וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן, וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה: לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ. שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ--אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם
This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses... (Exodus 12:14-15)
Pesah is perhaps the most intricate, most expansive, and most enjoyable holiday of the Jewish calendar. Testifying to the dramatic message and power of this festival, the vast majority of American Jews come to a Passover seder, an evening modeled after the Greco-Roman symposium, featuring food, stories, and discussion and ideally experienced while reclining, as only free people can do.
In addition to Pesah, this holiday has three names: Hag HaMatzot, the Festival of Unleavened Bread; Hag HaHerut, the Festival of Freedom; and Hag HaAviv, the Festival of Spring, and it commemorates all of these things with rituals and symbols. The primary narrative, retold multiple times at the traditional seder, is the tale of the Exodus: God, assisted by Moses, led the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt and set them on the path to redemption in the land of Israel. Following the Egyptian Pharaoh’s refusal to let the Israelites leave and a series of plagues, the Israelites are instructed by God to sacrifice a lamb (the “Paschal lamb,” or Pesah in Hebrew) and eat it hurriedly on the night of the 14th of the month of Nisan, taking care to smear some of the lamb’s blood on the lintels of their homes. On that night, the Angel of Death passes over the Jewish homes so marked, taking the lives of all Egyptian first-borns in the final dramatic plague. His own son having succumbed, the Pharaoh is so wrought with grief that he orders the Israelites to be set free, and they depart in the middle of the night. It is our obligation to this day to recall these events on the night of the 14th of Nisan, and to eat the matzah, unleavened bread, to recall the haste of our ancestors.
“In every generation,” the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5) tells us, “each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.” The major theme of Pesah is freedom, and we commemorate freedom by reminding ourselves of slavery and the departure therefrom. As such, it is not enough simply to retell the story on the first two nights and have a glorious repast with a side of matzah, but also to prepare ourselves physically and spiritually by ridding our lives of hametz, all forms of five species of grain: wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and barley.
It is not enough merely to replace bread with matzah during the eight days of Pesah (yes, the Torah says seven, but for complex calendrical and historical reasons we in the Diaspora observe eight), but rather to avoid not only eating hametz, but also not to own it or profit from it or eat anything that may have come in contact with it. So strong is the imperative to recall our freedom that we should encounter this reminder at every meal or snack throughout the festival.
For much more information about Pesah, click here.
Click here for the Rabbinical Assembly’s Pesah guide (Ashkenazi).
Click here for a Sephardic Pesah Guide.