Updated 05:01 PM EDT, Mon, May 17, 2021

Passover 2014: Date, History, Traditions

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Jewish people everywhere are saying goodbye to bread, because Passover begins tonight, Monday, April 14, at sundown. The eight-day holiday, which is one of the biggest holidays in the Jewish calendar, ends on Tuesday, April 22.

The holiday is always celebrated in early spring, from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew months of Nissan. The holiday commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and celebrates the freedom that the Jewish people now enjoy.

The Passover story begins in 1313 BCE after the Jews were the slaves of Egyptian pharaohs for many decades. The Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor, so God sent a message to Moses, one of the most famous Jewish prophets, that he should go to Pharaoh and demand the release of his people.

He went to Pharaoh, and told him: "Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me." (Or as depicted in many re-tellings, he tells Pharaoh, "Let my people go.")

Despite numerous warnings from Moses, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, so God sent Egypt 10 devastating plagues, including turning water into blood; locusts; boils; wild beasts; lice; distressed livestock; raining frogs; thunder and hail; and darkness.

Then, at the stroke of midnight, after days of plagues, God bore the last and most devastating plague on the Egyptians: the killing of firstborn sons.

God spared the people of Israel by telling Moses to tell the Israelites to paint lambs' blood outside the doors of their homes. By doing so, the angel of death passed over the Israelites' homes, sparing their firstborns. God sparing the Jews from death is what gave the holiday the name "Passover."

After Pharaoh's firstborn son was killed, he finally broke down and told Moses that the Israelites were free to go. He chased the slaves out of his land, demanding that they leave at once.

The Israelites left in such a hurry that the bread they baked as provisions for their impending exodus did not have time to rise. Hence, today, Jews commemorate the exodus from Egypt by refraining from eating anything leavened during the eight days, meaning no bread, pretzels, chips, cookies, granola, cereal, pasta, etc. Instead, Jews consume Matzah, which is crunchy, unleavened bread.

When Moses and the Israelites reached the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his men were not far behind, as Pharaoh had changed his mind. In the nick of time, God gave Moses the power to split the Red Sea in half, allowing thousands of Israelites to cross safely to the other side. As the Jews were crossing through, Pharaoh came riding after them. Once the Jews were across, the enchantment stopped, and the sea came rushing back inward, drowning the Pharaoh and his men.

The Israelites successfully made their exodus from slavery, and began their journey through the desert to the promised land of Israel. During the story of Exodus, they travel to Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments and told the Israelites they were the "chosen people."

In the present day, Jews around the world celebrate Passover by having two seders, which are big dinners that have a specific order in which to commemorate the Jews' deliverance from slavery. ("Seder" means "order" in Hebrew.)

Seders have a traditional seder plate in the middle of the table, with objects that symbolize different aspects of the Passover story. There are bitter herbs, which are later dipped into salt water. The herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, while the salt water represents the tears of those who were enslaved. There is also charoset, which is a stuffing-esque food that is composed of apples, walnuts, wine and honey, and is meant to represent the mortar the Israelites used to make bricks while they were slaves in Egypt. There are also other symbolic objects, such as an egg, which represents the circle of life and the rebirth of spring.

The Passover seder involves the telling of the Passover story through a Haggadah, which is a book that every participant uses to follow along with the seder and retell the story.

There are many parts to the Passover seder, including songs, the finding of the Afikomen (a piece of matzah that is hidden then found by children, and upon finding, the children receive money or a prize), and holding the door open to "let in" the spirit of the prophet Elijah so he can drink some wine. In addition, there is the ceremonial drinking of four cups of wine to celebrate the Jews' freedom.

Seders are only held on the first two nights of Passover. During the rest of the holiday, chametz, or leavened products, are not eaten until the holiday comes to an end.

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