It’s finally spring and that means holiday time is just around the corner. And while it’s not too tough to understand and grow attached to Easter (bunnies, Cadbury crème eggs — what’s not to love?!), Passover has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for newbies. So, if you’re heading to your first Seder (a.k.a. Passover dinner) this year or just want to know a little bit more about it, here’s the complete breakdown of the holiday.
What’s the deal with Passover?
Although Jerry Seinfeld never included this question in his stand-up, there’s more to the holiday than swearing off of bread for a week. Passover celebrates the Angel of Death quite literally “passing over” the homes of the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt to unleash its wrath on their oppressors. As a result, the fed up pharaoh released the Jews, propelling the story of their mass exodus from Egypt (read on the first two nights of Passover). It’s also been called The Time of Liberation, The Festival of Spring and The Festival of Unleavened Bread. Which brings us to…
What exactly is matzo?
You know those large sheets of terrible-tasting crackers that you see Jewish people eat on Passover? That’s called matzo (or matzah, depending on your spelling preference), also known as unleavened bread. It’s eaten because the Jewish people had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to sit around and wait for their dough to rise. Which is also why matzo serves as a reminder of the Jewish people’s newfound freedom and independence. But while matzo is very much an acquired taste, there are tons of ways to spice it up, including by making pizza matzo, matzo lasagna and chocolate and caramel matzo bark. Take one of those to your Jewish friend’s house for dinner, and it’ll only be a matter of time before they start begging you for the recipe.
How long does Passover last?
The holiday lasts for seven days in Israel or for reformed Jews, and eight days for those who are more religious. There are conflicting ideas as to why some people celebrate the extra day, but the Torah doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. The Book of Leviticus even says that “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord; seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread.” You could say that this is where seven-day Atkins diet all started.
Why is there such a focus on bitter foods?
From dipping bitter veggies in salt water to the endless consumption of horseradish, bitter foods are ridiculously hot (no pun intended) during Passover. Seriously, practically everything on the table is bitter except for the dessert. Bitter herbs, a.k.a. maror, are eaten because they symbolize the brutality and hardships that the Jewish people suffered through in Egypt during their enslavement. Hot tip: Be sure to keep the pitcher of water close by at all times during the Seder. You can thank us later.
Why are you supposed to lean to the left on the first two nights?
To the left, to the left… No, we’re not just singing along to Beyoncé‘s song, we’re referring to the custom that Jews are supposed to lean to the left during the two Seders. Back in the day, nobility would recline luxuriously during meals and the lower classes would eat rigidly on the floor. Now that the Jews are no longer slaves, we can lean to the left while eating and enjoy the benefit of being free.
Will there be booze?
For anyone who has ever taken part in a Seder, you know that there’s an astounding amount of wine consumed throughout the night. Four glasses per person, to be exact. So what’s the need for all that wine?
According to the Torah and Jewish belief, God promised the enslaved Jews a few things: “I will free you,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you” and “I will take you to be my people.” For each glass of wine that you drink during the Seder (you can also opt for grape juice if you’re not a wine person), you’re celebrating the fulfillment of God’s accompanying promises. So drink up.
What’s with all the questions?
By now, you’ve probably noticed that each point in this article starts off with a question. Well, a lot of the book that you read during the Seders (the ‘Haggadah’) is made up of probing questions accompanied by answers about Passover from various notable Jews. When the Jews were slaves in Egypt, they were forbidden from voicing their opinions or questioning authority. Now that we’re free from slavery, we can exercise our right to probe for the truth in all matters. In fact, at the very end of the Haggadah, it’s advised that you spend the rest of the night discussing and examining the story of Passover. As Geoffrey Rush oh so memorably told Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, “you must have faith in your voice.”
Have a happy and healthy Passover!