What is Passover? Your Guide to the History and Practice of Passover

What is Passover?

Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the foundation of the Jewish people as a nation.

The holiday is celebrated by eating matzah and avoiding unleavened bread, and holding a Seder meal to tell the story of the Exodus while eating certain traditional foods.

Passover takes place in the springtime (on a date determined by the Hebrew calendar).


History of Passover

The Jewish People were enslaved in Egypt, as recorded in the Bible, until their leader Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) was appointed by God to redeem them. He demanded of Pharoah to “Let my people go” but Pharaoh refused.

The Bible records how God sent 10 plagues against Pharaoh and the Egyptians: blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn. As Pharaoh was a firstborn himself, he feared for his own life and finally told Moses to take the Jewish people out.

The Jews hurried out of Egypt, quickly baking bread to bring with them. In their rush, it came out flat and unleavened.

They reached the Red Sea and after a couple of days, the Egyptians decided they needed their slaves back (they were essential to the economy, after all!) and chased after them.

When the Egyptian army had almost reached the Jews, God told the people to enter the Red Sea.

One man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, walked into the sea, and when he’d walked in until the depth was up to his neck, the Red Sea split. The Jewish people followed him and walked through on dry land.

When the Egyptians followed them, the sea waters returned and destroyed the powerful Egyptian army. The Jews had safely reached the other side. They sang praises to God.

Soon after, they traveled to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, which is the Jewish Bible and code of law ("mitzvot" in Hebrew).

The Jews consider this event to mark the beginning of the Jewish people as a nation and a religion, and as the moment they received the responsibility to keep God’s commandments.


How Passover is Celebrated

To commemorate the holiday, the Torah tells the Jewish people to eat matza for seven days and avoid chametz (leavened bread).

Leavened bread is any food made with wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye and mixed with water that has not been carefully supervised to make sure it is baked before it has time to rise.

Originally, during the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews would bring a lamb as a sacrifice, but since the destruction of the Temple this no longer can be practiced. (One of the reasons for this mitzvah is that the Egyptians worshipped sheep as idolatry and by sacrificing a lamb, the Jews show that they reject this way of life in favor of monotheism).


What is the Seder?

Passover is also famous for the Seder, a dinner on the first night of Passover that commemorates the story of Passover by reading an account of the story of the Exodus, singing specific songs, and eating certain traditional foods.

Seder means “order” and the program of the night is done in the exact order listed in the Haggadah, which is a book with the instructions of how to conduct the seder and the exact text to recite.

There is a big focus at the Seder on getting children involved and getting them to ask questions, in order to teach them about Jewish history and traditions.

It’s interesting to note that the Seder is a custom observed even by many Jews who do not consider themselves religiously observant.

Its continued endurance among all types of Jews is a testimony to the effectiveness of the traditions and their pedagogy of engaging and connecting with people.


Why is an Eighth Day of Passover Observed if the Torah Says Seven?

In the lands outside of Israel, an extra eighth day of Passover is observed. In the times before the Hebrew calendar was fully fixed, the first day of the month could change by a day because it was determined by the court each month based on sightings of the new moon.

During the Diaspora in the days before modern communication, the news could not always travel to far-flung Jewish communities in time.

The eighth day was instituted to make sure no one accidentally missed a day of the festival. The custom was not annulled and so became part of standard Jewish law and observance for those outside the land of Israel.


What is Yom Tov/Yontif and Chol Hamoed?

The first and last days of the festival are observed similarly to the Sabbath except that cooking is allowed. These days are called “yom tov” in Hebrew or “yontif” in Yiddish.

The intermediate days are called Chol Hamoed, where more forms of work are allowed such as driving and using electricity, but the laws of eating matza and avoiding chametz are still in effect.

Many use these days to relax, go on trips, and spend time with their families. Zoos and museums are crowded with Passover-observing Jews on these days!


Additional Resources:

Click here to learn more about what foods are Kosher for Passover.

 Click here to view our Passover recipe collection.

Get help with your Passover preparations with this Ultimate Passover Checklist and these handy Tips and Tricks.

Here is our complete guide to making the perfect Passover Seder.