How Pesach is Observed
There are three central observances connected with Pesach. These are the eating of matzah, the prohibition against eating or even owning chametz, and the conducting of the seder.
Matzah is unleavened bread made from wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt and water. The entire baking process, from the time that the flour and water are mixed into dough, must not exceed eighteen minutes. To eat matzah during Pesach is a mitzvah (commandment). Matzah is also referred to as ‘the bread of affliction’. It represents the harshness of our lives in Egypt, the haste of the Exodus and the paschal offering at the Jerusalem Temple.
During Pesach the beginning point within us that God has implanted is renewed. This point is called lechem oni (poor people’s bread), for it is only dough with no additives or expansion. It is our task throughout the rest of the year to expand this inner point, to allow our potential to be realized. But on Pesach our lechem oni itself is renewed. Therefore it has to be guarded from any ‘ferment’ or change during this time.
Matzah may be either hand-made or machine-made, and there are advocates of each method and why it is superior. Hand-made matzot (the plural of ‘matzah’) are round, whereas machine-made matzot are square.
“You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements shall you eat matzah” (Exodus 12:20). Meat, fish, fowl, all fruits, all vegetables (except corn, rice, beans, peas and some related vegetables among Ashkenazi Jews), all spices, dairy products and, of course, matzah are not chametz and may be owned and consumed during Pesach.
Chametz is any one of the five major grains, wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, that has come into contact with resting water for at least eighteen minutes. Such grain of flour is considered to have begun the leavening process. Any food or drink that has even the minutest quantity of chametz as an ingredient is forbidden during Pesach.
As part of the family’s preparation for Pesach, a complete cleansing of the home from all forms of chametz is performed. Any chametz found within the confines of the house is to be disposed of.
The process called Bedikat Chametz or ‘search for the leaven’ is the prototype of the ‘spring cleaning’ that we do as all creation moves through the changing of the seasons. The entire family cleans the house from top to bottom, and any chametz that is found is either eaten, sold or destroyed.
It is traditional on the night before Pesach to lead the children of the family on a candlelit search through the home. Any chametz found is swept up with a feather. In addition, any food preparation materials, such as pots, pans, dishes, etc. that have been in contact with chametz are be stored or made pesadik (kosher for Pesach).
The Pesach Seder, literally ‘order’, is the ritualised meal eaten on the first two evenings of the festival (in Israel this takes place only on the evening of the first day). For detailed information about the Seder, please see our page The Seder.
Related Pages on the BJE Website
Bedikat Chametz (the Search for Leaven)
How to Host a Passover Seder
How to Make Kneidlach (soup dumplings)