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Jewish Recipes --> Judaism --> Passover

Passover (Hebrew: פסח; transliterated as pesach or pesah) is a Jewish holiday beginning on the fifteenth day of Nisan which commemorates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Passover marks the "birth" of the Jewish nation, as the Jews were freed from being slaves of Pharaoh and allowed to become servants of God instead.

also see: Passover Recipes

Passover is one of the three pilgrim festivals (Shalosh Regalim) that mark the three times during the year that the entire Jewish populace made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the days of the Holy Temple.

In Israel, Passover is a 7-day holiday, with the first and last days celebrated as a full festival (involving abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals). Outside Israel, the holiday is celebrated for 8 days, with the first two days and last two days celebrated as full festivals. The remaining days are known as Chol HaMoed (festival weekdays).

The primary symbol of Passover is the matzo, a flat, unleavened bread which recalls the bread that the Israelites ate after their hasty departure from Egypt. According to Halakha, this bread is made from a dough of flour and water only, which has not been allowed to rise for more than 18-22 minutes. Religious Jews will observe the positive Torah commandment of eating matzo on the first night, as well as the negative Torah commandment of neither eating nor owning any leavened products, such as bread, cake, cookies, or pasta — anything whose dough has been mixed with a leavening agent or which has been left to rise more than 18-22 minutes.

Origins of the feast

The term Pesach is first mentioned in the Torah account of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:23). There it refers to the way God "passed over" the houses of the Israelites during the final plague of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the killing of the first-born. On the night of that plague, which occurred on the 15th day of Nisan, the Jews smeared their lintels and doorposts with the blood of the Passover sacrifice and were spared.

The term Pesach also refers to the lamb which was designated as the Passover sacrifice (called the korban Pesach in Hebrew). Four days before the Exodus, the Jews were commanded to set aside a lamb (Exodus 12:3) and inspect it daily for blemishes. On the night of the 15th of Nisan, they were to slaughter the lamb and use its blood to mark their lintels and doorposts. Before midnight, each family (or group of families) gathered together to eat a meal that included the meat of the korban Pesach while the Tenth Plague ravaged Egypt.

In future years, during the existence of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem, the korban Pesach was eaten during the Passover Seder on the 15th of Nisan. However, following the destruction of the Temple, no sacrifices may be offered or eaten. The story of the korban Pesach is therefore retold at the Passover Seder, and the symbolic food which represents it on the Seder Plate is usually a roasted lamb shank bone, chicken wing, or chicken neck.

The English term "Passover" came into the English language through William Tyndale's translation of the Bible, and later appeared in the King James Version as well.

Although the term Pesach is not mentioned until the Book of Exodus, there are indications that at least parts of the feast were observed in earlier times. For example, Genesis 19:3 refers to the "matzos" which Lot served his angelic guests. According to Rashi, quoting Talmud Yoma 28b, the Patriarchs and their families intuited the celebration of all the Jewish holidays, as well as the mitzvot which God would command in the future through the giving of the Torah, and kept the mitzvot voluntarily.

Passover Korban

When the temple was standing every Jew was required to partake of one (Numbers 9:11) paschal sacrifice on the night of the 15th of Nissan (Exodus 12:6). It could not be slaughtered while one is in possession of leaven (Exodus 23:18). It must be eaten roasted (Exodus 12:9) with matzah and marror (Exodus 12:8). One must be careful not to break any bones from the offering (Exodus 12:46). The offering cannot be left over until morning (Exodus 12:10, 23:18).

Only Jews were permitted to partake of the paschal Lamb. An apostate could not eat from it (Exodus 12:43) nor a hired worker (Exodus 12:45). An uncircumcised male is also restrained from eating from it (Exodus 12:48).

If one missed the opportunity to slaughter the Passover offering he or she can make it up one month latter on the night of the 15th of Iyar (Numbers 9:11). Just like the first, one must not break any bones from the second paschal offering (Numbers 9:12) or leave meat over until morning (Numbers 9:12).


All Jews must eat at least one olive-sized amount of Matzah on the first night of Passover. According to halacha this law applies even though the Temple was destroyed.




Chametz (חמץ) is the Hebrew term for "leavened", the opposite of matzah. Jewish law prohibits one from owning, eating or benefiting from any chametz during Passover. Jews clean and remove all or much of their chametz. Where this is not practical they sell their chametz to a non-jew; most synagogues have a system to make this possible.


Maror, or bitter herbs, must be eaten at both Passover Seders when the hagaddah (guide book) says it is the proper time. This applies even though there is no temple.

Recounting the Exodus

On the first night of Passover one must recount The Exodus. This is done during the Passover Seder

Four Cups

There is a Rabbinic obligation to drink four cups of wine (or pure grape juice) during the Seder. This applies to both men and women. The Mishnah says (Pes. 10:1) that even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink. Each cup is connected to a different part of the Seder: The first is for Kiddush, the second is at recounting the story, the third is for Birkat Hamazon and the fourth is for Hallel.


