Passover and Its Historical Origins

COMMUNITY CULTURE | By Zeenat Kassam Mitha –

Passover is an eight-day festival celebrated in early spring that originated over 3,000 years ago. It is a time of rebirth and renewal from the 15th through the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, Passover takes place April 10th through 18th.

A commemoration of the Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in ancient Egypt, Passover is observed by avoiding leaven and highlighted by the seder meals that include drinking four cups of wine, eating matzah and bitter herbs and retelling the story of the exodus. In Hebrew, it is known as “Pesach,” which means “to pass over.”

Passover tells the story of how God redeemed the Israelite people from slavery. It is said that God commanded Moses to go down to Egypt and declare to the Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go free. The Pharaoh refused, after which God struck the Egyptians with 10 plagues. Finally, the Egyptian ruler relented. “The festival gets its name from the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, as God ‘passed over’ the houses of the Israelites and only afflicted the Egyptians,” said Rabbi Josh Lobel of Missouri City.

The first two days and last two days of Passover are holidays. The latter two days commemorate the splitting of the Red Sea. Holiday candles are lit at night, and kiddush and holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. The middle four days are called Chol Hamoed, semi-festive “intermediate days,” when most forms of work are permitted.

Matzah Ball Soup is traditionally eaten during Passover.

The primary ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder, which means “order,” during which the Passover story is recounted, along with joyous singing and sharing traditional foods. One very important food eaten during Passover is matzah, unleavened bread, which Jews eat for the duration of the holiday to recall the fact the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry, and therefore, the bread they baked for provisions had no time to rise.

The book that guides through this ritual meal is called the Hagaddah, which means “telling,” as it tells the story of the journey from slavery to freedom. “Today, the holiday not only serves to recall an ancient victory and defining moment in the Jewish narrative, but it is also a reminder of the religious imperative to break the bonds of slavery and oppression, which still exists today,” said Fort Bend resident Sue Hauenstein.

To commemorate the unleavened bread that the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, observers do not eat or retain in their possession any “chametz” from midday of the day before Passover until the end of the holiday. Chametz means leavened grain and includes any food or drink that contains even a hint of oats, rye, wheat, barley or their derivatives and wasn’t protected from leavening or fermentation. This includes bread, cake, cookies, cereal, pasta and most alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, almost any processed food or drink can be assumed to be chametz unless approved otherwise.

In addition to this home observance of Passover, synagogues hold festival services to commemorate the holiday, during which special prayers for the season are recited, and selected passages are read from the Torah, the sacred text of the Jewish people. “Whether it is physical slavery or discrimination based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or gender identity, it is the mission of the Jewish people to work to free all people from the scourge of injustice,” said Rabbi Lobel.

Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Missouri City, holds a community seder on the second night of Passover, which falls on April 11th.  For more information, call the synagogue office at 281-499-5066 or email admin@betheltx.org.