(redirected from Passover (Jewish holiday))
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.


Passover, in Judaism, one of the most important and elaborate of religious festivals. Its celebration begins on the evening of the 14th of Nisan (first month of the religious calendar, corresponding to March–April) and lasts seven days in Israel, eight days in the Diaspora (although Reform Jews observe a seven-day period). Numerous theories have been advanced in explanation of its original significance, which has become obscured by the association it later acquired with the Exodus. In pre-Mosaic times it may have been a spring festival only, but in its present observance as a celebration of deliverance from the yoke of Egypt, that significance has been practically forgotten. In the ceremonial evening meal (called the Seder), which is conducted on the first evening in Israel and by Reform Jews, and on the first and second evenings by all other observant Jews in the Diaspora, various special dishes symbolizing the hardships of the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt are served; the narrative of the Exodus, the Haggadah, is recited; and praise is given for the deliverance. Only unleavened bread (matzoth) may be eaten throughout the period of the festival, in memory of the fact that the Jews, hastening from Egypt, had no time to leaven their bread. Jewish law also requires that special sets of cooking utensils and dishes, uncontaminated by use during the rest of the year, be used throughout the festival. In ancient Israel the paschal lamb (see Agnus Dei) was slaughtered on the eve of Passover, a practice retained today by the Samaritans.


See T. H. Gaster, Passover: Its History and Traditions (1949, repr. 1962); P. Goodman, ed., The Passover Anthology (1961).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
Enlarge picture
A young Jewish boy holds the Keira, a special plate of symbolic foods, for the Passover meal. AP/Wide World Photos.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

With good reason, Passover is perhaps the best-known Jewish holiday. Called Pesah in Hebrew, Passover marks the real birth of the Jewish religion that was established in the desert when Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt.

Passover falls on the 15th day of Nisan (March or April of the common calendar) and lasts for eight days. The first two days and the last two are full holidays. The rest are called Hol ha-Moed, secular days of the holidays.

Passover begins with the family Seder, a word meaning "order." The family gathers around the table to partake of a ritual meal, each element of which carries a long history. From the time of the Exodus, layers of tradition have been added to the feast. Biblical times are represented. Rabbinical traditions are superimposed over those, with medieval and modern customs added to the mix. Jews figuratively eat their way through history, remembering their rich tradition. Family customs may vary, but the story is always the same. It follows the richly textured Haggadah, the order of the ritual.

The youngest member of the family asks the traditional Four Questions, preceded by the query, "Why is this night different?"

The first question is, "Why do we eat matzah (unleavened bread) instead of leavened bread?" The answer is that matzah represents the desert bread, the "bread of affliction" the people took with them because they had to flee in such haste that the bread didn't have time to rise. Some families teach that haste was not the issue as much as the fact that the people knew they had to go into the desert. So, having faith that their escape was sure to happen, they prepared by taking the traditional desert bread with them.

The second question is, "Why do we eat bitter herbs?" The answer: They represent the bitterness of the forefathers who were forced to live under Egyptian bondage. It is a reminder that each generation must protect their precious freedom which, in the past, has often been suddenly taken away.

The third question in many traditions is, "Why do we dip herbs twice?" The dipping of parsley in salt water is a reminder that early generations dipped vegetables in water before partaking of a big meal. In addition, the parsley represents the growth of new life in springtime, and the salt water recollects the tears shed by enslaved Jews. Bitter herbs are also dipped into haroset, a mixture often consisting of apples, raisins, cinnamon, and nuts. This dipping of bitter herbs into the sweet haroset represents life's mixture of bitterness and sweetness. Furthermore, the haroset symbolizes the mortar used by the Israelites when they were forced to build for the Pharaoh.

The fourth question is, "Why do we sit in a reclining position during the meal?" The Bedouin people received the Israelites in the desert. Men of position reclined, following the ancient command, "Recline, and be at peace." Reclining is the desert custom, and the custom of reclining during the Passover meal is a reminder of the years of wandering. Many families, however, don't actually recline today; they sit in regular chairs at the table, sometimes placing a small pillow on the chair.

The main parts of the modern Seder consist of reciting the kiddush, the traditional prayer of blessing over the cup of wine; reading the Haggadah, the Exodus narrative that revolves around the four questions; partaking of the unleavened bread and bitter herbs, the festival meal; drinking the traditional four cups of wine at stated intervals during the celebration; and reciting the Hallel, the Song of Praise.

