Quick! What the Hell is Passover?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | March 18, 2013 | 4 comments

Most Christians (current and cultural) are all too familar with the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus hosts his 12 disciples for one last meal before he’s crucified. What’s rarely made clear, though, is that Jesus’ final meal was quite likely a Passover meal. After all, the Jewish holiday of Passover was the reason Jesus had made his entrance into Jerusalem in the first place that year. Even if it wasn’t technically a Seder (pronounced SAY-der and referring to that day’s big feast), I have a hard time believing Jesus wasn’t inspired by the all-too symbolic Passover Seder when he asked his guests to eat bread as though it were his body, and drink wine as though it were his blood. That sort of thing is, as you’ll soon see, so very “Seder-y.”

Holiday: Passover

AKA: “Feast of the Unleavened Bread”

Religion Represented: Judaism

Celebrates: The exodus of the ancient Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.

Date: The 15th to 21st day in the Hebrew month of Nisan. In 2012, the date is April 6 to April 14. In 2013, it’s March 25-April 2.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Passover is about a 9, just under Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It’s one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.

Star of the Show: Moses

Back Story: The Torah’s Book of Exodus recounts the story of the ancient Jews (Israelites) who were living as slaves in Egypt. As the story goes, a cruel Egyptian pharaoh ordered all the Israelite’s eldest sons to be murdered, which infuriated God — who proclaimed that Israel was God’s firstborn son (making the Israelites his “chosen” children). God approached Moses at the legendary burning bush to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses accepted. “Let my people go,” Moses told the pharaoh over and over again. But the pharaoh refused, even after God infected all of Egypt with nine of 10 horrific plagues. The last and worst plague was that God would kill the firstborn sons of all Egyptians. (Nice guy, that Old Testament God.) He warned the Israelites ahead of time to put lamb’s blood in front of their doors, so the angel of death would know to “pass over” those houses and thus spare their sons. It was then that the pharaoh consented to let the Jews leave, and leave they did — so fast, Exodus tells us, that their bread didn’t even have time to rise. (Fortuitous, really, since crackers make much better travelers than bread, anyway.) When the pharoah changed his mind and ordered his army to recapture the Israelities, Moses (again, legendarily) parted the Red Sea with his magical staff, which led his people to freedom and drowned all pursuers in their wake.

Associated Literary Passages: Exodus 3:1-15:26; Leviticus 23:1-15Numbers 9:1-15, among others. Also: The Babylonian Talmud: Tract Pesachim; and the Union Haggadah.

The Food: It wouldn’t be Passover without unleavened bread, called matzah. But there are other symbolic foods, too: Bitter herbs (to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon (to symbolize the mortar Jewish slaves used to build Egyptian cities); a roasted egg (perpetual existence); vegetable (new life and hope); salt water (tears shed during slavery); and roasted lamb (the blood over the doorways). Oh, and observers must — must! — consume four glass of wine over the course of the dinner, which represent the four-fold promise of redemption.

The Fun: Specific Seder rituals are all laid out in the Haggadah. (And, yes, in case you were wondering, there is an app for that.) Observers eat and drink in a certain order; recite the Passover story; invite children to ask “four questions” about Passover; sing songs; and hide the afikoman, which is a piece of matzah in a napkin that the kids must find and then share with everyone. Observers also pour an extra glass of wine and leave the door open in case Elijah the prophet arrives. (Spoiler alert: He never does.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Because Passover was, in a sense, created to introduce Judaism to children, there are tons of cute Passover children’s book, some that focus on the back story, others that focus on the traditions of the Seder. Both kinds are absolutely worth checking out, although some are more “neutral” than others. I like Passover by Miriam Nerlove (and not just because it has a character called Aunt Maxine); Let my People Go by Tilda Balsley; and Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then by Harriet Ziefert.  You can always hold a quasi-Seder, of course, telling your child the Exodus story and then serving the symbolic food and talking about what each means.

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012.


4 comments

  1. Craig says:

    As someone raised Jewish, a more relevant question is what the Hell is Easter (or Christmas for that matter)? I know many of my friends (and school age tormentors) celebrated it, but to me it was just a time of year when the Catholic kids would come to school with renewed hatred of the Jewish kids calling us “Christ killers” and picking on us even more. And this was in NJ where there were more Jews than in most areas of the country. I cannot even imagine how horrible it would have been to be Jewish in Mississippi, Oklahoma, or even rural Ohio.
    I always knew what Passover was, and didn’t understand why the other children in my school didn’t. Now that I have outgrown the god part of Judaism, I still remember the rituals and even enjoy the occasional Seder (along with other Jewish celebrations). I think it is easier for Jew’s, especially Reform Jews, to get past god myths and realize how nonsensical they are partially because Christians have been so hateful to us in the name of god that it becomes clear that this god concept cannot be real. I think another reason is that Jews don’t believe in a physical Heaven or Hell, we are taught that it is not for us to know what happens when we die, and therefore we aren’t instilled with the same fear of dying while not believing.

  2. Heather says:

    The story of Passover never really struck me any particular way as a child growing up in a religious household. However, rewatching that movie “The Prince of Egypt” for a college class made me realize it really, really terrified me.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tVTEyuCKn4&feature=related

    I’ve got the shivers just watching that clip.

  3. Danny Ray says:

    Another essential point to understand in Judaism as explained to me by former fellow med student years ago who was Jewish.

    When does life begin in Judaism?

    When the embryo graduates from medical school!

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