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Passover Fact Sheet

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Passover wine and matzo

Passover is a Jewish festival that begins at sunset on the 14th day of the Jewish calendar month "Nisan," which falls in March or April. The holiday, called Pesach in Hebrew, commemorates and retells the story of the Hebrews' emancipation from slavery under Pharaoh and their Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In the days leading to the Hebrews' flight from Egypt, God afflicted the Egyptians with 10 plagues, the final one being the death of the firstborn of Egypt. To protect the Hebrews from the final plague, God instructed them to apply the blood of a spring lamb to the posts of their doorways. He would then "pass over" these homes. The holiday features both intensive preparation and festive meals.

The Preparations:

  1. Cleaning house: In the weeks leading up to Passover, people clean their homes thoroughly to remove every morsel of "chametz," meaning leavened grains, such as wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye, and their by-products. Consumption and ownership of chametz, including already leavened items, such as breads, is prohibited during the entire festival of Passover, which lasts eight days.

  2. Sorting dishes: The ritual removal of chametz from the home extends to kitchenware used to cook or serve breads and grains during the rest of the year. Metal pots, pans, and utensils are thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned with boiling water. Many families have separate sets of dishes and glassware that they use during the holiday and then pack away until next year.

  3. Searching for chametz: As the house cleaning is completed, the family leaves some obvious traces of leavening, usually bread crumbs in the house. The crumbs are left to be discovered and removed during a ceremonial inspection the night before the first Seder. These traces must be burned by mid-morning the following day.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread:

  1. The meal: The first and second nights of Passover are commemorated by a structured ceremonial meal called a Seder where Jews remember and recount the Exodus and partake of symbolic foods.

  2. The text: The Haggadah, a small book, outlines the structure of the Seder. Everyone at the table takes turns reading from the Haggadah to review the events and liturgy of the festival, and every person has a copy, so he or she can follow the service. Look for Haggadahs among books about Judaism.

  3. The food: Symbolic foods serve as remembrances to Jews. Matzo, an unleavened flat bread, reminds them of the haste in which they departed Egypt, with no time to allow bread to rise. A special Seder plate also sits on the table during the meal. It contains bitter herbs, such as horseradish, to represent the bitterness of slavery; a fruit-and-nut mixture called charoset to represent the mortar used to build Pharaoh's monuments; a green vegetable to dip in saltwater as a remembrance of tears; a roasted shank bone in memory of the Pesach lamb sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem; and a hard-boiled egg which represents mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

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