This celebration places a special emphasis on children. They are the recipients of the story as it is passed down from generation to generation. It is important to remember that this custom, the backbone of Judaism, goes back some 3,500 years. Jews have never forgotten. The individual family traditions that augment the feast and give it special character are repeated down through the generations. If Greatgreat-grandfather and Great-great-grandmother were suddenly to come alive and celebrate with the modern family, chances are they would feel right at home. And as the familiar, treasured customs are remembered each year, perhaps the ancestors do come alive, in the sense that their presence is certainly felt.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Pesah, Feast of Unleavened Bread,
the Season of Our Freedom

Passover is a Jewish holiday that falls in the spring. It commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt some 3,300 years ago. Throughout the centuries Jews have honored Passover as one of their most important holidays. In addition, Passover also shaped the Christian holiday of Easter (see also Pascha). Scholars remind us that Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion because he had come there to celebrate Passover (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). When the early Christians began to commemorate the events surrounding Jesus' death as yearly holidays they scheduled these observances around the time of Passover.

Timing of Passover

According to the Jewish calendar Passover begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan. The Jewish calendar begins each new month on the night of the new moon. Since the moon takes 29.5 days to complete its cycle from new to full and back to new again, the fifteenth of Nisan always falls on the night of a full moon. Passover is also timed to occur after the spring equinox. In Israel and for Reform Jews, the holiday lasts seven days, ending on the twenty-first of Nisan. Other Jews living outside of Israel celebrate for eight days.

The Jewish calendar also takes into account the solar cycle of 365.2422 days, the number of days it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. This cycle creates the seasons of the year. During the 365.2422 days it takes the earth to revolve once around the sun, the moon completes twelve cycles and is 11.25 days into a thirteenth cycle. In order to keep the lunar months from falling behind the solar seasons of the year, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month every third year. In this way the holidays occur in the same season each year, although they are not always celebrated on the same dates. Thus the first day of Passover may fall anywhere between March 27 and April 24.

Passover as Recounted in the Book of Exodus

The story of the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt is recorded in the second book of the Bible which is called Exodus. In chapter twelve God commands the Jews to celebrate a ceremonial meal each year on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, in commemoration of their liberation from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 12:6). This meal marks the beginning of Passover. According to the Jewish calendar, days begin and end at sunset. Therefore, the afternoon preceding this feast falls on the fourteenth of Nisan, but the evening celebration itself falls during the first hours of the fifteenth of Nisan.

The first chapters of Exodus tell of the many plagues that God set upon the people of Egypt in order to convince the Egyptian pharaoh, or king, to let the Hebrews go. In the tenth and last of these torments God instructed the angel of death to kill the eldest child of every Egyptian family, as well as all the firstborn animals, in a single night. Earlier God had told Moses how to protect Jewish families from this terrible persecution. Moses commanded each Jewish family to sacrifice a lamb on the afternoon preceding the massacre and to smear some of the lamb's blood above the door of their home. In this way the angel knew which homes were Jewish and therefore which houses to pass over. This act of divine vengeance finally convinced the Egyptian pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves.

As soon as they received word of the pharaoh's decision to let them go, the Jews began their journey out of Egypt. They left in a hurry, without waiting for their bread dough to rise. Afterwards, the pharaoh changed his mind about freeing the Jewish slaves and led the Egyptian army in pursuit of them. The fleeing slaves couldn't pause their journey long enough to make proper bread, so they instead survived by baking flat, unrisen bread. The teachings Moses relayed to the Jews in the book of Exodus instruct those celebrating Passover to refrain from eating leavened bread for the entire seven days of the festival (Exodus 12:18). This statute recalls the conditions of the Jews' escape from Egypt.

The Celebration of Passover in Biblical Times

Some scholars suspect that the festival we now call Passover was created by combining two pre-existing festivals. The first was a spring festival involving the sacrifice and consumption of a young animal as a means of asking God to bless and increase their herds. The second festival, called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was a week-long observance in which people refrained from eating leavened bread. It may have originally begun as a spring harvest festival. According to these scholars, the Jewish people merged these two festivals sometime after their escape from Egypt. What's more, they assigned the new festival a radically different significance. The new holiday was still referred to as the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:17, 23:15), but also acquired a new name Pesah, from an old Hebrew word meaning to limp or to jump. Some writers suggest that this name referred to the angel of death "passing over" the homes of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Hence, Pesah has been translated into English as "Passover."

