What Is Passover & How Can You Celebrate It With Your Jewish Partner?
Like any religion, Judaism is complicated. There are so many ins and outs, and they can vary depending on how religious you are or even what part of the world you have origins in. If you're dating someone Jewish, it can be challenging to keep up. You can ask your partner questions, of course, and they'll be happy to answer. But before you ask, "what is Passover?" why not read up on the holiday and then ask a more pinpointed question? Trust me, your significant other will be impressed, and super flattered that you want to learn about their culture.
As one of the more involved Jewish holidays, Passover has tons of history behind it. This also means that there are a number of important traditions (read: rules) to observe during the holiday. Before you freak out, know that you don't need to understand every aspect of this intricate holiday to celebrate with your partner. As long as you are respectful and open to new experiences, you'll be fine.
That being said, it can't hurt to brush up on the basics before you attend a Seder (pronounced "SAY-der" — it's the traditional dinner held on Passover) with your significant other and their entire family.
Why is it called Passover?
It's simple. In Hebrew, the holiday is called Pesach, which means "to pass over." According to the Torah, after decades of enslavement by the Egyptians, the Israelites' leader, Moses, brought a message to Pharaoh. Moses asked Pharaoh to free the Jewish people from slavery, and warned him that God would retaliate if the request was ignored. Pharaoh refused over and over again, so God kept his word and began to punish the Egyptians with devastating plagues. The tenth and final plague was the worst — the killing of every firstborn Egyptian child. Only Jewish families were spared. God passed over the doorways that were marked with lamb's blood, indicating the home belonged to Jews. This night became known as the first Passover eve.
When is Passover this year?
You might not know that Jewish people actually celebrate more than one holiday that lasts for eight days. Passover, which takes place in the spring, is actually a much more religiously significant holiday than Hanukkah, even though it's less well known. Passover falls somewhere between late March and late April each year, depending on the Hebrew calendar. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of Friday, March 30, and ends on the evening of Saturday, April 7.
Why does the date change each year?
Jewish holidays take place according to the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the cycles of the moon, rather than the Gregorian calendar (used in the Western world), which is based on the movements of the sun. Passover begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nissan, which means it can occur at any point from late March to late April.
Why do people celebrate Passover?
Once the aforementioned plagues were carried out, Pharaoh was (understandably) pretty pissed. He told the Jewish people to get out of Egypt right away. So, they quickly gathered their belongings and rushed to make a mass exodus before Pharaoh changed his mind and came after them. The Jews were in such a big hurry to leave that their bread didn't even have time to rise. That's why we celebrate Passover today by eating matzah, which is essentially unleavened bread. It's like a cracker.
What is the Passover Seder?
It is traditional to hold two services called Seders — one on the first night of Passover and one on the second. The word Seder means order. The Seder follows a book called the Haggadah, which includes prayers, songs, and the story of Passover. There are different versions of the Haggadah, ranging in length and complexity. You can even find Haggadot with fun themes, such as a chocolate Seder or this Hamilton-themed Haggadah.
A special Seder plate sits in the middle of the table. Each item on the plate has a meaning behind it. A hard-boiled egg (beitzah), a shank bone (zeroa), bitter herbs (maror and chazeret), a paste (charoset), and parsley (karpas) are placed on the Seder plate. The egg represents the pre-holiday offering, and the bone stands for the lamb sacrificed the evening before the Jews' exodus from Egypt. Neither are actually consumed during the Seder.
At different points throughout the Seder, everyone at the table eats some of the bitter herbs, paste, and parsley. The bitter herbs (usually horseradish and romaine lettuce) are meant to remind us of the bitterness of slavery experienced by our ancestors. Charoset is a sweet paste made from apples, nuts, and wine. It resembles the mortar Jews were forced to make for Pharaoh. (By the way, it's actually delicious.) The parsley is dipped in saltwater — which represents tears shed by the Jews due to hours of intense labor — and then tasted.
During the Seder, the youngest person at the table recites The Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah), which ask and answer in various ways, "How is this night different from all other nights?" For example, one of the questions asks why we recline (often on pillows) at the dinner table on Passover, when we don't necessarily do so on any other night.
Finally, there are a number of Passover songs, some of which are sung before the meal, and others after. In my experience, the songs sung after the meal are much more enthusiastic, because we've all been fed.
What are common Passover traditions?
As part of the Passover preparations, some families get rid of all chametz, meaning anything that is leaven. Basically, if you add yeast to dough it ferments and rises. So if this process has taken place, you can't eat it on Passover — or for some, even have it in the house during the holiday.
Another Passover tradition (and my personal favorite part) is finding the afikomen. It's essentially a game for children, and I'm pretty sure it was invented to prevent the kids at the table from throwing a tantrum during the lengthy Seder. It's not exactly a bribe, but it's something to look forward to during a Seder that can last up to a few hours before the main meal is even served.
As part of the Seder, you place three pieces of matzah on the table. At the beginning of the service, the middle piece is broken in half. An adult hides the biggest piece (the afikomen) somewhere in the house, and the kids all look for it. Whoever finds it first wins a prize — usually a few dollars. Like I said, it's the most fun part. Except for maybe Chad Gadya, which is a rousing song about a goat that, at least in my family, you try to sing the final verse of in a single breath.
What foods are not eaten on Passover?
If you hear someone refer to "keeping Passover," they are referring to the dietary restrictions most Jews abide by during the eight days of Passover. As I mentioned before, chametz (leaven) is off limits. So any kind of food made of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt that has fermented and risen can't be consumed on Passover. That means no bread, bagels, cake, or pasta. Just lots and lots of matzah.
Different groups of Jewish people have different rules about what you can and can't eat. There's a whole other list of foods, known as kitniyot, that some say it's OK to eat during Passover, while others disagree. Kitniyot includes legumes, beans, peas, rice, millet, corn, and seeds.
What is matzah?
You've probably seen matzah before, or at least heard of matzah ball soup. Matzah balls are made of matzah meal, and are traditionally served in chicken soup. Matzah itself looks like a big cracker. It's very crunchy and in my opinion, pretty tasteless. To spice things up over the course of eight days, you can put pretty much anything on or in between pieces of matzah. Whether you prefer peanut butter and jelly, avocado and salt, or tomato sauce and cheese, you can make a matzah sandwich or pizza using your favorite Kosher for Passover ingredients. For dessert, there's chocolate covered matzah, which is so much better than those weird jelly fruit slices that are also commonly served on Passover.
There's a lot to learn, but we're happy to teach. Don't worry if you don't pick up on everything. After all, there's always next year (in Jerusalem).
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