Passover or Pesach, as the festival is called in Hebrew, historically commemorates the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and recalls our mass Exodus from Egypt about 3,500 years ago. The Pesach story is recounted within Exodus, Chapters 1-15 and is a focal point in Jewish history. Not only does it represent our birth as a free people, but also the Israelites’ shift from tribal communal life to nationhood.
In addition, the lessons derived from the Egyptian slavery and the resulting redemption provide a powerful base for Jewish faith and ethics. The journey initiated during Pesach, that of a nation of slaves racing towards freedom, reaches its climax with the festival of Shavuot, with our rendezvous with God at Mt. Sinai. Here the Jews’ new-found freedom finds its purpose.
The agricultural significance of Pesach is that it marks the start of the early harvest period in the land of Israel. The harvesting of the barley grain was marked by a special offering of the Omer commencing on the second day of Pesach and continuing for forty-nine days, concluding at Shavuot.
We begin to observe Pesach from the 15th of Nissan (the name of a month in the Jewish calendar), at the full moon, for eight days (seven in Israel). The four days in the middle are referred to as Chol Hamo’ed (weekdays of the festival).
Different Names for Pesach
Literally, ‘to pass over’. This name commemorates God’s promise to “pass over you, and there shall be no plague upon you to destroy you” (Exodus 12:13). During the last of the ten plagues sent by God to force Pharaoh to set the Israelites free (death of the firstborn sons), the Angel of Death ‘passed over’ the homes of the Hebrew slaves. The name ‘Pesach’ also refers to the pascal lamb which was sacrificed by the Israelites on their departure from Egypt.
Literally, ‘the festival of matzot’ (unleavened bread). During Pesach it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat matzah. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:15).
Literally, ‘time of our freedom’. Egypt is referred to in the Torah as Mitzrayim or ‘place of narrowness’. A place of narrowness is a wonderful symbolic image for the restrictiveness of slavery. Through the Pesach story, we travel from the narrowness of forced servitude to the openness of freedom.
Literally, ‘festival of spring’. In the land of Israel Pesach falls in springtime. It is spring harvest time. Almost the entire world is emerging from the restrictions of winter and opening up to the new life of spring. The Exodus narrative mirrors this journey.
The Fast of the Firstborn
Ta’anit HaBechorim is a fast that applies to all firstborn sons of the family. The fast takes place on the 14th Nissan (the day immediately before Pesach) to commemorate the deliverance of the firstborn Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 12: 23-24). The firstborn son attends a morning synagogue service and participates in a siyyum, which is a religious celebration to mark finishing studying a volume of the Talmud. If he participates in this simcha (celebration), he is not required to fast for the rest of the day.
Related Pages on the BJE Website
Bedikat Chametz (the Search for Leaven)
How to Make Kneidlach (soup dumplings)