The yearly Passover festival became a means for Jews to express their gratitude to God for leading their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. Through participation in the religious ceremonies associated with Passover Jews also reaffirmed their relationship with God. These ceremonies changed over time. In the sixteenth chapter of the biblical book of Deuteronomy the Jewish people are commanded to offer their Passover sacrifices at a site which God has made a "dwelling for his name," that is, the Temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 16:2). By the time that Jesus was born Passover had already become a well-established pilgrim festival. Every year thousands of Jews made their way to Jerusalem to offer their sacrificial lamb at the Temple. Religious custom required faithful Jews to bring a lamb to the Temple, where it was slain. The priests sprinkled the animals' blood on the altar as an offering to God. Then worshipers took the sanctified lamb home, where it was roasted and eaten by a gathering of family and friends.

After the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., this sacrificial rite vanished as did the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Instead Passover became a festival focused around home observance.

The Contemporary Celebration of Passover

Passover begins with a ritual meal, called a "Seder," a word meaning "order" or "arrangement" in Hebrew. Some Jews living outside of Israel celebrate the Seder on both the fifteenth and the sixteenth of Nisan, following old calendar traditions. The meal is composed of certain symbolic foods and eaten with certain gestures and phrases. Readings from the Haggadah, an anthology of texts concerning the Seder that dates back to the Middle Ages, accompany the meal. The readings include hymns and poems, stories about the Jews' escape from Israel, and explanations of the rituals being observed. The central theme of the Haggadah is that God alone delivered the Jewish people from slavery (see also Salvation).

The foods composing a Seder meal include a green vegetable, a symbol of spring and of rebirth, which is dipped in salt water before consumption. The salt water itself represents the sweat and tears of the Jewish slaves in Egypt. The meal also contains haroset, a dish of chopped apples and nuts, representing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves made for the Egyptians, and bitter herbs, signifying the bitterness of slavery. Other traditional Seder foods include a roasted lamb shank bone, representing the original Passover sacrifice, and a roasted egg, representing the sacrifices Jews later made at the Temple in Jerusalem. Participants also drink from four cups of wine throughout the ceremony. A fifth cup of wine is placed on the table for the prophet Elijah, who is said to attend every Seder ceremony in spirit.

The meal is accompanied by matzoh, a kind of unleavened bread or cracker, which serves as a symbol of freedom. Today observant Jews follow an elaborate procedure to insure that their homes contain not one speck of leavened food for the duration of the Passover festival. Each room of the house is searched for crumbs and thoroughly scoured. Many families maintain a special set of dishes and utensils for use at Passover. Others put their everyday kitchenware through a special ritual cleaning designed to eliminate every particle of leavened food which may be clinging to them. Leavened breads and other foods forbidden during the holiday are sealed away or removed from the household. Although the first and last days of Passover are observed with rest, festivity and religious rites, the remaining days of the festival are observed primarily by refraining from eating leavened foods.

The Passover festival is sometimes referred to as "the Season of Our Freedom." This name reflects the main themes of the festival - the liberation of ancient Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt, and their rise as a free and independent people (see also Redemption).

Further Reading

Bloch, Abraham P. The Biblical and Archeological Background of the Jewish Holy Days. New York: Ktav, 1978. Eisenberg, Azriel. The Story of the Jewish Calendar. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958. Jacobs, Louis. "Passover." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 11. New York: Macmillan, 1987. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1993. Mac Rae, G. W. "Passover, Feast of." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 10. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. "Passover." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Peifer, C. J. "Passover Lamb" and "Passover Meal." In New Catholic Ency- clopedia. Volume 10. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Raphael, Chaim. A Feast of History: The Drama of Passover Through the Ages. London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. Steingroot, Ira. Keeping Passover. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Strassfeld, Michael. The Jewish Holidays. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi, and Geoffrey Wigoder. "Pesah." In their The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Wigoder, Geoffrey. "Passover." In his Encyclopedia of Judaism. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Web Site

For more on the rites and customs of Passover, see the following web site sponsored by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Passover (Pesach)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Begins between March 27 and April 24; between 15 and 21 (or 22) Nisan
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Afikomen, Bitter Herbs, Egg, Elijah's Cup, Four Cups of Wine, Four Questions, Haggadah, Haroset, Karpas, Lamb Bone, Salt Water, Unleavened Bread (Matzoh)


Passover is a Jewish holiday that celebrates Moses leading the Jews out of slavery. Their religion, Judaism, is one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Although obedience to the law is central to Judaism, there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

The story of Passover is told as follows. According to the Old Testament of the Bible, the Jews settled in Egypt, in the area around the Nile, at the invitation of Joseph. When the Pharoahs launched an ambitious building program, the Hebrews were forced into service and gradually became slaves. The Book of Exodus tells the story of their suffering and how their leader, Moses, brought them out of bondage and led them to the land that had been promised to their forefathers- an event considered to be the birth of the Jewish nation.

