Pesach (Passover) 5783

***Fair Warning- this post jumps a little all over the place- trying to correct in the editing process, but you’ve been warned ***

Every time I think about the variety of Jewish Holidays we celebrate; in the back of my mind, I’m always clocking the kinds of celebrations we have. The level of preparation we put into them, the way that level varies from person to person, the way it’s varied for me over my life. It’s funny to think of them throughout the year- Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah are the ones I easily go the hardest for- they’re hands down my favorite. Purim is the one I probably do the least for, and Sukkot, Tu Bishvat, Simchat Torah all fall somewhere in the middle. Yom Kippur is so solemn that there isn’t sense in counting it- it’s spent in inward reflection and atonement. 

But these holidays are all different in the way we celebrate them within religious institutions as well. For Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah we celebrate in Shul, with prayers and services and so forth. Sukkot, Tu Bishvat and Passover are all seemingly celebrated outside of the Shul (though still with community and there are still Shul events to be attended). And of those, I personally feel like Pesach requires the utmost care and attention. It’s always, for me at least, been one of the bigger holidays on the calendar. Not only in preparation, but also in content. 

So, a quick word on what Pesach is, how we celebrate it, and then what my family specifically does (as it is different, and different year to year- this may change in the future who knows). 

Pesach (Passover) is the holiday in which the Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery during the Pharaohs time in Egypt. Without getting too nitty gritty, the Jews were slaves in Egypt (all those pyramids? Yea we built them), and Moses was given a task from Hashem to go to save the Jews. Throughout his speaking with Pharoah there were 10 plagues visited on the Egyptians by Hashem, the final being the death of the firstborn son of all the Egyptians. This last plague led to Pharoah releasing the Jews, causing them to flee in the darkness of night across the deserts of Egypt. Pharoah tried to chase after them, but they were free. Of course, they then wandered for 40 days and 40 nights and there was a whole bit about worshipping false idols, but it all ends with the Ten Commandments, and we are on our way. 

Pesach is the holiday where we acknowledge the struggle of the Jews, the fight for the freedom, and the wandering in the desert. How do we celebrate that though?

Well, for starters, because the Jews were not able to wait for the bread to rise before fleeing, we purge our house of all chametz (leavened/ing items) and abstain from eating any bread/grain items for 8 nights. If you are strict in your home, you sell all of the bread/leavening, not kosher for Pesach items in your homes to a non-Jewish person. Most people will just pack the items away and place them outside the home (either with friends or in a garage, etc.). Some will tape up drawers and cabinets that have items they can’t use during the week. Once the house has had all chametz removed, the Kasher practice begins. This is a second step, a cleansing of spaces and cooking items to prepare for Pesach. The night before Pesach begins, there is one final hunt and prayer said to rid any last chametz. Instead of bread products, we eat something called Matzah- which is a dry cracker- unleavened bread. 

The first night a Pesach a Seder is held. This seder is held in a family home, or a community hosts it, where we follow the Haggadah- a book full of prayers, songs, the story of Pesach, as well as various rituals to guide our evening. We have a Seder plate that ties into the Seder itself and is meaningful (and required to have a Seder) and we are commanded to drink 4 glasses of wine/grape juice.  We make sure to acknowledge the plagues, the flight from Pharoah, the struggle of the Jewish people, as well as the freedom of the people. While a seder can be long, it does tend to be celebratory, and there is typically a lot of drinking (I had my first drink at a Pesach Seder). I honestly have some of my fondest memories form Seders in my childhood- ones that I treasure. 

There is another seder on the second night of Pesach, and then things shift a bit as we take the week. The weekdays of Pesach are considered Chol HaMoed- a time for family and typically consist of family outings and time away from work/school. Throughout the week, there is no consumption of leavened products. 

So, what do we do? 

It’s complicated. I will usually tell my children the story of Passover, we will talk about the seder plate and what each item means and its importance, and that turns in to a very abbreviated Seder. We don’t rid our house of Chametz, as my husband does not celebrate and will go about his regular eating habits- as do our children, but I will typically abstain from eating bread products at breakfast and lunch (we still do normal dinners). The boys will each have a bit of matzah and try the various concoctions I create with it. I will eat kitniyot (this is a kosher thing), but dinners by and large will remain the same in our home. In the past I’ve gone all out with a Seder and as a child, some of my fondest Jewish memories are during Pesach, around the Seder table. This may change in the future, but I think it works for us in a way- it allows me to celebrate Pesach, to acknowledge my ancestors, to teach my children about our history, but also acknowledge that my husband is from a different background. (I feel like I should say, we don’t do Easter in our home- though the kids have done Easter egg hunts at their Grandparents and school). 

Any questions? Please let me know- I would love to answer! 

