Passover For Dummies

And by “dummies,” I mean me. While millions around the world celebrate Easter this Sunday with prayers and a deep reverence for what the holiday means to them, millions of others will be visiting their local temple before sitting down to a Seder dinner and recounting the biblical story of Exodus, and how the Israelites fled Egypt to escape slavery.

Most of what I know about Passover stems from the 20-something Seder dinners celebrated with my family when I was a kid. While I know more about it than Easter, I’m still a little fuzzy about both, so I decided to dig up some facts (www.chabad.org) about Passover before sitting down to a traditional Seder dinner with friends and relatives this weekend.

While I do know the Easter story about the crucifiction and resurection of Jesus Christ,  I’m  pretty sure there is great significance to some other Eastery things I don’t comprehend. Like the bunny. And the basket. And the chocolate eggs. At the same time, friends ask me yearly about the mysterious Seder plate and what it all means, and I’d like to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

Traditionally, the plate is in the center of the table and the items on it are symbolic, held up during the meal to represent the story of Exodus, when tens of thousands of Israelites fled Egypt to escape slavery in 1300 BCE. According to the Hebrew Bible, it took 40 years for the wandering Jews to reach the “promised land.” Like any good adventure story, the trip was rife with trials and tribulations. There are six foods on the Seder plate, including the “bitter herbs,” that symbolize the bitterness and harshness of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt. The sweet brown mixture (charoset) was my favorite as a kid and is usually made with chopped nuts, grated apples, cinnamon and the ever-present wine. Its significance relates to the mortar and brick used by the slaves to build the pyramids (yeah, it wasn’t aliens) while still enslaved in Egypt.

Another green leafy vegetable, often parsley, represents hope and renewal, and is dipped in salt water at the beginning of the Seder. The water that drips from it is symbolic of the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves. Interesting, right? The only element of meat on the plate is a roasted shankbone, symbolizing the paschal lamb (Passover sacrifice) that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. I recently learned that vegetarians often substitute a beet or sweet potato, referred to as the “paschal yam [sic].” Apparently, that’s a thing now.

There’s an important egg for Passover, too, which serves double duty, representing the destruction of the Temple (when roasted) and eaten as the first course of the meal, after being dipped in “tears.” The sixth item on the plate is also (IMHO) the most recognizable: Matzo. The thin, crisp, somewhat flavorless cracker signifies the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt. Pursued by the Pharaoh (who, by then, had changed his mind about letting Moses and his people go), they did not have time to properly prepare bread for the journey, instead eating an unleavened mixture of flour and water (yum!) that turned out hard and flat. But wait—there’s more!

A considerable amount of wine is consumed during the Passover dinner; each adult drinks four cups, representing the redemption of the Israelites from slavery. Wine, considered a “royal” drink, symbolizes freedom—consumed both during the Seder dinner and “the four questions,” yet another tradition, intended to educate the youngsters on all things Pesach.

By now, you likely have a better understanding of how a traditional Seder dinner can take several hours (uh-huh) to get through. By the time we kids got to search for the afikoman (pieces of matzo hidden throughout the house), there were often, like many holiday celebrations, inebriated adults, at least one argument, and actual, honest-to-goodness tears shed by my mother, slumped over the kitchen sink. According to my internet search, there’s a “second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) on May 19, which is supposed to follow 30 days of house cleaning. Uh oh.  It occurs to me that I’ve never had Easter dinner at anyone’s house, (perhaps my invite got lost in the mail), which might explain why I’m ridiculously ignorant about that “other holiday” that had me envious when I was a child; all I saw were Easter baskets brimming with eggs, jelly beans and the ever-present giant chocolate bunny, which I still don’t get. I guess I should look it up.

Is it okay to wish someone a “Happy Passover?” You bet - For everyone else, Happy Easter to you!

 

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