When the Pharoah referred to in Exodus (believed by scholars to be Ramses II) refused to let Moses lead the Jews out of Egypt, God sent nine plagues-including frogs, lice, locusts, fire, and hailstones-to change Pharoah's mind. But Pharoah remained unmoved, so God devised a tenth plague, sending the Angel of Death to kill the first-born son of every Egyptian household. The Jews, however, were warned ahead of time to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death would "pass over" and spare their sons. Pharoah finally relented, and the Jews were allowed to leave.

Passover is an eight-day celebration of the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but it appears that its roots go back even further. The early inhabitants of the region known as Canaan (now Palestine) were farmers, and they held seasonal rites to honor their local gods. Their spring festival was known as Pesach, which in Hebrew meant "skipping" or "gamboling," and it apparently involved the sacrifice of lambs. When Moses led the Hebrew tribes out of slavery in Egypt and the people chose Jehovah to be their God-an event that occurred during the Hebrew month of Nisan (March-April)-the ancient spring festival of Pesach was reinterpreted to mean the "skipping over" or "passing over" of Jewish homes by the Angel of Death. Today, Pesach and Passover refer to the same holiday.

Passover is traditionally observed for seven days, from the fifteenth to the twentyfirst of Nisan. Today, however, only the Jews of Israel and Reform Jews of other countries do this. Orthodox and Conservative Jews observe it for eight days, the first two of which are the most important. The primary activity is a special feast called the seder, which means "order" and consists of several symbolic foods that are eaten in a particular sequence, including a hard-boiled EGG , a roasted LAMB BONE , parsley dipped in SALT WATER , BITTER HERBS , HAROSET , and matzoh or UNLEAV ENED BREAD . The HAGGADAH , or story of the exodus from Egypt, is read aloud to explain the historical and religious meaning of the holiday. As the seder comes to Passover

an end, people eat the last piece of matzoh, known as the AFIKOMEN , and thank God for the gift of their freedom.

Several features of the seder and the accompanying narrative seem to indicate that these rituals have not been handed down intact from a particular age but have evolved from a number of different ages, providing a capsule history of the Jews. The custom of reclining on cushions while eating the meal, the preliminary dipping of parsley in salted water, and the eating of eggs as an hors d'oeuvre, for example, are all characteristic of a typical Roman banquet. Reciting the Haggadah may also have been modeled after the Roman practice of reading literary works aloud at mealtime.

The exact dates of the events related in the story of Passover are not known with any certainty. According to the Book of Exodus, some 600,000 Hebrews left Egypt after living there for 430 years. On the basis of this biblical account, scholars have calculated that they became slaves there in the fourteenth century B . C . E . and that they fled Egypt around 1270 B . C . E .



The afikomen is a piece broken off the middle of three matzoth traditionally placed under a special Pesach napkin on the seder table. It serves both as a treat for the children and as a concluding bite for the adults. In order to keep the children awake and interested during the lengthy ritual of the seder, the afikomen is hidden from them. At the end of the meal, they are asked to search for it, and the one who finds it is rewarded with a gift. Another variation on this custom allows the children to "steal" the afikomen and exchange it at the end of the meal for a gift. When the afikomen gets back to the seder table, it is broken in pieces and served to each participant as a dessert.

Little is known about the origins of the custom. The Talmud, a collection of writings about Jewish law and tradition, says that "men must not leave the paschal [Passover] meal epikomin." This last word was the Greek epi komon, a popular expression for "going out on the town" to celebrate. This advice was later misinterpreted as "Men must not leave out the afikomen after the paschal meal," and this curious expression was taken to mean that some sort of special dessert had to be served at the conclusion of the seder. This is probably where the custom of distributing small pieces of UNLEAVENED BREAD at the conclusion of the meal originated.