Removal and sale of chametz

In accordance with the mitzvah of not eating or owning leavened products during Passover, religious Jewish families typically spend the weeks before the holiday in a flurry of housecleaning. The object is to remove every morsel of leavened food (called chametz) from all the cupboards and corners in the home. The search for chametz is often a thorough one, as children's rooms and kitchens are cleaned from top to bottom. Although many ensure that not even a crumb of chametz remains, the Halakha only requires the elimination of olive-sized quantities of leavening from one's possession.

After dark on the 14th of Nisan, a formal search for leavened products (bedikat chametz) is conducted. The head of the house goes from room to room and cupboard to cupboard to make sure that no crumbs remain in any corner. There is a custom to turn off the lights in the room being searched and conduct the search using candlelight, a feather and a wooden spoon. Candlelight effectively illuminates corners without casting shadows; the feather can dust crumbs out of their hiding places; and the wooden spoon which collects the crumbs can be burned the next day with the chametz.

Chametz that has a high monetary value (such as liquor which is made from wheat) may be sold rather than discarded. This sale of chametz is conducted via the community rabbi, who becomes the "agent" for all the community's Jews through a halakhic procedure called a kinyan (acquisition). As the agent, the rabbi will sell all the chametz to a non-Jew for a price to be negotiated after the holiday. In the meantime, the non-Jew is asked to put down a small down payment (i.e. $1.00), with the remainder due after Passover. As soon as the holiday ends, the rabbi will contact the non-Jew, to buy the community's chametz back from him.

This sale is considered completely binding according to Halakha, to the point that each householder must put aside all the chametz he is selling into a box or cupboard and assume that at any time during the holiday, the non-Jewish buyer may come to take or partake of his share. Similarly, Jewish store owners who stock leavened food products sell everything in their storeroom to a non-Jew with full knowledge that the new "owner" can claim his property. In the Eastern European shtetls, the Jews, who were often tavern keepers, would sell their chametz in this way to neighboring gentiles, and risk having the non-Jews enter their cellars to drink all the liquor during the holiday—which they often did.

Burning the chametz

In the morning, any leavened products that were found during the search is burned (biur chametz), and the head of the household declares any chametz that may not have been found to be null and void "as the dust of the earth." Should chametz actually be found in the house during the Passover holiday, it must be burnt.

The weeks before Passover are also the time for the baking of the matzos which will be eaten during the holiday. In Orthodox Jewish communities, men traditionally gather in groups (chaburas) to bake a special version of hand-baked matzo together, called shmurah matzo ("guarded matzo", referring to the fact that the wheat is guarded from contamination by chametz from the time it is cut in the summer until it is baked into matzos for the following Passover). Chaburas also work together in machine-made matzo factories, which produce the typically square-shaped matzo sold in stores.

Matzo by-products, such as matzo farfel (broken bits of matzo) and matzo meal (finely-ground matzo) are used as flour substitutes in the baking of Passover cakes and cookies.

Passover Dishware

Due to the strict separation between matzo products and chametz during Passover, families typically own complete sets of serving dishes, glassware and silverware that are reserved for use during Passover only. Ashkenazic families who purchase new pots or silverware for the holiday will first immerse them in boiling water to remove any traces of chametz-based oils or materials that may have touched them. Some Sephardic families have the custom of using the same glassware for Passover as they do during the year, but will wash the glasses thoroughly first.

Fast of the Firstborn

On the morning before Passover, the fast of the firstborn takes place. This fast commemorates the salvation of the Israelite firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn (according to the Book of Exodus, the tenth of ten plagues wrought upon ancient Egypt prior to the Exodus of the Children of Israel), when, according to Exodus (12:29): "...God struck every firstborn in the Land of Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt)...." In practice, however, most firstborns only fast during the morning prayer service in synagogue. This is due to the widespread custom for a member of the congregation to conduct a siyum (ceremony marking the completion of a section of Torah learning) right after services and invite everyone to partake in a celebratory meal. According to widespread custom, partaking of this meal removes one's obligation to fast.

