Friday, April 6, 2012

'Tis the Season of Passover

"Chag Sameach" or "Happy Holiday" and "Happy Easter" are the two appropriate greetings for this time of the year. When spring comes to the Northern Hemisphere, two religions each observe important celebrations: the Passover for the Jews and Lent for the Christians, which culminates on Easter Sunday. Passover in particular is full of traditions and rituals that come straight from the Jewish Holy Bible, the Torah. Even the preparation of the food and drink to be served during the course of the Passover should follow the Jewish laws. Some may find the traditions and rituals very strict. However, the backbone of this long-lasting religious faith is rooted in the faithful adherence God's laws as outlined in the Jewish Bible.

In today's world, people of all races, religions and beliefs find themselves in one place, the World Wide Web. Exposure to information about religious observances throughout the globe is a given. It is always a good idea to find out what are the religious observances and traditions practiced by others starting with Passover.


Passover goes by a number of names one of which is Pesach (Hebrew). Mainly members of the Jewish faith, Judaism, celebrate this festival. A number of Christians also observe this pilgrim festival of the Jews. Passover commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their freedom from bondage. In the Torah, the first 5 books of the Jewish Bible, specifically in the book of Exodus (departure), you will find the story of Passover. According to the Torah, God sent 10 different plagues upon the people of Egypt in order to force the Egyptian Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery.

Among all the plagues that include water turning into blood, lice or gnats, frogs, flies or wild animals, boils, pestilence, hail and thunder, locusts, darkness and death of the first-born, it was the 10th plague that broke the camel's back, or in this case, the Pharaoh's resolve. God slaughtered all the first-borns in the land of Egypt. The Israelites received instruction from Moses (who was told by God) to place a mark on their homes' doorposts using the blood of a lamb so that when the Lord came, he would not slaughter the first-borns in those homes. The Egyptians, including the Pharaoh, lost their first-born sons.

This festival is also called "The Festival of the Unleavened Bread" because in the Torah, it is said that the Israelites were in such a rush to leave the land of Egypt once they were freed that they no longer waited for their bread dough to completely rise or leaven. They instead ate flat unleavened bread or Matzo. And to this day, during this important Jewish festival, only unleavened bread is served and eaten.

In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan. In the Gregorian calendar, this falls around March or April, which is springtime in the Northern Hemisphere. It then ends either on the 21st or 22nd day of Nisan. This year, Passover started as soon as the sun set on April 6 and it will end either on the nightfall of the 13th (in the land of Israel) or the 14th of April (elsewhere in the world).

There are many customs and traditions observed by Jews during the 6 or 7 days of this festival. In some countries, the 1st and last days are legal holidays. Among other things, the Jews participate in special prayer services and partake of special meals.

Passover facts and trivia

The festival of Passover reminds Jews that they were once slaves of Egypt but through God's grace and mercy were removed from bondage. As a result, more traditional Jews follow Biblical commandments surrounding the feast to the letter and with much more fervor. Others follow a more modernized observance of Passover.

Jewish families and even communities come together on the 1st night of the festival of Passover for a traditional dinner known as seder (meaning "order" in Hebrew). There are specific rituals that are followed during this special dinner. Because this is an important activity for the Jews, only the best china and silverware are used during this meal. A retelling of the story of Exodus happens on this night. There are 15 parts to the whole Passover seder, which include blessings, washing of hands, drinking of wine, eating of matzo, eating of maror, singing of songs, and more. The maror, usually grated horseradish, is eaten to remind the Jews of the bitterness of slavery in the hands of the Egyptian.

Children's curiosities and inquisitiveness are encouraged during the Passover seder. Those who ask questions are often given treats like nuts.

Households are cleaned days or even weeks before Passover to remove all traces of leaven (usually yeast), or what is called chametz in Hebrew, as prescribed by Jewish law. In Israel, Europe and America, a number of hotels, resorts and cruise ships would perform thorough housecleaning out of respect for traditional Jews.

