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Passover (Hebrew, Yiddish: פֶּסַח Pesach, Modern Hebrew: Pesah, Pesakh, Yiddish: Peysekh, Paysakh, Paysokh) is a Jewish holy day and festival, commemorates the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. No leavened food is eaten during the week of Pesach, in commemoration of the fact that the Jews left Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have enough time to rise. For the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason it is called "The Festival of the Unleavened Bread". Matzo (flat unleavened bread) is the primary symbol of the holiday.
Together with Shavuot ("Pentecost") and Sukkot ("Tabernacles"), Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which the entire Jewish populace historically made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, the focus of the Passover festival was the Korban Pesach (lit. "Pesach sacrifice" also known as the "Paschal Lamb"). Every family large enough to completely consume a young lamb or wild goat was required to offer one for sacrifice at the Jewish Temple on the afternoon of the 14th day of Nisan, and eat it that night, which was the 15th of Nisan. Women were obligated, as men, to perform the Korban Pesach and to participate in a Seder.
Today, in the absence of the Temple, the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach is memorialized in the Seder Korban Pesach, recited in the afternoon of Nisan 14, and in the form of symbolic food placed on the Passover Seder Plate, which is usually a roasted shankbone. The eating of the afikoman substitutes for the eating of the Korban Pesach at the end of the Seder meal.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which is spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and is celebrated for seven or eight days. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.
In Israel, Passover is the seven-day holiday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, with the first and last days observed as legal holidays and as holy days involving abstention from work, special prayer services, and holiday meals; the intervening days are known as Chol HaMoed ("festival days"). Diaspora Jews historically observed the festival for eight days, and most still do.
Chametz (חמץ, "leavening") refers either to a grain product that is already fermented (e.g. yeast breads, certain types of cake, most alcoholic beverages, and high fructose corn syrup), or to a substance that can cause fermentation (e.g. yeast and sourdough). The consumption of chametz is forbidden during Passover in most Jewish traditions. According to Halakha, the ownership of chametz is also proscribed.
The Torah commandments regarding chametz are:
Traditionally, Jews do a formal search for remaining chametz (bedikat chametz) after nightfall on the evening before Passover. A blessing is read (על ביעור חמץ - al biyur chametz, "on the removal of chametz"), and one or more members of the household proceed from room to room to check that no crumbs remain in any corner. In very traditional families, the search may be conducted by the head of the household.
On the morning of the 14th of Nisan, any leavened products that remain in the householder's possession, along with the 10 morsels of bread from the previous night's search, are burned (s'rayfat chametz). The head of the household repeats the declaration of biyur chametz, declaring any chametz that may not have been found to be null and void "as the dust of the earth". Should more chametz actually be found in the house during the Passover holiday, it must be burnt as soon as possible.
Chametz may be sold rather than discarded; especially in the case of relatively valuable forms such as liquor distilled from wheat, with the products being repurchased afterward. In some cases, they may never leave the house, instead being formally sold while remaining in the original owner's possession in a locked cabinet until they can be repurchased after the holiday.
The main symbol of the Passover holiday is matzo, or unleavened bread. This is a type of flatbread made solely from flour and water which is continually worked from mixing through baking, so that it is not allowed to rise.
Matzo has also been called Lechem Oni (Hebrew: "poor man's bread"). There is an attendant explanation that matzo serves as a symbol to remind Jews what it is like to be a poor slave and to promote humility, appreciate freedom, and avoid the inflated ego symbolized by leavened bread.
On the morning before Passover (morning of the same solar day on which Passover will begin), the fast of the firstborn takes place. This fast commemorates the salvation of the Hebrew firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn (when, according to Exodus (12:29): "...God struck every firstborn in the Land of Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt)...." If the firstborn is a boy in a Jewish family, that boy will have to fast after he has his Bar Mitzvah.
It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first night of Passover (first two nights in communities outside the land of Israel) for a special dinner called a seder (סדר - derived from the Hebrew word for "order", referring to the very specific order of the ritual). The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah. Four cups of wine are consumed at various stages in the narrative.
The Haggadah divides the night's procedure into 15 parts:
These 15 parts parallel the 15 steps in the Temple in Jerusalem on which the Levites stood during Temple services, and which were memorialized in the 15 Psalms (#120-134) known as Shir HaMa'alot (Hebrew: שיר המעלות, "Songs of Ascent").
In the absence of the Temple, Jews cannot bring the Passover sacrifice. This commandment is fulfilled today by the eating of Maror - bitter herbs (typically, horseradish, romaine lettuce, or green onions), both by itself and together with matzo in a Koreich-sandwich during the Passover seder.
On the first night of Passover (first two nights in communities outside Israel), a Jew is required to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This commandment is performed during the Passover seder.
There is a Rabbinic requirement that four cups of wine are to be drunk during the seder meal. This applies to both men and women. Each cup is connected to a different part of the seder: the first cup is for Kiddush, the second cup is connected with the recounting of the Exodus, the drinking of the third cup concludes Birkat Hamazon and the fourth cup is associated with Hallel.
Children have a very important role in the Passover seder. Traditionally the youngest child is prompted to ask questions about the Passover seder, beginning with the words, Mah Nishtana HaLeila HaZeh (Why is this night different from all other nights?). The questions encourage the gathering to discuss the significance of the symbols in the meal.
The afikoman — an integral part of the Seder itself — is used to engage the interest and excitement of the children at the table. Many families use the afikoman as a device for keeping the children awake and alert throughout the Seder proceedings by hiding the afikoman and offering a prize for its return.
After the Hallel, the fourth glass of wine is drunk, and participants recite a prayer that ends in “Next year in Jerusalem!”. This is followed by several lyric prayers that expound upon God's mercy and kindness, and give thanks for the survival of the Jewish people through a history of exile and hardship.
Like the holiday of Sukkot, the intermediary days of Passover are known as Chol HaMoed (festival weekdays) and are imbued with a semi-festive status. It is a time for family outings and picnic lunches of matzo, hardboiled eggs, fruits and vegetables, and Passover treats such as macaroons and homemade candies.
The prohibition against eating leavened food products and regular flour during Passover results in the increased consumption of matzo, potatoes, eggs and oil in addition to fresh milk and cheeses, fresh meat and chicken, and fresh fruit and vegetables.