Pesach 5782

***A little aside here at the outset- I don’t really know what this post is going to be, what it’s going to say, or anything really, I’m just putting some thoughts to paper (as it were) and sharing. I do this from time to time when it feels right and right now, I’m clinging to my culture and me Jewish-ness.***

We are currently, as of the time that you are reading this, right smack dab in the middle of Pesach. And it has struck me that while Pesach has always had a big role in my childhood/early adolescence, I’ve never really spoken about it. More so in a passing “oh it’s the holiday that celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people and we don’t eat bread”- which is more for others benefit than actual statement of what the holiday represents. It’s the basic phrase that I’ve answered for more years than I care to admit, the easy way to please someone without overloading them with information and leaving them confused or not caring. 

And in truth, it’s a basic answer. It details what the holiday celebrates and how we honor that celebration. But in reality, Pesach is so much more than that and its meaning and importance from ALL of my childhood Jewishness is much deeper than a simple sentence can convey. So, let’s unpack all of that.

First off, what is Pesach? And I’m going to call it Pesach, even though the English is a word much more familiar- Passover. At its core, Pesach tells the story of the Jews liberation from slavery and Pharoah in Ancient Egypt. It is a celebration of our freedom. As ridiculous as it is, I always like to point to the movie The Prince of Egypt because this movie tells the most basic, easy to understand story of Pesach. The Jews were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, building his temples, his homes, doing back breaking labor for nothing. Pharoah was a truly horrible leader to his slaves, killing sons so that the population was controlled. The story of Moses birth, then upbringing in Pharaoh’s home is one told again and again. His eye-opening experience finding out he is one of the Chosen, a Jew. His task given to him by Hashem, to free the Jews. 

Moses goes to Pharoah and asks him to “Let his people go”, however Pharoah refuses (whatever will he do without all that free labor to build his grand temples and homes?). Of course, his refusal then leads to the 10 Plagues, with the final plague being the death of the first-born son of every non-Jew. At this, Pharoah tells Moses to get the Jews and get out. The Jews leave quickly, not even allowing enough time for their bread to rise (this is important) and make their way out of Pharoah’s Egypt. But of course, Pharaoh, in his grief, chases after them, cueing Moses parting the sea and the Jews escaping to safety. They then wander the desert of Egypt for 40 years before finding their way to Canaan, Israel. 

So, how do we celebrate this joyous event? Well by not eating any Chametz, or leavened bread, and by hosting a Seder. First, the foregoing of the leavened bread. We abstain from eating any form of gluten (this includes bread, pasta, flour tortillas, ANYTHING that expands when contacted with water) for 7-8 days (depending on how you practice). You are supposed to cleanse your house of all Chametz and do a full cleaning so not even a crumb is left. It’s important to note that there are varying levels of practice, as with anything else in Judaism, and how one practices does not reflect how Jewish one is.  However, no matter how you practice, the tradition of the ridding of Chametz, the eating of Matzah, is to ritualize and remember the breaking away from slavery. The idea of cleansing the house of Chametz, then going forward to 7-8 days with only Matzah (or unleavened crackers) is to symbolize our effective breaking of ties to Egypt. Eating the Matzah (while not always fun) is a symbol of our journey as Jews in the desert. 

As with any other Jewish holiday, Pesach is steeped in ritual. Aside from the cleansing of Chametz and eating Matzah, we also have a Seder. The seder is a very orderly, ritual reading of the Haggadah, telling the story of the freedom of the Jews, feast. This feast has a strict and precise order and details out everything from how many glasses of wine will be consumed during the formal portion (it’s 4), to the washing of hands, to the game of finding the Afikomen. It is a joyous, happy occasion and often times one full of laughter and a true sense of community. As part of the seder we invite both those we know and those we don’t know to join our table as a way of honoring that we were all strangers at one point. Typically, there is a Night One Seder and a Night Two seder as we celebrate the first two nights of the weeklong holiday. 

Starting the second night of Pesach, Jews typically “Count the Omer”, in which we count and pray on the days between Pesach to Shavuot (the next holiday). This is a 50-day period that links the freedom of Pesach and the handing down of the Laws at Shavuot. There is also Yom HaShoah, falling 5 days after Pesach, which is the Day of the Holocaust. This is a day of mourning for the Jewish people to commemorate the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. 

Pesach for me is a holiday that I have the fullest, fondest memories of. Of course, giving up gluten for a week is…well torture, it is also one of the few very physical ways to honor that struggle that our ancestors went through to gain our freedom. A freedom that cannot be taken away, no matter how much struggle we have been through since as a people. But I also have some of the best memories of family seders as a child. We always did a night one Pesach Seder with some really close family friends and their extended family. It was a loud raucous night full of singing, laughing, and some great readings of the Haggadah. There was always a spirited hunt for the Afikomen, and the evening ALWAYS ended with a second, third, whatever round of Dayenu. I always loved the holiday of Pesach as it is not only a story of freedom, but also a celebration of finding home. Of having community in each other. Of struggling and triumphing together as a people.