What is Passover?

Learn about the history, traditions, and meanings of this special Jewish holiday.


What is Passover? ~ Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Evelyn L., Contributor

Every time we look at a calendar of the month of April, we usually see April Fool’s Day, Ramadan, Earth Day, and most iconically, Easter. But what about Passover? April is the month of when Spring is in full bloom; but did you know that the origin of Passover started a new beginning too? The word “Passover” comes from how an avenging angel spared the lives of Israelite children and “passed over” their homes, but what does this even mean? Let’s take a look at the history, how it’s observed, and what it means to those who look at it as a day of remembrance.

When Is Passover 2022?

The Hebrew Calendar ~ Photo Credit: The Jewish Museum

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, started on sundown on April 15, 2022, and ended on sundown on April 23, 2022. However, it is not on the same date every year. Passover starts on the beginning of the month Nisan, which is not a month on the commonly used Georgian calendar, but a month on the Hebrew Calendar; now mainly a religious calendar used by Jewish people in Israel and all around the world.

What’s the History? Where does the word “Passover” come from?

There are many renditions and interpretations of the original story. The version listed below is based off the information from History.com, though other sites and sources may have slightly different adaptations.

The Red Sea parts and the Jews can cross safely ~ Photo Credit: Jewish Virtual Library

According to the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob and founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, moved his family to Egypt during ancient times due to a severe famine happening in Canaan, their homeland.

As the Israelites’ population grew, the Egyptians began to see them as a threat, worrying that their number would outweigh the Egyptians’. After the death of Joseph and his brothers, a cruel pharaoh ordered the drowning of their firstborn sons in the Nile River.

Fortunately, one infant was saved by the pharoah’s daughter. This infant was Moses, and he was adopted into the Egyptian royal family. When Moses grew into an adult, he became aware of his true identity and how his fellow Hebrews were brutally discriminated and treated by the Egyptians. After killing an Egyptian slave master, he escaped to the Sinai Peninsula, living as a humble shepherd for 40 years.

One day, Moses received a command from God. Moses was to return to Egypt and free his enslaved people from the hostile pharaoh. Teaming up with his brother Aaron, Moses attempted several times to explain to the pharaoh that the Hebrew God had requested a 3-day leave for his people so they could experience the joy of freedom and celebrate a feast in the wilderness.

The pharaoh refused, so God unleashed 10 plagues onto the Egyptian people, turned the Nile River red with blood, diseased livestock, inflicted hailstorms, and plunged Egypt into 3 days of darkness. This culminated in the slaying of every firstborn son by an avenging angel.

One of the plagues involved an avenging angel going to every Egyptian household and killing every firstborn son. This was for God to show that the Israelites were his chosen people. However, Israelite families still had to follow specific instructions to show the avenging angel which houses were Israelite homes. They were ordered to look after and then slaughter a male lamb at twilight. The blood of the lamb would then be brushed over on the door frames. This would tell the angel to “pass over” this home and spare the Jewish children.

The Egyptians were terror-stricken and convinced the pharaoh to release the Israelites, and Moses leads them out of Egypt. However, after they were freed, the pharaoh changed his mind and to sent his soldiers to retrieve the former slaves.

The fleeing Jews arrived at the edge of the Red Sea, and the army draws in. Just as all hope was lost, a miracle happens: God tells Moses to stretch out his staff, and the waters divided, allowing the Jews to cross without danger. Once they had made it through, God then closed the passage and drowned the Egyptian soldiers. The Jews then wandered across the Sinai Desert for 40 years, living in the wilderness until they reached Canaan again.

How is it Celebrated?

A traditional Seder plate ~ Chelsea Kyle for Epicurious

The main way to recognize Passover is through the Seder, meaning “order” in Hebrew. The Seder is a special dinner. Symbolic foods are all arranged on a platter called the Seder plate, or ka’arah. There are at least 5 foods that go on the Seder plate, all with a different meaning:

Shank bone – A symbol of the Paschal lamb offered during the Passover sacrifice long back in Egypt during biblical times.
Egg – A symbol of rebirth and the start of spring.
Bitter herbs – To remind us of the bitter years when the Jews were enslaved.
Salt-dipped Vegetables -The salt water serves as a reminder of the tears shed during the Egyptian slavery.
Charoset – A type of paste representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build structures and buildings.
Matzah – Unleavended, or not risen, bread.

Other typical menu items include poached fish patties called gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzo balls, and matzo kugel, a type of pudding made from matzo and apples. Adults at the table will also drink 4 cups of wine, a sign of redemption of how the Israelites escaped Egypt. The 4 cups represent the 4 stages of how God helped free the Jews from slavery.

Those celebrating Passover will refrain from eating any leavended, or risen, bread products known as chametz. When the Israelites escaped Egypt centuries ago, they stuffed dough into traveling sacks because they had no time to wait for their bread to rise. As they crossed the desert, the boiling sun baked the bread into thin, hard matzah, or a type of hard, thin cracker. Nowadays, matzah is often eaten during the Seder.

At the beginning of the Seder meal, a piece of the matzah is broken off and hidden away in the household. When the meal is over, children search for this piece called the afikoman. The child who finds the afikoman is rewarded with money or candy.

During the meal, family members take turns retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt. The story is read aloud from the Haggadah, a special text that means “telling” in Hebrew. Along with the story, the Haggadah contains different rituals that are done on Passover. For example, veggies are dipped in saltwater to represent the tears shed during the times the Jews were imprisoned as slaves in Egypt. The bitter herbs are to remind us of how unpleasant and bitter the years of their enslavement were.

Besides finding the afikoman, children also play a more important role in the Seder. The youngest child present gets to ask 4 important questions, all asking, “Why is this night different from others?” An example of these questions are:

1. On all other nights, we eat either bread or matzah on this night, why only matzah?
2. On all other nights, we eat either herbs or vegetables of any kind: on this night why only bitter herbs?
3. On all other nights, we do not dip even once: on this night why do we dip twice?
4. On all other nights we eat our meals in other manner: on this night why do we sit around the table together in a reclining position?

What does Passover Truly Represent?

A family participates in a Seder. Photo Credit ~ Tim Kirby, Oxford Film & Television / USA Today.

“Part of the reason why Passover is understood and appreciated by so many… is that the core of the holiday is about justice for all.” States Rabbi Danielle Eskow from the new site Woman’s Day. “It is essentially a festival of freedom and justice. It’s about helping the downtrodden and persecuted find freedom.”

“On Passover, we feel independent, we feel free. We feel responsible,” says Chaplain Mendy Coën for Reader’s Digest. “It’s critical to realize how grateful we are to live in America; to be free to act with goodness and kindness.”

All in all, Passover is a very special religious holiday, but it is also a time for Jewish families to come together and commemorate the day that their ancestors broke free and experienced freedom because they united and took control of their own lives. If you don’t celebrate Passover, does your family have any meaningful traditions that you do that brings you all together?


COMIC UPDATE: There will be no “Disasters of Hilarity” comics from this point on. All characters, illustrations, and designs were erased after the unfortunate “Notability deletion” that occurred on the 1st of April. I wish I could say that I could redo all the drawings and characters to include into this months’ comic, but it turned out to be too much work adding onto the workload of assignments this month. Apologies for this unfortunate occurrence!