Of all the Jewish holidays, Pesach is the one most commonly observed, even by otherwise non-observant Jews. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), more than 80% of Jews have attended a Pesach seder.

Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu'ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Pesach are related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesach observances are instituted in Chs. 12-15.

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The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottich "loch") comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that God "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. In English, the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Chag he-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzoth (the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cherutenu (the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).

Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves the removal of chametz (leaven; sounds like "chum it's") from our homes. This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from our souls.

Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazic background also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (beans) as if they were chametz. All of these items are commonly used to make bread, thus use of them was prohibited to avoid any confusion. Such additional items are referred to as "kitniyot."

We may not eat chametz during Pesach; we may not even own it or derive benefit from it. According to Orthodox tradition, we may not even feed it to our pets or cattle! All chametz, including utensils used to cook chametz, must either be disposed of or sold to a non-Jew (they can be repurchased after the holiday).

The process of cleaning the home of all chametz in preparation for Pesach is an enormous task. To do it via Orthodox tradition, you must prepare for several weeks and spend several days scrubbing everything down, going over the edges of your stove and fridge with a toothpick and a Q-Tip, covering all surfaces that come in contact with foil or shelf-liner, etc., etc., etc. Reform Jews take a more pragmatic approach and just get rid of it. After the cleaning is completed, the morning before the seder, a formal search of the house for chametz is undertaken and any remaining chametz is burned.

The grain product we eat during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. We have come up with many inventive ways to use matzah; it is available in a variety of textures for cooking: matzah flour (finely ground for cakes and cookies), matzah meal (coarsely ground, used as a bread crumb substitute), matzah farfel (little chunks, a noodle or bread cube substitute), and full-sized matzahs (about 10 inches square, a bread substitute).

The day before Pesach is the Fast of the Firstborn, a minor fast for all firstborn males, commemorating the fact that the firstborn Jewish males in Egypt were not killed during the final plague.

On the first night of Pesach (first two nights for traditional Jews outside Israel), we have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind us of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a seder, from a Hebrew root word meaning "order," because there is a specific set of information that must be discussed in a specific order. It is the same root from which we derive the word "siddur" (prayer book). An overview of a traditional seder is included below.

Pesach lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. Work is permitted on the intermediate days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Sukkot.

The Seder Plate — an Explanation

The Passover seder is one of the most widely observed of all Jewish customs, and at the center of every seder is a seder plate. Because of the popularity of the Passover seder, and because of the seder plate's central position in its observance, the plate has become a very common outlet for Jewish artistic expression.

Most seder plates have six dishes for the six symbols of the Passover seder. These are:

The Pesach Seder

The text of the Pesach seder is written in a book called the haggadah. The content of the seder can be summed up by the following Hebrew rhyme:

Kaddesh, Urechatz,

Karpas, Yachatz,

Maggid, Rachtzah,

Motzi, Matzah,

Maror, Korech,

Shulchan Orech,

Tzafun, Barech,

Hallel, Nirtzah

Now, what does that mean?

1. Kaddesh: Sanctification

A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

2. Urechatz: Washing

A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.

3. Karpas: Vegetable

A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

4. Yachatz: Breaking

One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

5. Maggid: The Story

A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often sung and there is a version below.

The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't even know enough to know what he needs to know.

At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

6. Rachtzah: Washing

A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah

7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products

The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.

8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah

A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.

9. Maror: Bitter Herbs

A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.

Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled Maror and one labeled Chazeret. The one labeled Maror should be used for Maror and the one labeled Chazeret should be used in the Korech, below.

10. Korech: The Sandwich

Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset (we don't do animal sacrifice anymore, so there is no paschal offering to eat).

11. Shulchan Orech: Dinner

A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as traditional main courses, as is beef brisket. Jews with far-ranging palates can put their own unique, contemporary stamp on this meal.

12. Tzafun: The Afikomen

The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.

13. Barech: Grace after Meals

The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah, but historically because Jews were accused of nonsense like putting the blood of Christian babies in matzah, and we wanted to show our Christian neighbors that we weren't doing anything unseemly).

14. Hallel: Praises

Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.

15. Nirtzah: Closing

A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.

