Each spring, Jews around the world celebrate the Feast of Passover, known in Hebrew as Pesah. We celebrate with multiple forms of engagement, including work restrictions, special foods, and special prayers. In the ancient world, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot in the autumn and Shavuot in the summer.

Passover has multiple roots in the ancient world; it is a holiday that celebrates the spring season, with rituals that celebrate the new grain crop and the newborn lambs in the sheepfold. One primary ritual marker of this agricultural history is the focus on the special treatment of flour, dough, and bread. Another is the paschal sacrifice, a family ceremony where each family/clan brought a lamb to the ancient temple for sacrifice, and then brought it back to the family for roasting and eating together on the first night of Passover.The best known “root” of Passover is the biblical story of the Exodus. Ancient Israelites, enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, won their freedom through Moses’ leadership and a series of divine miracles. The Bible commands the descendants of these Israelites to annually commemorate this Exodus by celebrating the Feast of Passover and especially by holding a Seder, an intergenerational meal in which the story of the Exodus is transmitted from adults to children through text, song, symbols and food. At the Seder, Jews feel commanded to internalize the Exodus story as if each of us were there, in person, having the personal experience of liberation.

So, what does Passover look and feel like? For the most part, Passover is a home-based holiday. One of the primary Passover regulations is that it is forbidden to eat or possess hametz. Hametz is wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt that has become moistened and begun to rise/become leavened. Therefore, only unleavened bread, or matzo, can be eaten as a grain product on Passover. Traditional Jews remove all hametz and potential hametz from their homes, conduct a vigorous cleaning of all surfaces, and avoid all products that “might” contain hametz during the holiday. Over the years, Jews from many different cultures have made creative adaptations to their Passover cuisine in order to have festive meals without using any hametz. The infamous “Matzo Ball” is an example of how you make soft, fluffy, delectable food out of bland, dry, hard, unleavened matzo.

At the Seder, eating and drinking symbolic foods is part of telling the story of the Exodus. Four cups of wine are sanctified and drunk. Matzo is eaten to recall that the Israelites had to hurry from Egypt and baked their journey-bread without having time to let it rise. Bitter herbs are eaten to recall the bitterness of slavery. Green vegetables are dipped in saltwater to memorialize the tears of slavery. Haroset, a mixture of nuts and fruit pounded into a paste is eaten to symbolize the mortar and bricks that were the product of slave labor in Egypt. Questions are asked and answered. Psalms are chanted and songs are sung. The 10 great plagues are recalled, and in sympathy with the Egyptians who suffered, we diminish our happiness by removing some wine from our cup for each one.

Passover is the Feast of Freedom for Jews but also for all people who suffer or suffered from slavery, tyranny and injustice. Passover reminds us that the ultimate aim of history is freedom and justice. Perhaps most importantly, we recall on Passover that while our servitude to Pharaoh ended at the crossing of the Red Sea, the Exodus led inexorably to Mount Sinai where the Bible tells us the ancient Israelites received the Torah and transitioned from serving a human Pharaoh to serving the divine God.

Andy Hoffman

Chief Operating Officer

Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston