Every year leading up to Passover in Israel, a few things happen without fail. News outlets and social media are filled with holiday vacation packages abroad while at the same time Israel’s security establishments issue counter travel warnings to those very same countries.
Parents who are unable to take time off work, frantically search for affordable holiday camps or other suitable caregiving programs for their children since schools are closed for two weeks.
Many religiously observant, and even others less religious, are swept up in rigorous cleaning of their homes and cars.
For those who stay within Israel’s borders, regardless of religious persuasion, the country is abuzz with preparations for the week-long celebration, known as Pesach, and all the changes that happen within the country because of it.
In actuality, the biblical Passover is commemorated on one day only — the rest of the holiday is technically the Feast of Unleavened bread. Firmly rooted in the commands found in Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23 for the appointed times of the Lord, Passover is the first Feast described and immediately follows instructions for keeping the Sabbath.
It holds place and prominence being the first feast of the first month of the Biblical calendar. Originally called Aviv, the month acquired the Babylonian moniker of Nisan during the exile and is still used today in Israel. It falls between March and April on the Gregorian calendar depending on the Hebrew dates. This year Pesach, including the Feast of Unleavened Bread, will begin on the evening of April 10 and end at sundown on April 17.
Exodus 12:15 says that for seven days the people of Israel must eat bread made without yeast (matzoh) and that all yeast needs to be cleaned out of their dwellings. Therefore, before Nisan 15, many people clear their houses of hametz, which for most, has come to mean anything that contains flour — just-in-case the flour contains yeast. In most Israeli homes, this means the whole house, especially the kitchen, gets a thorough cleaning.
In the grocery stores, the aisles that contain flour, and any derivative thereof, are sealed off and no sales from these aisles will be allowed. This includes all pasta and most cereals. To keep with rabbinic decree, any food stuff that can swell also counts as hametz and that means rice and beans will not be for sale either. In the freezer section, anything that has crumbs or may have been processed in a factory where wheat is present will be sealed off also. Different branches of Judaism hold to different teachings and the rules are not homogenous. Those who do not adhere to the rabbinic rulings often take advantage and stockpile their freezers in advance.
In the few days leading up to Pesach, all breads, pastries and anything else deemed hametz is cleared out of homes, piled on the sidewalks and burned or left for the pigeons and sparrows. All Jewish bakeries are closed and even some Arab ones, out of respect for the Jewish holiday. People stock up on boxes of matzoh and in the grocery stores filled to capacity just as western stores before Christmas. Matzoh suggestions and recipes are exchanged as well as discussions regarding which traditional food will be eaten at the Seder dinner and with whom.
The seder is the backbone of the first night of Pesach. The word means “order” and is based on the command found in Exodus 13:8: “And you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”
The Seder follows a script called a Haggadah, which literally means “the telling.” It comes in booklet form and varies in artistic expression among the different branches of Judaism from Haredi to Hassidic, to Conservative, Reform and Messianic. This year a Hogwarts Haggadah has hit no. 1 on Amazon’s Judaism Bestseller’s list for those who are taking a Harry Potter approach to the Seder. And for those who have “ever suffered through a Seder” which “can last as long as the exodus from Egypt itself,” American comedians Adam Mansbach, Alan Zweibel and Dave Barry have authored a hilarious Haggadah called, For This We Left Egypt?
Since the 4th century, the Seder plate has been the focal point of the meal. Just like the Haggadot (plural for Haggadah) that are unique in their artistry, Seder plates too are unique and customarily chosen or gifted according to the family’s taste. They may not look the same, but the plates generally have hollows or bowl shapes to contain symbols that talk the participants through the Exodus story.
A roasted shank bone most often replaced by a chicken neck symbolizes the Pesach sacrifice in the Temple. A boiled egg symbolizes either the spring season or mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. Bitter herbs, maror, represent the bitter experience of the Hebrew slaves. Haroset, a sweet mixture of fruits, spices, nuts and wine, symbolizes the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build for the Egyptians. Then there is karpas – normally a bunch of parsley, celery or another green vegetable to symbolize the green of aviv (spring). The table must also have the Afikomen — three pieces of matzoh, each piece used for a specific purpose in the Seder. There are four cups of wine and four questions. An extra place at the table is kept for Elijah as well as an extra cup of wine. In Messianic Judaism, Yeshua makes an appearance in the symbols, especially the Afikomen.
The coming of spring lends itself to buying new clothing. Unlike in other parts of the world where sales come at the end of the season to clear stock, in Israel the sales are advertised before. In addition, for many who follow the Orthodox traditions, it is the time to buy new kitchenware either for one’s own home or to gift the hosts where the Seder is held.
In the schools, children from pre-kindergarten age are taught traditional songs and rituals. Haggadahs are handed out in the form of coloring books and by the time the Seder comes along, everyone is smartly dressed and well prepared to participate in the telling of the Exodus story from the plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea.
For most families, Pesach is a time of celebration and feasting as well as passing down long-standing family and cultural traditions.
Hag Pesach Sameach!