This year the Jewish festival of Passover begins at sunset April 6 and lasts until Sunday night, April 15.
The holiday is meant to be seven days, but there is a long-standing tradition for Jewish holidays celebrated outside of Israel to add a day. This is because, in ancient times, the Jewish year was not set according to a calculated calendar but rather simply by observing the status of the new moon in the sky, and there was some doubt as to when the holidays were. So, Passover outside of Israel is eight days long.
The roots of the holiday are found in the biblical Book of Exodus, and tells the story of where God sends Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. Telling and retelling the story is in fact central to the holiday. The Bible itself directs the faithful to "tell your son" (Exodus 13:8) the story.
Over the centuries, that has lead to the development of the beautiful and widely practiced ritual of the "Passover Seder." For the first two nights of Passover (one night in Israel), Jews will gather with family and friends for the seder where they will share dinner, and in a highly choreographed way retell the story of the exodus. During the seder, participants read from the haggadah, a booklet that contains a digest of the liberation story.
Words are not everything. In addition to the narration, seder-goers also taste bitter herbs to represent the bitterness of slavery to Pharaoh. Jews also eat matzah, or unleavened bread. It is a reminder of the hurriedness with which the Israelites had to flee Pharaoh’s army and could not stay long enough to wait for the bread to rise. The Bible describes it as eating with “shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand.” In these ways, people of all ages can learn about the Passover story through texts, songs and even tastes.
Speaking of food, the Bible is clear that for the whole week, yeast or leaven should not even be found in your house (Exodus 12:19). For that reason, Jews take to spring cleaning with a vengeance before Passover, scrubbing and vacuuming until everyone in the house has lost their mind. The care to avoid leaven has lead to the whole range of products labeled “kosher for Passover” in the supermarket.
Why the name Passover? It is another biblical allusion: In Exodus chapter 12, God orchestrates a terrible punishment for the Egyptian oppressors, slaying their first-born humans and animals, but instructs the Israelites that God’s avenging angel will "pass them over." Thus, Passover is a remembrance of signs and the wonder of the original Israelite freedom from Egypt, but its message has echoed throughout different generations and societies. It is even common at American Passover seders to hear the refrain of the African American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.”
In sum, Passover is a great, weeklong Jewish festival of freedom that points to our universal longing for a better, freer, and more just world.
David Mattis is a student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.