An Overview of Pesach

By Leibel Estrin




Pesach celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation with the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah calls Pesach z’man cheiruseinu, the “season of our freedom.” Chassidus explains that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. It is related to the word metzarim meaning “limitations.” On Pesach, G-d granted the Jewish nation the ability to rise above and beyond the limitations of the natural world. This is true historically. For example, Mark Twain wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality[1]?

On Pesach, G-d also granted the Jewish nation the ability to rise above and beyond the spiritual limitations. In fact, the word Pesach means “to skip over.” It typically recalls the time when    G-d “skipped over” the houses of the Jews in Egypt and killed the first-born among the Egyptians. But Pesach also hints to the Jews ability to make spiritual leaps in one’s conduct and service.

According to Kabbalah, Pesach is composed of two Hebrew words that mean, “the mouth speaks.” On one level, the slavery of the Jewish people prevented them from being able to praise G-d. On Pesach, the Jewish people, and their ability to speak, were liberated. On a deeper level, the mouth speaks refers to the sefirah of malchus, kingship. A king rules through his decrees. When the Jewish people were in exile, the Egyptians prevented them from worshipping G-d. As a result, G-d’s sefirah of malchus was also in exile. Once the Jewish people became a free nation, they were able to follow the decrees of the King of Kings without interference. In a sense, the sefirah of malchus was redeemed with them.

Preparing for the Holiday

In general, many people start preparing for a holiday at least 30 days before it occurs. At that time, they begin reviewing the laws of the upcoming festival. While this is true of all holidays, it is especially important for Pesach because of all its laws.

For example, we are forbidden to possess any type of leaven (called chometz) or leavened product on Pesach. This includes bread, crackers, cereal, alcoholic beverages, and dozens of other food products. Even the tiniest amount is prohibited[2]. Therefore, we begin “cleaning for Pesach” many weeks before the holiday. To avoid any problems, it is the custom to have a separate set of dishes for Pesach. We put chometz in out-of-the-way places so that we “forget” that we transferred ownership during the holiday. We clean clothes, suitcases, books, cars, or any other place that might contain chometz. We also contract with a competent Rabbinic authority to sell any chometz we possess to a non-Jew.

By the day before Pesach, one’s dwelling should be free of chometz. To make sure, we search for chometz at night. Some communities have a custom to “hide” ten pieces of bread or other chometz so that the person searching for the chometz will actually find something. (The 10 pieces of bread symbolize the 10 sefiros from the side of unholiness.) On the morning of Pesach, we remove these pieces and any other chometz from the house and burn it.

From approximately 9:30 A.M. the day before Pesach[3], we avoid eating chometz. About an hour later, we should stop benefiting from chometz in any manner and not possess any chometz at all. (If these deadlines are missed, consult your rabbi immediately.)

During the day of Pesach, we avoid eating matzoh, as well any of the other foods on the seder plate, such as eggs, apples and nuts, onions (or potatoes), etc.

All first-born males should fast on the day of Pesach to recall the tenth plague in Egypt. It killed all the Egyptian firstborn, while sparing the first-born of the Jews. Many communities have a custom to finish a tractate of the Talmud and have some food after. Since participating in this event is a mitzvah, we may associate with it because a first-born, who de facto broke the fast, is no longer obligated to fast.

Pesach evening begins with the holiday prayers. Some communities follow the evening services by reciting psalms of praise, known as Hallel. After services, everyone hurries home to enjoy the special Passover meal called the Seder. (All the foods necessary for the Seder should be prepared before Yom Tov to avoid halachic questions.)

The Seder

The Hebrew word Seder means “order” and refers to the 15 parts of the meal:

Kadish – Kiddush over wine

Urchatz – Washing hands before eating Karpas

Karpas – Eating vegetable onions (or potatoes)

Yachatz – Dividing the middle matzah, saving part for later

Maggid – Reciting the Haggadah

Rochtza – Washing the hands before the meal

Motzi – Blessing over matzah

Matzah – Special blessing over mitzvah of eating matzah

Maror – Special blessing over mitzvah of eating bitter herbs

Korech – Eating matzah and maror together

Shulchan Oruch – Eating the yom tov meal

Tzafun – Eating the afikoman, part that was saved for later

Barech – Grace after meals

Hallel – Saying psalms of praise

Nirtza – Prayer that our Seder was acceptable before G-d

Every part of the Seder has deep meaning and symbolism. To helps us understand and experience the seder, we read a special book called the Hagadah. It recounts the events and miracles associated with the liberation from Egypt. (The word Hagadah means “telling.”)

According to Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Moses originally wrote the Hagadah to teach his children the story of Pesach. Over the centuries, the sages added sections to emphasize certain points. The Hagadah ends with the words “Next year in Jerusalem,” meaning that by this time next year, we should be celebrating the Seder in Jerusalem.

Here are some of the lessons associated with the Seder:

During the Seder, we use three matzos. They correspond to our Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many communities only use special shmurah “guarded” matzah on Pesach. To avoid the possibility of chametz, special precautions are taken to guard the wheat from touching water from the time of reaping.

In addition to the matzah, we drink four special cups of wine during the Seder. Wine symbolizes freedom and happiness. The four cups of wine correspond to the four expressions found in the Torah: And I brought out- And I delivered- And I redeemed- And I took. Yet there is a fifth expression of redemption used in the Torah: And I brought. This refers to the ultimate redemption. Since our sages say that the Prophet Elijah may be given the honor of announcing Messiah, we call the fifth cup of wine, the Cup of Elijah in his honor. (We don’t drink the wine from this cup. After the Seder, we pour it back into the bottle.)

The Seder plate holds many other symbolic foods. The chicken neck recalls the Pesach sacrifice that was offered in the Holy Temple. The egg recalls the holiday sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple. Horseradish (maror) represents the bitterness of slavery. The mixture of apples, nuts, and wine called charoses represents the mortar that the Jewish people used to make bricks for the Egyptians. The chazeres combines romaine lettuce and horseradish and also recalls the bitterness of exile. It is used to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah and moror together. Karpas is a vegetable that is dipped in salt water to arouse the curiosity of children and guests at the Seder table. On one hand, dipping into a condiment is a sign of wealth. On the other hand, we dip the vegetable into salt water which represent the tears we shed in slavery and exile.

At the end of the meal, we eat the afikoman “set aside” matzah. The afikoman (at least 2 ounces per adult), reminds us of the Pesach Sacrifice that we ate during the times of the Holy Temple.

By the way, when the Jews left Egypt, they couldn’t wait for their dough to rise. The flat, tasteless matzah was called lechem oni, “bread of a poor person.” On a deeper level, matzah symbolizes selflessness. According to the Zohar, matzah is known as “the food of faith” and the “food for healing” because it connects us to Hashem, who is the source of all blessings, including heath.

[1] Twain, Mark, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900).

[2] When we refer to chometz, we speak about dough that has the ability to rise.  Spiritually, it refers to one’s ego. Before Pesach, we must get rid of our self-centered desires, because this is the only way to unite with the Jewish people, and ultimately, to G-d.

[3] Check the Hebrew calendar for exact time in your location.

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