History of Passover

The name Pesach is derived from the Hebrew word pasach, which means “passed over,” which is also the source of the common English name for the holiday. It recalls the miraculous tenth plague when all the Egyptian firstborn were killed, but the Israelites were spared.

The story of Passover originates in the Bible as the telling of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah recounts how the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt by a Pharoah who feared them. After many generations of oppression, God speaks to an Israelite man named Moses and instructs him to go to Pharoah and let God’s people go free. Pharoah refuses, and Moses, acting as God’s messenger brings down a series of 10 plagues on Egypt.

The last plague was the Slaying of the Firstborn; God went through Egypt and killed each firstborn, but passed over the houses of the Israelites leaving their children unharmed. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah relented and let the Israelites leave.

Pharaoh then regretted his decision and chased the Children of Israel until they were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. But God instructed Moses to stretch his staff over the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted, allowing the Children of Israel to walk through on dry land. The waters then closed, drowning Pharoah and his soldiers as they pursued the Israelites.

The Torah commands an observance of seven days of Passover. Many Jews in North America and all Jews in Israel follow this injunction. Some Jews outside of Israel celebrate Passover for eight days. The addition of a day dates back to 700-600 B.C.E. At that time, people were notified of a holiday’s beginning by means of an elaborate network of mountaintop bonfires. To guard against the possibility of error, an extra day was added to many of the holidays. Today, a dependable calendar exists, allowing Jews to know when holidays start and end. However, the process remains ingrained in Jewish law and practice for some Jews living outside of Israel today.

Ritual Objects

The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself. The contents of a seder plate vary by tradition, but most of them contain a shank bone, lettuce, an egg, greens, a bitter herb, and a mixture of apples, nuts and spices.

The following symbolic foods should be placed near the leader of the seder. During the course of the seder, they are pointed out, lifted up and displayed, and explained.
On the seder plate (use either a special one for this purpose or a regular dinner plate), include:

  • Shank bone, zaro’ah, symbolizes the lamb that was sacrificed in ancient days
  • Roasted Egg, beitzah, represents the Passover offering of ancient days as well as the wholeness and continuing cycle of life
  • Bitter herbs, maror (horseradish or romaine lettuce), a reminder of the bitter lives of the Hebrew slaves
  • Charoset, the mixture of apples, nuts, sweet wine, cinnamon and sugar in the Ashkenazic fashion or dates, nuts and sweet wine in the Sephardic tradition, reminds us of the bricks and mortar made by the Hebrew slaves
  • Greens, karpas, symbolizes the spring, the time of the year when Passover takes place

Also place on the table:

  • Three matzot (pl. of matzah), on a plate with a cloth or napkin cover
  • Salt water, a reminder of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves
  • Cup of Elijah, Kos Eliyahu, symbolizes the hope for a redemptive future

Along with these traditional symbols, families may choose to include a Cup of Miriam, Kos Miriam, on the holiday table. This symbol honors Miriam, the sister of Moses, who played a vital role in the history of our people. The cup of Miriam is a special goblet filled with water and placed on the seder table. Many families and congregations have begun adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of inclusion of the LGBTQ community and others who feel marginalized in Jewish life.

The Haggadah (pl. haggadot) contains the text of the seder. There are many different haggadot: some concentrate on involving children in the seder; some concentrate on the sociological or social justice aspects of Passover; there are even historical haggadot and critical editions.

The afikoman is half of the middle matzah that is broken in the fourth step of the seder, yachatz. It is traditional to hide the afikoman, and the person who finds it gets a prize! The afikoman is eaten last of all at the seder, during step 12 of the seder, tzafun.

Content Courtesy of ReformJudaism.org

Preparing for Passover

Virtual Haggadot

Yachad Haggadah for 2023

A Different Night by Shalom Hartman Institute

PJ Library Haggadah

The Other Side of the River, the Other Side of the Sea by T’ruah

Other Resources to Help You Prepare

How to Make Your Virtual Seder Lively, Engaging, and Meaningful by reformjudaism.org

Family Passover Activities by reformjudaism.org

The Pre-Seder Checklist Every Parent Needs by PJ Library