How Passover Works

A Seder plate is readied for Passover. Note the green vegetable followed by the horseradish (to symbolize bitter herbs), the hard boiled egg, lamb shank and haroset, a mixture of fruits, wine, and nuts. See more Passover pictures.

In the Hebrew month of Nissan, Jews around the world are busy ridding themselves of bread. They search pantries, sweep out crannies, scrub plates that once held a sandwich. What they find, they burn or give away; what they may have missed, they pray forgiveness for.

It's all in preparation for the matzo days of Passover which begins on the 15th of Nissan (based on the Jewish calendar; it falls sometime in March or April based on the Gregorian calendar) when the observant avoid any and all leavened grains, among several other groups of foods.

Passover, Pesach in Hebrew, like pretty much any religious holiday, is weighted with ritual, recitation and remembrance. And like almost any Jewish holiday, it's also weighted with food – in this case, food with very specific significance, eaten in the course of a particularly long, theatrical and educational meal: the Passover Seder.

The story retold during the Seder is a classic one: slavery and freedom, heroes and villains, unheeded warnings and horrific wrath. Most people know about the wrath – the 10 plagues said to have turned ancient Egypt into a living nightmare. Those plagues, along with the myriad other miracles that supposedly led to freedom for hundreds of thousands of Jews, inform the holiday's rituals.

Of course, while some see the tale of escape retold during Passover as a literal recounting of actual events, others view it more as a story based loosely on true happenings [source: Lukas]. Either way, like so much of the Hebrew bible, the story behind Passover is a dramatic one, to say the least. It takes place between 2447 and 2448 by the Hebrew calendar (1314 to 1313 BCE by the Gregorian one), and it opens with a desperate act of love: A young woman sends her baby into the unknown, sure that whatever fate awaits him will be better than what she can provide [source: Akhlah].

"Let My People Go"

The story of Passover starts with a Jewish people enslaved by a cruel Egyptian king. This king, called simply "Pharaoh," has just decided that his slaves are numerous enough to be a threat to his kingdom [source: Chabad].

To cut their numbers, Pharaoh orders the killing of every newborn Jewish male in the land. Moses' mother hides the new baby for as long as she can, and then, to save his life, sends his sister, Miriam, to lay him in a basket on the bank of the Nile, where Pharaoh's daughter regularly bathed [source: Chabad].

The princess finds Moses, takes him home and raises him as a prince. Moses eventually discovers the truth of his ancestry, and when he is grown he leaves the palace [source: Teram]. He becomes a shepherd, and he lives quietly until the day he murders an Egyptian man he finds abusing a Jewish slave. Suddenly a fugitive, despondent, he turns to God.

God, hearing his call, reveals himself to Moses in a burning bush. God sends Moses to Pharaoh with this message: "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me" (Exodus 9:1) [source: Biblos, Chabad].

When Pharaoh refuses, Moses warns him of what will come.

When Pharaoh again refuses, God starts sending the 10 Plagues:

1. The Nile River, Egypt's prime water supply, turns to blood.

2. Frogs rain down from the sky.

3. Dust turns into lice, infesting every Egyptian and animal in Pharaoh's kingdom.

4. Cities are overrun by wild animals.

With each new plague, Pharaoh agrees to free the slaves; and with the ebbing of each new plague, he changes his mind [source: Chabad].

5. Disease kills out all livestock.

6. Agonizing boils cover the skin of every Egyptian.

7. A terrible, destructive hail falls from the sky.

8. Locusts wipe out Egypt's agriculture.

9. A complete, heavy darkness descends on the kingdom.

10. Every firstborn Egyptian male dies.

Before carrying the tenth plague out, God tells Moses to organize an animal sacrifice and smear the creature's blood on the door of every Jewish home.

God then kills each firstborn Egyptian male in Pharaoh's kingdom. They die at midnight on 15 Nissan, 2448 [source: Chabad]. Each Jewish home, marked with blood, is spared – "passed over" by the final plague of death. It is the 10th plague that shatters Pharaoh's resolve, as even his own son dies.

At this, Pharaoh commands the slaves out of his kingdom, and they take little time to pack. Bread for the coming trek has no time to rise. They simply grab the unleavened dough and rush to freedom, and the hot sun bakes the bread flat as they go.

But Pharaoh changes his mind, and by the time the Jews reach the Red Sea, they are trapped between the waters and Pharaoh's army. Moses turns to God, who tells him to strike the sea with his staff.

The waters part, revealing a path of dry land. Just as the last of the Jews makes it to the far bank, the sea comes crashing back together. The soldiers of Egypt drown. The Jews head into the desert, toward Palestine.

