This year, the eight days of Passover begin at sunset on the evening of April 22. This holiday commemorates a historical event, the Exodus, the freedom of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.
Before the holiday begins, houses are thoroughly cleaned, as with many New Year festivals. All traces of leaven (alcohol, bread, grain, cereal, cornstarch) are removed. A palm branch or feather is often used to brush the last crumbs out of the door, with the following words: “All leaven I have not seen or removed or that I don’t know about is hereby null and void and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
Sophie Trupin writes in Dakota Diaspora about how her family celebrated Passover while homesteading in North Dakota at the start of the twentieth century. She describes how her mother whitewashed all the walls and scoured the floors, scalded the cooking pots with hot water, and carried every piece of furniture down to the slough where she scrubbed them and left them to dry in the air.
At the ceremonial meal of the Seder, every food that is eaten is symbolic. The roasted lamb represents the lamb whose blood was smeared on lintels. This told the Angel of Death, who slaughtered the firstborn children of the Egyptians, to “pass over” the dwelling places of the Jews.
The unleavened bread represents the Jews’ hasty departure from Egypt – they had to leave so quickly the dough didn’t have time to rise. The bitter herbs (usually parsley, radish, onion, or horseradish) represent the bitterness of slavery and are dipped in saltwater so they taste of tears.
A special dessert made of chopped apple, nuts, cinnamon, and wine is said to stand for the bricks the Jews made in captivity. Eggs symbolize fertility. Each participant drinks four cups of wine during the ritual meal. A special glass is set aside for the prophet Elijah.
There are many Haggadahs, liturgies that structure the Seder. The ritual usually begins with lighting the festival candles, washing hands, eating the bitter herbs dipped in saltwater, and breaking one matzo.
Other traditional parts include asking and answering questions, retelling the Exodus story, singing psalms, eating the ritual food items, eating the regular meal, and – after the meal – reciting grace, more psalms, and closing songs and prayers.
Arthur Waskow, the author of my favorite book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, speculates that the Jewish holiday represents the fusion of two earlier festivals – one of shepherds held at the time of lambing, which involved slaughtering a lamb and smearing its blood on doorways, and another of farmers who prepared for the harvest of spring barley and wheat by clearing out all the sourdough, the starter dough used to make bread rise.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”