The Music of Pesach

Many people think of Pesach as a time of deprivation: a time when we cannot eat bread or other leavened foods. This is not the traditional way of viewing the holiday. Pesach is Zeman Herutenu, the Time of Our Freedom, and the joy of that time is evident in the music of the season. There are many joyous songs sung during the seder.

Mah Nishtanah (Why is it Different?)


This is the tune sung during the youngest participant's recitation of the Four Questions.

Click here to listen to a streaming QuickTime file of the Four Questions as sung by Cantor Steven Haas of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami.

Download QuickTime

Why is this night different from all other nights, from all other nights? Mah nishtanah ha-lahylah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-layloht, mi-kol ha-layloht?
On all other nights, we may eat chametz and matzah, chametz and matzah. On this night, on this night, only matzah. She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin chameytz u-matzah, chameytz u-matzah. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, kooloh matzah.
On all other nights, we eat many vegetables, many vegetables. On this night, on this night, maror. She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin sh'ar y'rakot, sh'ar y'rakot. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, maror.
On all other nights, we do not dip even once. On this night, on this night, twice. She-b'khol ha-layloht ayn anu mat'bilin afilu pa'am echat, afilu pa'am echat. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, sh'tay p'amim.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, either sitting or reclining. On this night, on this night, we all recline. She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin bayn yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin, bayn yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, koolanu m'soobin.


Dahyenu (It Would Have Been Enough For Us)

Click here to listen to a streaming QuickTime file as sung by Cantor Steven Haas of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami.

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QuickTime

This is one of the most popular tunes of the seder, a very up-beat song about the many favors that God bestowed upon us when He brought us out of Egypt. The song appears in the haggadah after the telling of the story of the exodus, just before the explanation of Pesach, Matzah and Maror. This is just one sample verse of a rather long song. The English does not include all of the repetition that is in the Hebrew.

Had He brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough for us. Ilu hotzi-hotzianu hotzianu mi-Mitzrayim hotzianu mi-Mitzrayim dahyenu.
(Chorus) It would have been enough for us. Dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu.
Dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahy-dahyenu, dahyenu, dahyenu!


Eliyahu Ha-Navi (Elijah, the Prophet)

Click here to listen to a streaming QuickTime file as sung by Cantor Steven Haas of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami.
Many people sing this song when the Cup of Elijah is poured and the door is opened in anticipation of his return.

Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah, Elijah, Elijah the Gileadite Eliyahu ha-Navi, Eliyahu ha-Tishbi, Eliyahu, Eliyahu, Eliyahu ha-Giladi.
Speedily and in our days, come to us, with the messiah, son of David, with the messiah, son of David. Bimhayrah v'yamenu, yavo aleynu, im Moshiach ben David, im Moshiach ben David.


Chad Gadya

Click here to listen to a streaming QuickTime file as sung by Cantor Steven Haas of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami.

Though it is traditional to sing many songs after the Passover Seder, Chad Gadya remains a favorite among children of all ages. It is the last song sung before "L'shana Ha-ba-ah Birushalayim" (Next Year in Jerusalem).

Chad gadya, chad gadya.
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the cat and ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the dog and bit the cat,
that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the stick and beat the dog,
that bit the cat that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the fire and burned the stick,
that beat the dog that bit the cat,
that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the water and and quenched the fire,
that burned the stick that beat the dog,
that bit the cat that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the ox and drank the water,
that quenched the fire that burned the stick,
that beat the dog that bit the cat,
that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the butcher and slew the ox,
that drank the water that quenched the fire,
that burned the stick that beat the dog,
that bit the cat that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the angel of death,
and killed the butcher that slew the ox,
that drank the water that quenched the fire,
that burned the stick that beat the dog,
that bit the ca that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.

Then came the Holy One, blessed be God!
And destroyed the Angel of death,
that killed the butcher that slew the ox,
that drank the water that quenched the fire,
that burned the stick that beat the dog,
that bit the cat that ate the kid,
My father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya.



Adir Hu (He is Mighty)

Click here to listen to a streaming QuickTime file as sung by Cantor Steven Haas of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami.

Adir Hu is a great sing-along song, because it has a lot of repetition. You don't need to know much Hebrew to get by with this one! It's also got a catchy tune. It's sung as the seder comes to a close. It expresses our hope that the messianic age will begin soon, and the Temple will be rebuilt. Each line of praise begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order, a common gimmick in Jewish hymns.

