and proteins help carry the spirit of the holiday throughout the week without overloading on matzah.

What is and is not kosher for Passover is always a big question. We break it down here, but two good rules to follow: Don’t eat anything with yeast that could rise and when in doubt, look for the kosher for Passover symbol on the label.

Questions Welcome

The seder ritual itself is designed to spark curiosity (remember those Four Questions?). One sign of our freedom is the ability to ask questions. Any and all questions are encouraged at seders! Some families keep candy on hand to reward kids for their questions, while others may set up games or prompts to make sure everyone’s questions and opinions are voiced.


18Doors

18Doors is here to support interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship provides offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have questions, please contact info@18doors.org.

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Author: 18Doors