Let my people go, that they may serve me.
Exodus 9 v 1
‘Pesach’, usually called ‘The Passover’ in English, is the greatest of the Judaic festivals and the oldest in the Jewish calendar. Like the Christian Easter, it varies in date from year to year, occurring in the Spring and lasting for seven or eight days, not all of which are taken as holidays.
The festival probably dates back to the time when the Jews were wandering shepherds in the deserts of the Middle East, pitching their tents wherever they found grazing for their flocks. At the time of ‘lambing’, they observed a festival at which either a sheep or a goat was sacrificed as a thanksgiving. The sacrifice was made at nightfall and the animal was roasted whole and eaten the same night. No bones could be broken and no meat left uneaten at dawn.
As protection against evil the tent posts were daubed with the blood of the sheep. This was a family affair, unconnected with priests and places of worship.
Other groups of more settled Jews who farmed crops had their own festival in springtime, before the barley harvest. This was the ‘Feast of Unleavened Bread‘, i.e. bread without yeast or any other leavening to make it rise. At the beginning of the feast all sour doughs, used like yeast to leaven the bread, had to be destroyed to safeguard the produce of the forthcoming year. Then the first sheaf of the newly cut barley was presented as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the priest. Since these people were not nomadic, they had their own permanent places of worship, set high up on a nearby hill.
Even so, there were years of poor harvests when the Jews found themselves dependent, like Joseph’s family, on the Egyptians for corn. Thanks to Joseph, who had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but had risen to a position of authority, the Jews were able to move to Egypt to share the plentiful harvests, so that they also increased in population.
This did not please the Pharaohs, who gradually enslaved them, so that they longed to be free to return to ‘the land promised to them by God’. Under the leadership of Moses, they achieved their freedom through a terrible punishment of their captors, when the first-born of each Egyptian family died in a single night.
This punishment ‘passed over’ the houses of the Hebrew slaves who then, led by Moses, set out on their ‘exodus’ to find their ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Ever since that time, Jews have remembered the night when they ate hurriedly, ready for the journey, and painted their houses with the blood of lambs, so that the plague did not touch their homes.
The two festivals of ‘Pesach’ and ‘Unleavened Bread’ thus became combined in the ceremonies of ‘The Passover’ as a celebration symbolising the historic struggle of the Jewish people for national freedom. In the early days of Jewish history, and in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, it was a festival of Pilgrimage when all who could make their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the further dispersal of the Jews throughout the known world around the Mediterranean, the festival again divided into two parts, one in the local synagogue, and the other in each home.
In the home, every room is made spotlessly clean before the eve of Passover, all leavened bread destroyed, and the ‘matzoh’ of unleavened bread prepared. Greetings are exchanged, the home filled with light, and the table set for the entire family to sit around. This meal is called the ‘Seder‘ and the various parts of it remind everyone present of the deliverance from cruelty and enslavement in Egypt.
To begin the meal the youngest son asks four traditional questions which his father answers in full, symbolising the passing of the Jewish heritage from one generation to the next.
The meal has four special items. Four cups of wine are taken, possibly connected to one of the dreams which Joseph interpreted. There are cakes of bread, roasted egg, a dish of salt water (representing the tears of the Hebrew slaves), bitter herbs and a sweet paste of almonds, apple and wine, said to represent the clay with which the Israelites were forced to make bricks for the Pharaohs. In all, there are fourteen parts to the Seder, giving rise to inspired works of art in the making of the Seder dishes, Passover banners and matzoh covers. The last part of the Seder consists of prayers and songs, with a cup of wine poured symbolically for Elijah, the door being left open for him to enter and drink.
Christians are interested in this meal, because it was at the Seder that Jesus took the cup and the unleavened bread and instituted what became, for them, the central sacramental act of their religion, ‘The Last Supper’, now called in Christian worship ‘Communion’, ‘The Eucharist‘ or ‘The Mass’.
The festival remains essentially a family gathering for remembrance and rejoicing in freedom. In Jewish tradition the festival is known as ‘The Season of Release’, the central theme of which can be interpreted on three levels. Historically, it celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. On the seasonal level, it marks the release of the earth from the grip of winter, and on a personal level, for those taking part, it symbolises their hope of individual release from the bondage of sin, or wrongdoing.
Pesach and Hag HaMatzah. (workofheartandsoul.wordpress.com)
Passover traditions reflect ethnic, regional customs (wilmingtonfavs.com)
Throwaway Passover Dishes to Fill Landfills (greenprophet.com)
A Passover Seder in Philippi (mymorningmeditations.com)
13 things you need to know for Passover 2013 (theseatonpost.com)
Pesach is here! (teenainjerusalem.wordpress.com)
How to Get Yourself Kosher for Passover (waynehilsden.com)
Photos: Jewish holiday Passover begins (photos.denverpost.com)
Remembering the exodus: Passover begins (photos.mercurynews.com)