The Passover Seder

It is traditional for a Jewish family to gather on the first night of Passover (first two nights 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 this 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 these 15 parts:
  • Kadesh קדש (Recital of Kiddush blessing and drinking of the First Cup of Wine)
  • Ur'chatz ורחץ (The washing of the hands)
  • Karpas כרפס (Dipping of the Karpas in salt water)
  • Yachatz יחץ (Breaking the middle matzah which becomes the afikomen)
  • Maggid מגיד (Retelling the Passover story, including the recital of the "Four Questions" and drinking of the Second Cup of Wine)
  • Rachtzah רחצה (Second washing of the hands)
  • Motzi / Matzo מוציא / מצה (Recital of the blessing over matzo)
  • Maror מרור (Eating of the maror)
  • Korech כורך (Eating of a sandwich made of matzo and maror)
  • Shulchan Orech שולחן עורך (Lit. "set table"—the serving of the holiday meal)
  • Tzafun צפון (Eating of the afikomen)
  • Barech ברך (Blessing after the meal and drinking of the Third Cup of Wine)
  • Hallel הלל (Recital of the Hallel, traditionally recited on festivals; drinking of the Fourth Cup of Wine)
  • Nirtzah נירצה (Conclusion)

The Seder is replete with questions, answers, and unusual practices (e.g. the recital of Kiddush which is not immediately followed by the blessing over bread, which is the traditional procedure for all other holiday meals) to arouse the interest and curiosity of the children at the table. The children are also rewarded with nuts and candies when they ask questions and participate in the discussion of the Exodus and its aftermath. Likewise, they are encouraged to search for the Afikomen, the piece of matzo which is the last thing eaten at the Seder. The child or children who discover the hiding place of the afikomen are rewarded with a prize or money. Audience participation and interaction is the rule, and many families' Seders last long into the night with animated discussions and much singing. The Seder concludes with additional songs of praise and faith printed in the Haggadah, including Chad Gadya ("One Kid Goat").
An example of a traditional Passover seder plate (circa 1948) upon which the symbolic foods of the Passover seder are placed.

The holiday week

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 maccaroons and homemade candies.

The prohibition against eating leavened food products and regular flour during Passover results in the increased consumption of potatoes, eggs and oil in addition to fresh milk and cheeses, fresh meat and chicken, and fresh fruit and vegetables. To make a "Passover cake," recipes call for potato starch or "Passover cake flour" (made from finely granulated matzo) instead of regular flour, and a large amount of eggs (8 and over) to achieve fluffiness. Cookie recipes use matzo farfel (broken bits of matzo) or ground nuts as the base. For families with Eastern European backgrounds, borsht, a drink made from fermented beets, is a Passover tradition.

Some hotels, resorts, and even cruise ships across America, Europe and Israel also undergo a thorough housecleaning and import of Passover foodstuffs to make their premises "kosher for Pesach", with the goal of attracting families for a week-long vacation. Besides their regular accommodations and on-site recreational facilities, these hotels assemble a package of lectures, children's activities, tours and a "rabbi in residence" to entertain Passover guests. Each meal is a demonstration of the chefs' talents in turning the basic foodstuffs of Passover into a culinary feast.

Counting of the Omer

Beginning on the second night of Passover, the 16th day of Nisan, Jews begin the practice of the Counting of the Omer, a nightly reminder of the approach of the holiday of Shavuot 50 days hence. Each night after the evening prayer service, men and women recite a special blessing and then enumerate the day of the Omer. On the first night, for example, they say, "Today is the first day in (or, to) the Omer"; on the second night, "Today is the second day in the Omer." The counting also involves weeks; thus, the seventh day is commemorated, "Today is the seventh day, which is one week in the Omer." The eighth day is marked, "Today is the eighth day, which is one week and one day in the Omer," etc.

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Omer was an actual offering of a measure of barley, which was offered each day between the 16th of Nisan and the eve of Shavuot. Since the destruction of the Temple, this offering is brought in word rather than deed.

One explanation for the Counting of the Omer is that is shows the connection between Passover and Shavuot. The physical freedom that the Israelites achieved at the Exodus from Egypt was only the beginning of a process that climaxed with the spiritual freedom they gained at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Another explanation is that the newborn nation which emerged after the Exodus needed time to learn their new responsibilities vis-a-vis Torah and mitzvot before accepting God's law. The distinction between the Omer offering—a measure of barley, typically animal fodder—and the Shavuot offering—two loaves of wheat bread, human food—symbolizes the transition process.

Seventh day of Passover

Shvi'i shel Pesach (the seventh day of Passover) is another full holiday, with special prayer services and festive meals. (Outside the land of Israel, Shvi'i shel Pesach is celebrated on both the seventh and eighth days of Passover). This holiday commemorates the day the Israelites reached the Red Sea and witnessed both the miraculous "Splitting of the Sea" and the drowning of all the Egyptian chariots, horses and soldiers that pursued them. According to the Midrash, only Pharaoh was spared to give testimony to the miracle that occurred.

Hasidic Rebbes traditionally hold a tish on the night of Shvi'i shel Pesach and place a cup or bowl of water on the table before them. They use this opportunity to speak about the Splitting of the Sea to their disciples, and sing songs of praise to God.

Sept 2005 - 2014 - Kosher Recipes - Kosher Cooking - Jewish Cooking - Jewish Recipes - Jewish Foods