Passover FAQs – The Basics & Beyond

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Happy Passover

Before each holiday, I like to give myself a little refresher on the basics and find a few new tidbits that I hadn’t known before. This year, I found fascinating posts from Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Laura Novak Winer. Thanks to them for helping make our experiences even richer.

What do “Seder,” “Passover” and “Haggadah” mean?

“Seder” means order. And even though there is a huge amount of variability in how a Seder is conducted, the main elements follow a prescribed order, detailed in the Haggadah, based on 15 basic steps.

“Passover” comes from the Hebrew root meaning to “pass by” or to “spare,” referring to when the Angel of Death passed over the Hebrew homes and spared the firstborn.

“Haggadah” is from the Hebrew to tell (l’haggid).

What else is Passover called?

You might also hear Passover, or Pesach, referred to as:

  • Chag he-aviv (the Spring festival)
  • Chag ha-matzot (the festival of matzahs)
  • Z’man cheh-roo-tay-nu (the time of our freedom)

How long is Passover?

Reform Jews, as well as Jews who live in Israel, celebrate Passover for seven days. Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside Israel celebrate for eight days.

Some families have two Seders (Sedarim) – a first and a second Seder. Many congregations gather for a community second Seder.

Countdown to Passover

What’s the Passover story (the short version)?

After hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, God warned Pharaoh to free the Jews. There were multiple warnings that came as plagues.

After nine other plagues, God sent the tenth and final plague in the form of the Angel of Death to slay the firstborn son of every Egyptian family.

To make sure the Angel of Death knew not to enter the Jewish households, the Jews were instructed to kill a lamb and paint their lintels and doorposts with the lamb’s blood, a sign to the Angel to “pass over” or “spare” the firstborn in that house.

Finally, Pharaoh agreed.

Yet, just as the Jews began to flee, Pharaoh changed his mind and began chasing them. When the Jews reached the Red Sea, God parted the waters, allowing the Jews – miraculously – to cross over on dry land.

The Egyptians followed, with their horses and chariots, and were drowned.

Some say that the salt water at the Seder represents the tears of both the enslaved Jews and the Egyptians who perished in the Red Sea.

Why matzah?

Matzah, or unleavened bread, is a reminder of the food that was hastily prepared and eaten by the Jews leaving Egypt during the Exodus.

The Israelites didn’t have time to let dough rise. So they mixed flour and water, creating flat, yeast-free crackers to nourish them on their journey.

Want to make matzah yourself? Well, you’ve got precisely 18 minutes. Whaat? Hametz, any fermented grain product, is prohibited during Passover. And fermentation takes place within 18 minutes after the cut grain is mixed with liquid.  Want to try it? Matzah Baking, an 18-Minute Project.

Do I need to clean the whole house?

You can go whole hog (if you’ll excuse the expression) and clean the entire house, getting rid of every crumb, in every room. For people who follow this tradition, what a wonderful way to do a thorough spring cleaning!

If you want to be more symbolic, you can perform the ritual of bedikat chametz, which is so much fun with the kids. Hide 10 bits of food in various rooms. Then go hunting for it the night before Passover, using a candle and a feather.

There is even a tradition of selling your chametz (the things you don’t eat during Passover) to the Rabbi via a contract for the duration of the holiday. And now, you can sell it online! Check out Rabbi Jason’s blog post, “Selling Chametz Online.”

In our home, we often either move the cerealy/bready/crackery stuff to the garage or just use brown paper (cut from grocery bags) to tape off the shelves with the chametz. I enjoyed this perspective – part practical, part spiritual –  from Rabbi Laura Novak Winer in Chametz – It’s Always In Our Lives

Next week on the blog: Passover Food – What’s In, What’s Out?

Passover is coming!

Want more fun at your Seder? Check out our Passover Seder Steps Follow-Along.


Fun Seder

 Don’t miss our Passover Pinterest board for tons of ideas.

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