During Passover, some traditional Jewish families use only plates, glasses and silverware that where never in contact with chametz.

Leavened bread and any chametz found during the cleaning process are burned on the 14th of Nisan. Burning is done in the morning.

Yeast breads are prohibited for consumption during Passover. But baked goods made with baking powder, baking soda or other ingredients that leaven through chemical reaction as opposed to biological fermentation can be eaten.

The traditional Passover sacrifice is a lamb or a goat. It was the blood of the lamb that was used by the Israelites to mark their homes during the time of the slaughter of the first-borns. The tradition of sacrificing whole lambs and consuming it without leaving any leftovers is no longer done in many Jewish households. Instead, a symbolic food like a roasted shank bone takes the place of the sacrificed lamb. However, in places where there is a big community of Jews, sacrificing and partaking of a lamb or goat is still done.

Matzo, flat unleavened bread, is made only from flour and water. It is eaten during the Passover Seder. This type of bread is supposed to remind Jews that they were once slaves. By eating only matzo, humility and appreciation of freedom is promoted among the Jews.

Afikomen means dessert. It is the last item of food that is eaten during the Passover seder. It is usually hidden and the children are given the task to find it. The seder can only be concluded once the afikomen is returned.

During other days of Passover, Jewish families go on picnics or outings. They enjoy Passover treats like homemade candies and macaroons. Modern day Jews enjoy creating Passover cakes, pastries and breads using Passover cake flour, potato starch or other like products.

Foods enjoyed during Passover are matzah brei or fried matzo and egg, charoset or chopped apples and nuts served in wine, gefilte fish or poached fish ball/patties, chicken soup served with matzah balls, and rice with raisins or saffron.

Borsht, which is soup made from beets, are often served by Jewish families coming from Eastern European backgrounds.

Jews who live in Israel conclude the festival of Passover on the 7th day. But for Jews who live outside of Israel, the last day of Passover is celebrated on the 7th and on the 8th. The 7th day of Passover commemorates a very special event, when God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to pass and escape from pursuing Egyptians. The Egyptian soldiers together with their chariots and horses drowned but the Pharaoh lived to give witness to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. It is a day full of special prayers as well as festive meals.

The whole service used during the Passover seder is in the Haggadah. It is the Jewish text containing not only readings and Psalms pertaining to the Exodus but also instructions regarding the way the seder should be conducted, and what prayers are prayed, and which songs sung.

Moses, who received the 10 Commandments directly from God, led the Israelites out of Egypt through the guidance of God. However, in the Passover Haggadah, Moses is only mentioned once in the text. This was done in order to highlight God's bigger role in the story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.

For a more Passover specific greeting, say "Chag Kasher V'Same'ach." This means you are wishing the person a happy as well as a kosher holiday.

Last year, approximately 1,500 attended the Passover Seder in Nepal. In the same year, a Passover seder for around 1,300 people was organized in Israel.

American President Abraham Lincoln, although he was not originally for the abolishment of slavery, is known today as the man who stood against slavery. He died during the time of Passover.

Coca-Cola bottles with yellow caps contain the kosher version of their popular drink. High-fructose corn syrup, which Jews cannot take during this time, is replaced by regular sugar. Pepsi also offers their kosher version during Passover. Look for the white cap on Pepsi bottles. You can also find kosher beers and other types of drinks (and food products) suitable for the celebration of Passover.

The season of Passover for the Jews and the season of Lent for the Christians are both times for introspection and reflection. Jews are reminded to be humble and thankful because they were once slaves who were freed by God. Christians are also reminded to show humility and gratitude because the Son of God and their Savior, Jesus Christ, died for their sins. The lessons of Passover, Lent and other religious feasts and festivals should be part of the everyday lives of their believers. Whatever faith one believes in or practices, it is important to set aside time to reflect on one's life and to be grateful for the blessings that have come his or her way.

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