Another theory about the origin of the afikomen is that this piece of matzoh was a symbolic substitute for the sacrifice of a lamb at Passover, which was discontinued after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. The fact that the afikomen is usually wrapped in a napkin reminds seder participants that the Hebrews left Egypt with their kneading troughs wrapped up in their clothes and carried on their shoulders.

Bitter Herbs

The maror or bitter herbs, usually horseradish, eaten at the seder symbolize the hardships endured by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. These are served in a "sandwich" between pieces of matzoh, thereby obeying the Old Testament commandment (Exodus 12:8) that UNLEAVENED BREAD and bitter herbs be eaten together.


The hard-boiled egg served at the Passover seder represents the spiritual strength of the Jews. The fact that the egg is "roasted" serves as a reminder that in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, animals were roasted (i.e., sacrificed) for God on this and other holidays.

Like the Easter egg in Christianity, the seder egg also symbolizes the beginning of new life in the spring and recalls the holiday's agricultural origins (see EASTER).

Elijah's Cup

In addition to the FOUR CUPS OF WINE traditionally drunk during the Passover meal, a fifth cup is filled but not drunk. Instead, the door is left open for the prophet Elijah. According to tradition, Elijah will be the forerunner for the Messiah who will redeem Israel and the rest of the world. He will arrive on the night of the seder, dressed as a beggar to see how people accept him, and will judge by their behavior whether or not they are ready for the Messiah. After the fifth cup is filled with wine, therefore, the children watch it eagerly to see if the level miraculously goes down, indicating that Elijah has visited their home.

The practice of leaving the door open for Elijah goes back to the Middle Ages. Its original purpose may have been to disprove the belief that Jews used the blood of Christian children to prepare matzoh. The door was left open so that everyone could see exactly how it was made. Even today, leaving the door open expresses the spirit of freedom and safety that Jews feel on this occasion, in spite of the false accusations they have had to endure.

Four Cups of Wine

Four cups of red wine are supposed to be drunk during the seder. But because the Jews do not encourage or enjoy drunkenness, they usually space out the designatPassover

ed drinking times and make sure that the wine is accompanied by food or diluted with water.

Why four cups? The most popular explanation links them with the four phrases in Exodus describing how God will redeem Israel: (1) "and I will take you out"; (2) "and I will deliver you"; (3) "and I will redeem you"; and (4) "and I will take you."

The custom is first mentioned in accounts dating from the middle of the second century. Scholars trace it back to the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, after which the Jews, under Roman rule, were exposed to the customs of Roman banquets. The Romans would first drink wine while eating vegetables dipped in vinegar (see KARPAS ) or in fruit sauce (see HAROSET ). After these appetizers, they would move into the dining room for the main course and a second glass of wine. They would have a third glass following the meal. The fourth cup is the one drunk during the Kiddush, or blessing over the wine, that is traditionally offered at Passover and other Jewish holidays.

Four Questions

The seder begins with the chanting of the Kiddush prayer, the filling of the wine glasses (see FOUR CUPS OF WINE ), the breaking of the middle matzoh (see AFIKOMEN ), and the chanting of passages in either Hebrew or English from the HAGGADAH . Then the youngest child present at the table asks the well-known Four Questions:

(1) Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we may eat either leavened bread or unleavened. Why, on this night, do we eat only unleavened?

(2) On all other nights, we may eat all kinds of herbs. Why, on this night, do we eat only bitter herbs?

(3) On all other nights, we don't dip some foods into other foods. Why do we dip parsley into salt water and bitter herbs into haroset tonight?

(4) On all other nights, we may sit at table erect or leaning. Why on this night do we sit reclining?

The answers to these questions are also contained in the HAGGADAH , which is read aloud by the head of the family.


The Haggadah is a compilation of stories, passages from the Bible, interpretations, benedictions, hymns, and instructions for conducting the seder. Although portions of it are more than 2,000 years old, the basic text was put together by Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamaliel in the second century B . C . E . The story of Passover, which is read during the seder, is introduced by a series of FOUR QUESTIONS asked by the youngest member of the family, beginning with "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Everything that follows constitutes the answer to this question. The Haggadah explains what each of the special Passover foods stands for and tells the story of how Moses led the Jewish slaves out of Egypt. The narrative is interspersed with expressions of gratitude to God for helping the Israelites escape and for guiding them on their journey to the Promised Land.


