Passover is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, and is known as the Festival of Freedom. It is a significant and meaningful festival which commemorates the miraculous liberation of the Israelites from hundreds of years of cruel slavery, humiliation, and suffering in Egypt under Pharaoh’s hand.
In Hebrew, Passover is known as Pesach, meaning to “pass over” because God “passed over” the homes of the Jewish people during the tenth and final plague that came to Egypt: the Death of the Firstborn. From Egypt to the present day, the festival of Passover symbolizes redemption and freedom.
Passover celebrates one of the most important events in Jewish history: the Exodus from Egypt.
While in Egypt, Jacob’s descendants had multiplied, flourished, and grown exceedingly mighty. A new Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph, arose. Feeling threatened by the Israelites’ growing numbers, Pharaoh and the Egyptians enslaved them and made their lives bitter with hard labor.
Despite the oppression, they continued to increase and multiply. So, Pharaoh ordered the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill every newborn Jewish male. When the God-fearing midwives ignored Pharaoh’s edict, he commanded that all newborn Jewish males be drowned in the Nile River.
At the time of this terrible decree, Jocheved, the wife of the Levite Amram, bore a son. Fearing for his life, she hid him for three months so that the Egyptians would not drown him in the Nile. When he could no longer be hidden, she placed him in a wicker basket and set him afloat on the Nile River among the reeds.
The infant’s older sister Miriam stood by to see what would happen to him. When Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah came to bathe in the river, she found him in the basket, realized he was a Jewish child, and determined to save his life. She adopted him as her own and called him “Moses” (Moshe in Hebrew), which means “he was drawn out from the water.”
Moses grew, and was brought to live in the palace as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. One day, Moses went out to visit his own people. When he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day, he came upon two Hebrew slaves fighting, and when he tried to stop them, one asked, “Will you murder me as you did the Egyptian?”
Realizing that the matter had been made known, Moses fled Egypt and went to Midian. When he arrived, he sat down by a well where he was met by Jethro’s seven daughters whom he rescued from the shepherds who were trying to drive them away. In Midian, Moses became a shepherd and married Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters.
One day, as Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, God appeared to him in a burning bush and instructed him to go to Pharaoh and demand, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” Moses objected, stating that he was inadequate for the task. God reassured him, saying, “I will be with you.” It was at this time that God appointed his brother Aaron as his spokesman.
Once in Egypt, Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh, demanding, in the Name of God, that the Children of Israel be allowed to leave Egypt so they could worship God in the wilderness. However, Pharaoh paid no attention and refused to heed them. Instead, he increased the Israelites’ burden by denying them the straw needed to make bricks, while still insisting that the same amount of bricks be produced every day. Moses, deeply distressed for his brethren, asked God, “Why have You dealt ill with these people?” God answered with a promise of redemption.
Using Four Expressions of Redemption, God promised that He would deliver the Children of Israel out of Egypt:
Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh many times demanding the release of the Israelites—but every time, Pharaoh refused. God then sent the Ten Plagues upon Egypt:
Before the final plague, Moses gave the Children of Israel instructions regarding the first Passover offering: They were to bring a lamb into their dwellings, keep it there for four days, slaughter it, roast it, and eat it with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs. They were also instructed to mark their doorposts with its blood so that their firstborn would be spared from the Angel of Death during the tenth plague.
Throughout the first nine plagues, Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let the Jews go. His heart was hardened. However, after the Death of the Firstborn, Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and told them to get out of Egypt with the Children of Israel. Because they left in such a hurry, they had to take their dough before it had time to rise.
God commanded the Children of Israel to observe the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt every year by removing all leaven from their possession and eating matzah for seven days, as well as retelling the Passover story to their children.
Soon after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind and chased after them. The Children of Israel found themselves at the edge of the Red Sea, trapped between the water’s edge and the fierce Egyptian army thundering towards them. The sea miraculously split and they were able to walk through safely. As the Egyptians went after them, the sea closed and the whole army of Pharaoh was drowned. The Children of Israel had seen the greatness of God, and they began to sing songs of praise and gratitude to Him.
From there, the Children of Israel made their journey to Mount Sinai, where they received the Torah and became God’s Chosen People.
Throughout the world, the first two nights of Passover are celebrated each year with a special meal called a Seder. In Israel, the Seder meal is held only on the first night. Seder means “order,” as this festive meal is done in a specific order which symbolizes the journey from slavery to freedom. Using a book called a Haggadah, the story of the Exodus is retold and the Ten Plagues are recounted.
The Passover Seder is the focal point of this festival, and contains themes of freedom, deliverance, and redemption. Each item on the Seder plate is symbolic, abounding with inner meaning and insight. These items are:
(All of the steps, details, readings, and blessings for the Passover Seder can be found in a Haggadah.)
Passover is an eight-day festival (seven days for some) that begins on Nissan 15 on the Hebrew calendar. For the duration of the festival, chametz (leaven) is not eaten.
Traditional greetings for this holiday are: Chag Pesach Kasher V’same’ach (Have a Happy and Kosher Passover), Chag Pesach Same’ach (Happy Passover), and Chag Same’ach (Happy Holiday)!
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