Matza factory
Matza factoryIsrael news photo: Flash 90

Passover (Pesach) will take place this year between sunset on Monday, March 25, and sunset on Monday, April 1. The first and seventh days are marked as Sabbath-like holy days (Yom Tov) in which work is forbidden.

Jews outside of Israel, and those visiting Israel only for the holiday, observe an additional day in both the beginning and end of Pesach, which lasts eight days for them.

On this evening, the enslaved Jews were freed from Egyptian bondage after the Ten Plagues forced King Pharaoh of Egypt to listen to Moses and Aaron's call to "Let my people go!" The best known name of the holiday is Passover, to commemmorate the passing over of the Jewish homes during the plague that killed each Egyptian firstborn son. The holiday is also known as the Holiday of Matzahs, the Holiday of Our Freedom and the Holiday of Spring.

Jews are commanded to tell the story of leaving Egypt as if it had happened to them personally and not as a mere historical event, in order to emphasize the importance of our hard-won and precious freedom.

The government of Israel sold its “chametz,” leavened bread, to an Arab before the holiday in order not to transgress the commandment of not owning any chametz during the holiday. This includes any food product that contains leavened wheat, oat, barley, rye, or spelt products.

After a search for remaining chametz in houses Sunday night, Jews burn it the following morning, several hours before Pesach begins. Not a drop of chametz is allowed to remain in Jewish hands during the entire holiday, so that each family sells its own chametz for the week as the government does.

Dishes also are changed for the holiday or were made kosher through a procedure that depends on what material they are composed of. Glassware dishes can be koshered for Pesach by cleaning, leaving them unused for a period of time and then dipping them in water. Metal, if completely cleaned, is dipped in boiling water and prior to the holiday, large vats of boiling water are manned by people at various locations for that purpose. Not all materials can be made useable for Pesach and a rabbi should be consulted with any questions.

In the absence of leaven, Jews will eat specially prepared unleavened bread, or matza, on Pesach, as was done at the Exodus, when the Jews did not have enough time to wait for dough to rise before leaving Egypt.

First-born males over 13 are required to fast on the day before Passover – in commemoration of the fact that first-born Jewish males were spared when first-born Egyptian males were killed during the tenth plague – but may be released of this obligation by participating in a special festive meal, like the ones that accompany the conclusion of study of a tractate of the Talmud or a circumcision, on the morning before Passover.

The traditional Seder is held Monday night – Monday and Tuesday nights for Jews outside of Israel. The guide for the Seder is detailed in the Haggadah, literally "narration," which relates the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

A plate placed on the Seder table contains several special foods: a roasted egg, symbolizing the special holiday sacrifices which were brought in the Temple; a roasted shank bone, recalling the Passover lamb offered and eaten by every family in Jerusalem in Temple times and brought in Egypt right before the Exodus; a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon known as charoset, symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used to make bricks; sprigs of parsley and lettuce, symbolizing spring; a bitter herb symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; and salt water, recalling the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. There are additional explanations for some of the symbols.

Three whole pieces of matza mark the division of the Jewish people into priests (Cohanim), Levites and the general population are also placed on the table. There are also other explanations for this custom, as there are for almost all of the customs.

During the course of the Seder, the Ten Plagues are recalled. When each of the Plagues is mentioned, each participant dips a finger into his/her cup of wine and removes a drop; even though the Jews were oppressed in Egypt, we are reminded that we must not rejoice over the Egyptians' suffering. Our cups of wine cannot thus be full.

Four cups of wine are drunk at specific parts of the seder, to remember the four words symbolizing redemption that appear in the Biblical Exodus narration.

One of the more popular Seder customs for children concerns the afikoman, a special piece of matza that is the last food eaten during the Seder. The head of the household customarily hides the afikoman somewhere in the house, and the children then search for it. Once found, the afikoman is "ransomed," since the Seder cannot continue until the afikoman is eaten. This helps to keep the children focused on the Seder and to pique their curiosity regarding the entire Passover epic.

On the morning of Monday March 26, festive prayers, including a prayer for dew during the spring and summer, and special readings, will figure prominently in synagogue services.

During the intermediate days, between the first and last days, special prayers also are recited in synagogue. In Israel, all of Pesach is an official holiday for schools and most government offices and vacationing families fill the national parks and museums, many of which are free.

Jewish tradition maintains that the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army occurred on the seventh day of Passover, but even though Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, Jews nevertheless do not rejoice over the death of the Egyptians in the sea and only an abridged version of Hallel (Psalms 113-118) – a holiday prayer – is recited after the first day of Passover.

On the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Passover (Saturday March 30), the day's special readings will include the Song of Songs and Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

From the evening prayer ending Tuesday March 26, Jews will keep a nightly count of the 49 days (seven weeks), until the evening of Tuesday, May 14, one day before the holiday of Shavuot. This count commemorates the Temple offering of the omer, or sheaf of new grain, in keeping with the Biblical injunction of Leviticus 23:15-16.

Maimouna – an informal, yet widely celebrated holiday which originated among the Jews of North Africa, particularly those from Morocco – will be celebrated immediately after Passover, from sunset on Monday April 1. According to custom, families prepare elaborate tables with various sweets and baked goods, and host friends and family members. Whole neighborhoods often close as celebrations spill out into the streets and parks.