He is mighty, He is mighty Adir hu, adir hu
Chorus:
May He soon rebuild his house
Speedily, speedily and in our days, soon.
God, rebuild! God, rebuild!
Rebuild your house soon!
Chorus:
Yivneh vayto b'karov
Bim'hayrah, bim'hayrah, b'yamenu b'karov
E-yl b'nay! E-yl b'nay!
B'nay vayt'kha b'karov
He is distinguished, He is great, He is exhalted
(Chorus)
Bachur hu, gadol hu, dagul hu,
(Chorus)
He is glorious, He is faithful, He is faultless, He is righteous
(Chorus)
Hadur hu, vatik hu, zakay hu, chasid hu,
(Chorus)
He is pure, He is unique, He is powerful,
He is wise, He is King, He is awesome,
He is sublime, He is all-powerful, He is the redeemer, He is all-righteous
(Chorus)
Tahor hu, yachid hu, kabir hu,
Lamud hu, melekh hu, nora hu,
Sagiv hu, izuz hu, podeh hu, tzadik hu
(Chorus)
He is holy, He is compassionate, He is almighty, He is omnipotent
(Chorus)
Kadosh hu, rachum hu, shaddai hu,
takif hu
(Chorus)

Recipe for Charoset

This fruit, nut and wine mix is eaten during the seder. It is meant to remind us of the mortar used by the Jews to build during the period of slavery. It should have a coarse texture. The ingredient quantities listed here are at best a rough estimate. The recipe below makes a very large quantity, but we usually wind up making more before the holiday is over. Other fruits or nuts can be used.

Shred the apples. Add all other ingredients. Allow to sit for 3-6 hours, until the wine is absorbed by the other ingredients. Serve on matzah. Goes very well with horseradish.

Buying a Haggadah

If you want to know more about Pesach, the best place to start is with the haggadah. The haggadah was written as a teaching tool, to allow people at all levels to learn the significance of Pesach and its symbols.

There are a wide variety of Haggadahs available for every political and religious point of view: traditional haggadahs, liberal haggadahs, mystical haggadahs, feminist haggadahs, and others. I have even seen what might be described as an atheist haggadah: one that does not mention the role of God in the Exodus.

If you're buying a haggadah for study or collection, there are many haggadahs with extensive commentary or with pictures from illuminated medieval haggadahs. However, if you're buying haggadahs for actual use at a seder, you're best off with an inexpensive paperback. Keep in mind that you'll need one for everybody, you're likely to get food and wine on these things, and you'll be using them year after year.

One option is the Artscroll/Mesorah series' The Family Haggadah. It has the full, Orthodox text of the haggadah in English side-by-side with Hebrew and Aramaic, with complete instructions for preparing for and performing the seder. The translations are very readable and the book includes marginal notes explaining the significance of each paragraph of the text. This book is usually only available at Jewish gift or book stores, and usually sells for about $2.50.

Another good traditional one is Nathan Goldberg's Passover Haggadah. This is the familiar "yellow and red cover" haggadah that so many of us grew up with. Believe it or not, it is frequently available in grocery stores in the Passover aisle. It usually sells for less than $5, and is often given away free with certain grocery purchases.

Watch out for Christianized versions of the haggadah. The Christian "last supper" is generally believed to have been a Pesach seder, so many Christians recreate the ritual of the seder, and the haggadahs that they use for this purpose tend to reinterpret the significance of the holiday and its symbols to fit into their Christian theology. For example, they say that the three matzahs represent the Trinity, with the broken one representing Jesus on the cross (in Judaism, the three matzahs represent the three Temples, two of which have been destroyed, and the third of which will be built when the moshiach comes). They speak of the paschal lamb as a prophecy of Jesus, rather than a remembrance of the lamb's blood on the doorposts in Egypt. If you want to learn what Pesach means to Jews, then these "messianic" haggadahs aren't for you.

List of Dates

Pesach will begin on the following days on the American calendar:



© Copyright 5756-5760 (1995-1999), Tracey R Rich; Image Header and additional edits © 2002 by Jonathan L. Hirshon

Aleph image courtesy of the Hebrew Union College, First Cincinnati Haggadah


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