Passover commemorates this exodus from slavery to freedom -- and the "unleavened" part of the story plays a central role in the holiday's observance.

In short, all chametz must go.

Remembering the Escape: Chametz

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a candle as he performs a ritual in which he looks for remains of leaven after cleaning his home in Jerusalem, on the night before the Passover holiday begins.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a candle as he performs a ritual in which he looks for remains of leaven after cleaning his home in Jerusalem, on the night before the Passover holiday begins.

Passover rituals can vary considerably among those who celebrate it. Orthodox Jews, the most traditional, typically follow established directives very closely. Reformed Jews, a more modern group, may observe Passover rituals in a "spirit of the directive" manner.

For instance, leavened grains, or chametz, are prohibited during the holiday. Orthodox families may spend weeks making sure every trace of chametz, even the utensils used to produce it and other foods that may have touched it, are entirely removed from their homes. They may floss repeatedly before the holiday starts, ensuring no forbidden grains are left in their teeth [source: Jewish Virtual Library].

In Reformed homes, it may be that only the obviously forbidden foods -- bread, pasta, cereals -- are removed. Or the chametz may be simply avoided, not removed. Some secular Jews, who comprise the majority of Jews living in Israel, may not avoid chametz at all [source: JTA, Sales].

In Israel, Passover is celebrated for seven days, not eight [source: Jewish Virtual Library]. The eighth day outside of Israel originally resulted from confusion between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars; but even after that confusion disappeared, the custom remained [source: Dreyfus].

There are other variations, too. Christians who observe the holiday as part of their own heritage (Jesus Christ was Jewish, and it is believed the "Last Supper" was a Passover Seder) typically complete the Seder meal with a series of Christian prayers [source: Bratcher].

Some people find the traditional Passover too patriarchal and have incorporated feminist elements, like "Miriam's Cup," which raises a glass to honor Moses' sister and Jewish women everywhere during the meal [source: Miriam's Cup]. On some secular kibbutzim, the holiday centers around commemorating "Zionism, socialism and humanism" and includes children's plays and singing Israeli folk songs [source: Sales].

But a couple of Passover rituals take place almost universally: the eating of matzo, an unleavened, cracker-like food said to have sustained the Jewish people during their rush to freedom; and the Seders.

This ritual meal, traditionally held on the first night of Passover (though some will do it for the first two nights), includes retellings, prayers, symbolic foods and recitations. Families and friends gather around a table. Children ask the Four Questions. There is talk of the 10 Plagues. Most noteworthy, though, is how they all occur in a remarkably spelled-out, particular "order."

The Seder: Setting the Stage

Guests follow along in their copies of the Haggadah at a community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue, Miami Beach, Fla.  Rabbi Efraim Katz (2nd R) leads the Seder .
Guests follow along in their copies of the Haggadah at a community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue, Miami Beach, Fla. Rabbi Efraim Katz (2nd R) leads the Seder .
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Hebrew word Seder means "order," reflecting the very structured nature of the meal. The structure helps to establish the Seder as something special, far from the typical family dinner [source: Judaism 101]. Before the Seder even begins, symbols and order dominate. Candles are lit to usher in the holiday. A special "Seder plate" (k'arah) sits on the table, displaying six symbolic foods:

  • maror, a bitter herb such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery
  • chazeret, another bitter vegetable such as romaine lettuce, also to symbolize the bitterness of slavery (some people do not include this one on the plate)
  • beitzah, a hard-boiled egg, for the ancient practice of sacrificing an animal before a holiday
  • karpas, a green vegetable such as parsley, to be dipped in salt water, for the hope of new birth and growth mixed with the tears from remembering death
  • haroset, a mixture of fruits, wine or honey and nuts, for the mortar the slaves used when forced to build
  • z'roa, a shank bone (frequently lamb), for the animal sacrifice that allowed the Jews to mark their homes before the 10th Plague [source: Judaica Guide, Jacobs].

Underneath or beside the Seder plate, there are three pieces of matzo, typically wrapped in a napkin. These pieces are set aside to be used at prescribed times during the Seder. In many homes, the middle piece will become something exciting (at least for the kids). But not until the 12th step in the "order."

Of the Seder's 15 steps, eating the actual meal is one of the last, which can make for some very hungry adults and some very restless children. But purposeful involvement of everyone at the table aims to address that.

Each person has a copy of the Haggadah, the text of the Passover Seder. Anyone can lead the meal -- in some homes, it is the oldest family member, in others the person hosting the meal, and in others the attendees simply vote, or volunteer, or rotate every year.

The traditional meal unfolds in 15 steps.

