How Passover Works

Remembering the Escape: Chametz

Orthodox Jewish man, looking for leaven Orthodox Jewish man, looking for leaven
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. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

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."