Fourteen things to know for Passover 2014

1. When does Passover 2014 begin and how long does it last?

Passover 2014 begins at sundown on Monday, April 14th. That is the date, this year, which corresponds to the 15th of Nissan, the day according to the Bible, on which the first Passover occurred and on which all subsequent Passovers always begin.

The holiday lasts for 7 days in Israel and 8 days everywhere else, reflecting a long-held custom honoring the fact that maintaining an accurate liturgical calendar far from Israel, where Jewish religious authority was centered in ancient times, was not so simple. It’s a “belt and suspenders approach”, designed to make sure nobody fails to observe the holiday on the appropriate day.

2. What is Passover all about, and is it the same as Pesach?

Passover and Pesach are the same thing. One is simply English and the other is Hebrew. In either case, it is the holiday celebrating the Exodus of the ancient Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.


The specific “passing over” for which the holiday is named refers to the way in which God passed over, or protected, the homes of the Israelites during the night they prepared to begin their journey into freedom.

3. Why is Passover the Most Celebrated Jewish holiday in America?

Simply put, like America itself, Passover is about freedom. It celebrates the eternal quest for human dignity and the freedom which is perhaps the greatest expression of that dignity.

Nowhere, and at no time, in 3,000 years of Jewish history have Jews known the kind of centuries-long freedom and security which are the American Jewish experience. The Passover story of freedom — of the journey from oppression to opportunity — is also the American story at its best, not just for Jews but for all people, and it rings deeply true when it is told at Seder tables across this nation.

4. What’s a “Passover Seder”?

The Seder, literally Hebrew word ‘order’, is the central ritual of Passover. It refers to the carefully ordered Passover dinner party/symposium, typically held at home, which invites all those in attendance to personally experience the move described in the Book of Exodus – the move from slavery to freedom — in story, song, and conversation.

The evening is anchored by the drinking, over the course of the evening, of four cups of wine recalling the four times when the Israelites are described as being redeemed, eating Matzah, and bitter herbs, and other symbolic foods including vegetable dipped in salt water and hard boiled eggs.

5. Why is Wine So Prominently Featured at the Seder Meal?

Drinking wine, especially over a leisurely meal, expresses the freedom of those gathered together, and demonstrating that freedom is a central feature of the Seder. Also, wine is the paradigmatic celebratory drink – think all things from Communion in Christian tradition to New Year’s Eve champagne toasts. Wine, in the words of Psalms, “gladdens people’s hearts”, and the ability to feel and celebrate joy is clearly an important part of being free. To be sure, for those who do not enjoy, or otherwise should not drink wine, grape juice is great alternative.

6. What is Matza?

Matzah is the flat, cracker-like, unleavened bread which has become the central symbol of Passover, especially since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the end of the Paschal sacrifice described in the Hebrew Bible.

Like most great and durable symbols, Matzah invites multiple, and even contradictory interpretations. Sometimes referred to as “bread of poverty”, Matzah recalls the food that the Israelites ate when they were slaves. It also recalls the rapid liberation of the Israelites, which happened so fast that they did not even have time to allow the bread for the journey to rise, before setting out from Egypt.

The Bible specifically commands eating Matzah on the first night of Passover, and prohibits all leavened products the entire week of the holiday.

7. Why Eat Bitter Herbs in the Midst of Celebrating Freedom?

Typically consumed in the form of horseradish or bitter greens, these foods are eaten in order to evoke the bitterness of slavery. Part of the work of Passover is being able to see ourselves as if we have personally made the journey out of slavery in Egypt. Along with joy, empathy is a crucial aspect of genuine freedom.

As free people we have the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and to at least try and feel their pain as our own. Also, those bitter herbs are dipped in a bit of sweet apple or date relish, reminding those gathered at the table that sweetness, at least a bit, can almost always be found, even at the most difficult of times.

8. Is Passover Only for Jews?

Definitely not! While Passover marks the birth of the Jewish people as a free nation, it speaks to the larger human impulse to be free, and that is why so many people, both Jewish and not, celebrate the holiday.

In addition to the large number of Jewish families which either include non-Jewish members or welcome non-Jewish guests to their own Passover celebrations, increasing numbers of Christian communities celebrate their own Seders, emulating what must have been an important part of Jesus’ life experience in the first century.

9. Was the Last Supper a Seder?

The Last Supper is often explained, based on the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, as having been a Passover Seder. Certainly the time of year at which Jesus came to Jerusalem fits, and the communal meal at which he gathered his disciples is suggestive of something like a Seder, with ritualized eating, drinking and teaching through conversation. Of course, those are also regular features of any classically Jewish meal of religious import. Also, according to the Book of John, the Last Supper was the day before Passover.

Scholars can continue to fight this out, but one thing is clear: both the Last Supper and the Seder point to the power of celebrating one’s most deeply held values in the presence of those about whom we care, and in the context of a freely offered table.

10. How are Passover and Easter related?

While the tradition of calculating the date of Easter based on the date of Passover ended many centuries ago, the holidays share some very deep truths of which all people can avail themselves. Who doesn’t need to be reminded that however dark life may be, that however cold and lifeless the winter has been, the promise of spring, and the possibility of rebirth and renewal is always there?

Whether discovered in the story of a nation making the journey from Abraham’s early successes to the Israelites’ slavery and subsequent redemption, or in the story of one who lives, dies and is born again, we must all celebrate that life holds more possibility and potential than we first imagine — that there is reason for hope, and that in celebrating triumphs of hope from the past, we can unleash new stories of hope in the present and in the future.

11. Passover and Our Founding Fathers

The Exodus from Egypt was central in the minds of the new United States’ Founding Fathers. When Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams gathered to create a seal for our nation, Franklin chose a design of Moses extending his hand over the Red Sea, thereby overwhelming Pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand. Rays in the clouds were drawn as reaching out to Moses, expressing that he acted by command of God. The motto included was: “Rebellion To Tyrants Is Obedience To God,” which was later adopted by Jefferson as his personal motto.

12. Moses Was A Hero to the Pilgrims

Moses was an American hero long before there was a United States of America. The Pilgrims described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their own pharaoh, King James. When they set sail on The Mayflower in 1620, they carried Bibles emblazoned with Moses leading the Israelites to freedom. Then as now, they found themselves in the story of leaving Egypt.

13. What the Word Egypt Really Means and Why It Matters for All of Us

Egypt is not “Egypt” in the Bible. In the original Hebrew, it is called “Mitzrayim”, which means tight places. To be in Mitzrayim/Egypt is not simply to be a slave in a story from long ago. It is the paradigmatic experience of being stuck between a rock and a hard place – an experience which virtually all people have at some point in our lives.

Passover reminds all people that while getting jammed up can, and likely will, happen to each of us, there is always the possibility of redemption and release. Whoever you are, and whatever faith you follow, Passover invites us to take stock of where we are stuck, and seek the help we need to get un-stuck. That we will ultimately be successful is the eternal promise of Passover.

14. God Is There For Us, No Exceptions

Passover promises that God is there for each of us, as we are — with whatever challenges, doubts, fallings or falling outs we may have — with no exceptions. Whoever wants “in” is included in the process of being saved from Egypt, and always will be.

There is no test to pass, beyond wanting to part of that story.

In fact, the Seder meal script goes out of it’s way to include even one who is deemed “wicked” as part of the celebration of freedom from slavery. Even that person’s questions and comments are welcomed at the table. And if that is true for what we can think of as God’s table, perhaps it can be a model for who we welcome at our own tables, both at holiday time and throughout the year.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism,” and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.