In 2010, Passover begins on Tuesday, March 30 and ends on Monday, April 5.
Passover or Pesach is a celebration of the Jews' escape from Egypt after serving as slaves under the Pharaoh's regime. According to the story in the Torah, God punished the Egyptians with ten plagues before Pharaoh finally gave in and let the Jews go. The last of these was the death of the firstborn sons. Jewish families were warned of the pending plague and covered their doorposts in lamb's blood, so that the angel of death would "pass over" their homes, giving the holiday its name. The Jews left in such a hurry that they did not have time for the bread to leaven, giving rise to the tradition of eating unleavened bread or matzoh on Passover.
Passover falls in March or April each year, depending on how the Hebrew calendar and Gregorian calendar coincide. Passover traditions include the seder, eating of specific foods, and avoidance of foods that are leavened or contain prohibited ingredients.
The Passover Seder
The hallmark of all Passover celebrations is the seder, an elaborate ceremony held during the first two nights of the holiday. Some families have their own seders, some host seders for friends and family, and some attend a seder held by a synagogue or other Jewish organization.
On the table is the seder plate, which holds a variety of ritual of items. Most are used during the ceremony, but some are merely included for their symbolism and are not used. Charoset, a mix of apples, nuts and wine, symbolizes the mortar that Jewish slaves in Egypt used for laying bricks. Horseradish or "maror" recalls the bitterness of slavery, while saltwater recalls the Jews' tears. A vegetable such as parsley or potato symbolizes spring, and a hard boiled egg symbolizes a new start and the Passover offering. A roasted shankbone (usually a chicken or turkey neck) represents the Passover offering.
In addition to the items on the seder plate, the table is set with a glass of wine for each person, and a second plate holding three pieces of matzoh, each wrapped separately in a napkin or cloth. During the seder, Jews drink four cups of wine at specific points in the ceremony.
The main portion of the seder is the telling of the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt. This story is told in response to The Four Questions, an early part of the ceremony where the youngest person present asks specific questions about why things are done differently on seder night than on all other nights of the year.
Some families go through every word in the haggadah or seder guide. Others read only the main portions, or the portions that involve eating, drinking, or singing. For those who go through the whole seder in detail, the first portion of the ceremony takes about 45 minutes, ending with consumption of the charoses, matzoh and maror in different combinations as blessings are recited. Then the festive meal occurs. The meal often includes matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and other Jewish delicacies.
The telling of the Passover story continues following the meal. Throughout the seder, traditional Passover songs such as "Chad Gadya" and "Adir Hu" are sung. A modern Passover tradition is singing "The Frog Song," which basically features a recitation of all the places where Pharaoh had frogs when he woke up: On his head, in his bed, on his toes, and so on. Even "Dayenu," a song describing about gratitude to God for the continued miracles the Jewish people have received, receives a rather irreverent treatment in a modern twist where people whack each other with green onions or other seder items during the chorus to symbolize the whipping of the slaves.
Passover Food Restrictions
During the eight days of Passover, observant Jews avoid most foods that include leavening or chametz. Some families conduct a thorough search of the home on the last morning before the holiday to ensure that all chametz has been removed. Observant Jews also will not own any chametz during the holiday, so they sell all prohibited food either by actually trading it to someone for money or by signing papers through a synagogue giving up ownership during that time.
Some Jews observe Passover simply by avoiding bread and eating matzoh during the holiday. Observant Jews follow a strict set of regulations that prohibit most foods made from grain and those made from legumes such as corn and peanuts. An entire industry has built up around creating kosher-for-Passover versions of foods and beverages such as desserts, candy, frozen meals, and even Coca Cola and marshmallows.