Haroset (or charoset) is a mixture of wine, chopped apples, nuts, sugar, and cinnamon. It symbolizes the clay used by the Jewish slaves to make bricks to build Pharoah's cities.


Karpas refers to a green vegetable, usually parsley, dipped in SALT WATER before being eaten. Because it is green, it symbolizes hope and new growth in the spring.

Lamb Bone

The lamb bone is set on a special seder plate, along with a roasted EGG and three matzoh (see UNLEAVENED BREAD ). It symbolizes the lambs sacrificed by the Jews in Egypt, so that the blood could be painted on their doorposts and the Angel of Death would pass over their houses.

Salt Water

The salt water in which parsley (see KARPAS ) and other vegetables are dipped symbolizes the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.

Unleavened Bread (Matzoh)

Unleavened bread is flat, because it is made without yeast. The unleavened bread that is served at Passover and other Jewish holidays is known as matzoh. It serves as a reminder of the Jews' hurried departure from Egypt, when there was no time to wait for the bread to rise. In addition to symbolizing the freedom gained by the Jews, matzoh also recalls the bread baked from the first grain harvested by the Jewish farmers in Palestine, thus recalling the festival's ancient agricultural roots.

Three pieces of matzoh are placed on the table at the start of the seder. Together, they stand for unity. The top one represents the Kohen or priest, the middle one is called the Levite, and the bottom one is known as the Israelite-three of the earliest divisions among Jews. All Jews, the leader of the seder explains, are brothers. Then he takes the middle of the three pieces and breaks it in half. One of these halves is Passover

the AFIKOMEN , which is spirited away from the table and hidden somewhere in the house, to be searched for later by the children. The afikomen is also the last thing eaten at the seder, so that the taste of matzoh stays in everyone's mouth.

The best type of matzoh is made of only flour and water, without even salt to flavor it. This is the type of matzoh normally used at the seder, and it is called the "bread of poverty" or "bread of affliction." The matzoth intended for use at Passover are usually labeled "Kosher for Pesach" on the box. While the original matzoh was round and soft, the invention of matzoh-making machines in the nineteenth century popularized the more brittle, rectangular matzoh that is eaten today.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Cashman, Greer Fay. Jewish Days and Holidays. New York: SBS Pub., 1979. Cuyler, Margery. Jewish Holidays. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978. Edidin, Ben. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.


Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


Begins between March 27 and April 24; Nisan 15-21 (or 22)
Also known as Pesah, Pesach, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Passover is an eight-day celebration (seven days in Israel and by Reform Jews) of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is one of the three Pilgrim Festivals ( see also Shavuot and Sukkot). According to the book of Exodus, when Pharaoh refused to let Moses lead the Jews out of Egypt, God sent a number of plagues—including locusts, fire, and hailstones—but Pharaoh still was unmoved. A 10th and final plague, during which the Angel of Death was sent to kill the Egyptians' first-born sons, finally persuaded Pharaoh to relent. All the Jews had been instructed to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts so that the Angel would "pass over" and spare their sons.
Jewish families today eat a ceremonial dinner called the Seder at which they retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and eat various symbolic foods—including meat of the paschal lamb, bitter herbs (recalling the harsh life of slavery) and wine (symbolizing the fruitfulness of the earth). The matzoh, a flat, unleavened bread, is meant to symbolize the haste with which the Jews left: they didn't have time to let their bread rise before baking it. In strictly religious Jewish homes today, all foods made with leavening are prohibited during this season.
See also Firstborn, Fast of the
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
11 Broadway
New York, NY 10004
212-563-4000; fax: 212-564-9058
AmerBkDays-2000, pp. 239, 299
BkFest-1937, p. 207
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 52, 63
BkHolWrld-1986, Apr 4
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 112
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 155, 390, 560, 668
EncyEaster-2002, p. 464
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 160
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 283
HolSymbols-2009, p. 696
OxYear-1999, p. 727
RelHolCal-2004, p. 50
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


festival commemorating Exodus. [Judaism: Wigoder, 472; O.T.: Exodus 12]


Jewish festival; blood of sacrificed lambs placed on houses of the Israelites to prevent death of their firstborn. [O.T.: Exodus 12:3–13]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an eight-day Jewish festival beginning on Nisan 15 and celebrated in commemoration of the passing over or sparing of the Israelites in Egypt, when God smote the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exodus 12)
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005