In Judaism, Passover ranks just below Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in importance. Learn more about this religious holiday as well as access resources perfect for the classroom.
What is Passover?
Passover commemorates the miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt sometime in the 14th century BCE. This event is detailed in Exodus, the second book of the Torah. Passover, also known as Pesach, is an eight-day festival celebrated by Jews the world over.
In 2021, Passover is celebrated starting on the evening of March 27 through April 4. Although the dates vary from year to year, Passover is a spring festival in the northern hemisphere. Passover is always on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, but since the Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the moon’s cycle), the dates in the secular calendar change each year.
The First Passover
The great story of Passover actually begins near the end of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, when ancestors of the Hebrew people (the patriarch Jacob and his sons and their families) migrated from the land of Canaan (modern-day Palestine and Israel). Jacob’s family left their homeland because of a famine, and found refuge in Egypt where one of Jacob’s sons—thought to be dead—had previously risen to second in command after the Egyptian king (or pharoah). This story is also a great one, but for another time!
Sometime after this migration, the children of Jacob (who were also descendants of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, the founder of Judaism) became known as Hebrews and became numerous in the land of Egypt, so much so that a new pharoah sought to control them by making them slaves. This period lasted about four centuries.
Exodus says the Hebrew people cried out to the Lord for deliverance from this harsh slavery. God heard their prayers and raised up a man who would lead a mass escape from this servitude. That man was Moses.
God anoints a deliverer
Moses actually grew up in the pharaoh’s household when the king’s daughter discovered him as an infant in a basket in the Nile. What was this infant doing floating in a basket in a river? Well, Moses had been placed there by his mother to hide him from a slaughter of Hebrew babies carried out under the pharaoh’s orders. He was raised as an adopted son of the pharaoh’s daughter. Subsequently as a grown man, Moses fled Egypt after murdering another Egyptian who was abusing a slave. He hid out in the land of Midian tending flocks for about 40 years. Eventually, the Lord spoke miraculously to Moses through a burning bush, appointing him as the leader who would return to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery.
The plagues upon Egypt
Moses, along with his brother Aaron, confront the pharaoh, demanding the release of the Hebrew slaves (by now numbering about a half million). To move the king’s hand toward this end, God delivers a series of ten plagues on Egypt. Plagues of frogs, locusts, darkness, boils, you name it, were thrown at the kingdom of Egypt. The last plague is the impetus behind the Passover event.
This tenth plague was the worst of them all. It involved a night when an angel of death, sent by God, struck down all the first-born sons in the land of Egypt as well as all first-born male animals. The Lord told the Hebrews to save themselves from this plague by sacrificing a lamb and smearing its blood on their doorposts thus sending a signal to the angel of death to “pass over” that home leaving the occupants unharmed. They were to roast and eat the lamb and stay in their homes all night.
Immediately after this plague, the pharaoh summoned Moses and told him to take all his people out of the land of Egypt. The Hebrews left so quickly they took their bread dough before they had a chance to add yeast to it. This is why Passover is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
How is Passover celebrated today?
Passover is divided into two parts. The main ritual is called the seder, which happens on the first two nights (in Israel just the first night) of the festival. The first two days and last two days (the latter remembering the parting of the Red Sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. Most Jews don’t go to work or drive. Some more devout Jews will not write, or even switch on or off electric devices. The middle four days (Chol Hamoed) are semi-festive when most forms of work are permitted.
In 2021, the first Passover seder is on the evening of Saturday, March 27. It’s a holiday meal that involves the re-telling of the Exodus through stories and song and the eating of symbolic foods. The seder’s rituals and other readings are recited from the Haggadah. The most significant missing ingredient is hametz, or foods with leaven. This is to remember how the Hebrews were in such a hurry to exit Egypt after the tenth plague, that they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise.
Matzah, or unleavened bread, is the main food of Passover. It’s available at most supermarkets, or you can make your own. Other traditional foods include haroset (a mixture of fruit, nuts, wine, and cinnamon) representing the mortar used by Hebrew slaves, and matzah ball soup. A roasted shank bone represents the Pesach sacrifice, and an egg represents spring and the circle of life. Some households will serve gefilte fish too. Drinking four cups of wine, dipping veggies into saltwater, children asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah: “How is this night different from all other nights?”), and singing late into the night are also a part of the celebration.
The joyful cycle of psalms called Hallel is recited both at night and day (during the seder and morning prayers). Passover also commences a 49-day period called the Omer, which memorializes the enumeration of offerings brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This count culminates in the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the receiving of the Torah at Sinai.
Relevant political or social justice themes have been incorporated into contemporary Passover seders. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for example, published the “Freedom Seder” in 1969, which discusses the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. The American Jewish World Service offers a free Global Justice Haggadah to spark meaningful conversations at your seder.
Resources for Teaching about Passover
Free resources online
- ReformJudaism.org offers a resource guide, family activities, videos, and recipes
- Lesson plans from JTeach.org (from the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago)
- Lessons from The Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University, Israel
- The Ji Studio creation tool encourages children to use their imagination so that they can create Bible/Tanach-themed posters, comics and books to share with friends and family
- American Jewish World Service
- The Passover Seder: What to Expect 3:57
- How to Set the Seder Plate 1:24
- What is Passover? (A ten-year-old uses his own video camera to share the experience of his family preparing for the Jewish festival of Passover) 4:27
- A Lion King Passover (a personal favorite!) 4:26
- The Four Questions for Kids! 2:50
Free virtual online Passover seders
- Congregation Beth Emek (first night of Passover, March 27, 2021)
- Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida presents a “Hollywood by the Nile” seder (also March 27)
- Jew Belong’s “Burning Man-ischewitz” seder (first and second evenings of Passover, March 27 and 28)
- Find many more at Myjewishlearning.com
Passover is a marvellous story of deliverance that can be taught in many ways. Young and old alike will enjoy the retelling of this central tale of Judaism.
May you have a chag Pesach kasher vesame’ach (“kosher and joyous Passover” in Hebrew)!
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