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Celebrating Passover, Then and Now

Celebrating Passover, Then and Now

Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate Passover with a ritualized meal called the seder, a Hebrew word meaning “order” that refers to the order of the prayers that are recited and the symbolic foods that are eaten prior to a fancy meal. The purpose of the seder is to tell the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptian slavery.

Passover is a popular family holiday, primarily observed in the home. Even though rabbinic Judaism portrays the festival solely as the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, its history is complicated and its celebration varies around the Jewish world. This difference is particularly notable between Jews of Ashkenazic background (i.e., of Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and the Middle East.

Here are some facts about the holiday of Passover:

  1. The festival appears to be a combination of two different holidays, one day apart from each other: Hag ha-Pesah (“Pascal Offering”), reflecting a nomadic life-style, and Hag ha-Matzot (“The Festival of Unleavened Bread”, representing a sedentary society (Lev. 23:5). After these two were combined, it was historicized and celebrated as the liberation from slavery from ancient Egypt. In Biblical times, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (to Jerusalem); after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, it became a home festival.
  2. The Bible states that 600,000 men on foot, plus children and other individuals (“a mixed multitude”) left Egypt in haste (Ex. 12: 37). That would translate into a group of refugees of about a million people. This is highly improbable; most likely, only a few hundred Israelites left, maybe representing only the tribe of Levy.
  3. Recently, scholars have pointed out that the Bible reflects two different traditions, one that knows of the liberation from Egypt and another that appears to ignore it altogether, assuming that Israel emerged in the Sinai desert and not before. This would explain why the Levites did not have a tribal territory of their own in the land of Israel among their brothers (Deut. 10:9), because when they arrived, the tribes of Israel were already settled in the Holy Land.
  4. During the recitation of the Passover story (Hagaddah), Moses, the great liberator, is mentioned only once. The Reform Jewish Hagaddah does not mention him at all. How come? Maybe because of the fear that Moses could be given all the glory, and even deified, whereas in Jewish tradition only God is viewed as being responsible for the redemption of the people.
  5. One of the prohibitions during Passover is not to eat chametz (“leaven”) for seven days. Instead, one must consume matzah, unleavened bread. The rationale is that the Israelites left Egypt in haste and prepared unleavened cakes instead (Ex. 12: 19). In reality, this type of unleavened bread must have been consumed by the farmers who are in the field during the spring harvest.
  6. In addition to this prohibition, there is the custom among many eastern European Jews not to eat rice or eat different types of legumes, called kitniyot. However, Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative Israeli rabbi, indicated in 1997 that “it is permitted and perhaps even obligatory to eliminate this custom,” because “it is a foolish custom.” In fact, Sephardic Jews have no problem eating these food items during Passover - and I, a Sephardic Jew, do it without any sense of guilt!
  7. In Israel, Passover is celebrated, as the Bible commands, for seven days (Ex. 23:14); outside of Israel, following the rabbinic teachings, it is kept for eight days. In Reform Judaism, however, the practice is to follow Israeli custom and keep Passover for seven days.
  8. Finally, there are many different customs, often reflecting local traditions, about the type of food that is served during Passover, including the kind of charoset made of chopped fruit, nuts, wine, and spices. Some traditional families change all the dishes for the holiday; other Jews do not.

However you celebrate, have a wonderful Passover!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, and is a faculty member of the Department of Theology at Boston College. He is the author of Did Moses Really Have Horns? And Other Myths About Jews (2009) and Judaism and And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics (2014).

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
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