The Seder: Steps 1 – 5

Omri Brandes, Nitzan Brandes and Bentsi Brandes (L-R) eat matzo during a community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla. The community Passover Seder has been held for the past 30 years and is open anyone.
Omri Brandes, Nitzan Brandes and Bentsi Brandes (L-R) eat matzo during a community Passover Seder at Beth Israel synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla. The community Passover Seder has been held for the past 30 years and is open anyone.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Seder opens much like any other dinner, with a prayer over wine. Unlike any other dinner, though, this prayer is one of many, many steps. It goes like this:

1. Kaddesh – The leader of the Seder says the traditional blessing over wine. Each adult drinks a glass of wine (the first of four).

2. Urechatz – This is the first washing of hands, during which no blessing is said.

3. Karpas – Each person dips the leafy green vegetable in salt water (signifying tears) and eats it.

4. Yachatz – One of the three pieces of matzo from the napkin is broken in half. One half goes back into the napkin, while the other half is set aside for later.

5. Maggid – This is the recounting of the story of Passover. It begins with the Four Questions, or Ma Nishtana ("What is different?"). The youngest person at the table (of reading age) traditionally does the asking, though the task may be broken up among a few participants:

  • Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzo, but on this night we eat only matzo? (It reminds us of the hasty escape from Egypt.)
  • Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs? (It reminds us of the bitterness of slavery.)
  • Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice? (The salt water into which we dip the karpas represents the tears we cried while in Egypt. The haroset which we dip the bitter herbs in reminds us of the cement we used to create bricks in Egypt.)
  • Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position? (It signifies the luxury of freedom.) [source: Chabad].

(Not everyone reclines, but making yourself comfortable is encouraged. Some people place a pillow on their chairs for added "luxury.")

Maggid continues with a retelling of the exodus from Egypt, during which we learn the four answers.

The Seder: Steps 6 – 15

Members of the Samaritan community seal the oven after placing slaughtered sheep during the traditional Passover sacrifice ceremony at Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablu.
Members of the Samaritan community seal the oven after placing slaughtered sheep during the traditional Passover sacrifice ceremony at Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablu.

After Maggid, the Seder proceeds to the sixth step.

6. Rachtzah – The second washing of hands, this time with a blessing.

7. Motzi – This is the traditional blessing over bread; even though there is no actual bread at the Seder, the Motzi is recited as a blessing over the meal in general.

8. Motzi Matzo – The Motzi is recited again, this time with additional words that specifically apply to matzo. Each person eats a bite of matzo.

9. Maror -- A blessing is said over the bitter vegetable, often horseradish (or sometimes Romaine lettuce). Each person eats a bit of maror, and then eats another bit dipped in haroset (the "mortar").

10. Korekh – Each person eats a small sandwich of chazeret and haroset between two pieces of matzo.

11. Shulchan Orekh -- The meal! There are no specific foods required for Passover. They need only be free of forbidden grains in addition to the usual kosher laws. In the U.S., Passover meals often include items like brisket and matzo ball soup, both traditional to Ashkenazi Jews (those originally from Europe).

12. Tzafun – The half-piece of matzo set aside during step 4 becomes dessert (afikoman). In many homes, the afikoman matzo is hidden at some point during the Seder, to be found by the children during step 12 with the promise of a prize for the finder, in the hopes of keeping them engaged during steps 1 through 11 [source: Jewish Virtual Library].

13. Barekh – The traditional after-meal blessing is recited after drinking a third glass of wine. An extra glass of wine is set aside for the prophet Elijah (traditionally the forerunner of the Messiah), and the door is opened so he can (imaginarily) come in and drink it.

14. Hallel The Seder ends with a recitation of psalms. The fourth glass of wine is drunk.

15. Nirtzah – The leader of the Seder makes a simple statement concluding the meal. In homes outside Israel, the Seder typically ends with everyone at the table saying "L'Shanah HaBa'ah B'Yerushalayim," or "Next Year, in Jerusalem," which can either refer to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem when the Messiah comes or, more broadly, a challenge to overcome personal struggles and enter the "Jerusalem" of freedom or to work for freedom for all peoples [source: Alperin].

During the remaining days of Passover, observers may attend services at synagogues; light more candles and participate in other holiday meals. On the last day of Passover, some people will also participate in a feast very similar to the Seder of the first day [source: Chabad].

Author's Note: How Passover Works

Writing about a religious observance is never easy. Writing about a religious observance as loaded with ritual as Passover is even harder. It's impossible to write comprehensively about the various ways in which members of a religion with global presence choose to carry out the directives of Passover. My goal then, here, was to cover some of the most traditional approaches, along with some of the more common variations. Especially when it comes to the Seder, many groups choose to add their own unique touches to make it more personal. The options are infinite.

Related Articles


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