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What Is Passover and Why Is It Celebrated?

Every spring, Jewish people around the world prepare for Passover. If you're wondering what makes this holiday different from all other holidays, we got the scoop on its significance and how it's observed.

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What is Passover?

You may know Passover only as the time when your neighbor, colleague, or friend eschews bread for matzah and ducks out of work early two days in a row for this thing called a "seder," but Passover is much, much more than a holiday of symbolic food. "Passover is celebrated in order to recall and appreciate the exodus of the Israelites after 400 years of slavery, as described in the Bible," says Rabbi Norman R. Patz. The story of Passover is also the dramatic story of Moses, who went head-to-head against the Egyptian Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised. It's a story that celebrates miracles, love, resilience, and freedom. Like the word Passover, these are the phrases you never knew came from the Bible.

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Why is the holiday called Passover?

The word Passover means pasach in Hebrew, an ancient language that goes back many thousands of years, according to the Ancient Hebrew Research Center. "Pasach means to 'jump over,' or 'skip over.' It refers to the 10th plague, during which the angel of death skipped over the homes of the Jewish people in Egypt, and spared their firstborn males, while killing the firstborn males in the Egyptian homes," explains Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman. "On a spiritual level, pasach refers to one's ability to ascend many levels of spirituality rapidly, over this holiday." Normally, Rabbi Bregman explains, a person is able to ascend a kind of "ladder of holiness" bit by bit, one rung at a time—by doing good deeds. During Passover, however, spiritual redemption is in the air, which he says allows one to ascend more quickly.

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Why no bread?

To prepare for Passover, families clean house from top to bottom to remove all traces of chametz (leavened food). The practice of not eating leavened food commemorates the speed with which the Israelite slaves raced to depart Egypt, without enough time for their dough to rise and become bread. "Not eating chametz during Passover is one of the 613 commandments in the Torah," explains Rabbi Bregman. Love it or hate it, here are 12 hacks to make matzah less boring during Passover.

Jewish Passover holiday Pesah celebration concept with matzoh, wine and seder plate over white background. View from above. Flat layMaglara/Shutterstock

How is Passover celebrated?

Passover takes place over an eight-day period everywhere around the world where Jewish people live. The exception is Israel, where it lasts for seven days. The holiday begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, usually in March or April. The holiday starts with families and friends gathering, two nights in a row, to eat a seder meal. "The word 'seder' means order. The Passover meal is an ordered meal, which includes reading the haggadah, the text that tells the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt," explains Rabbi Patz.

Although Jewish families have been holding Passover seders for years, some elements have changed over time. "The Biblical description of a seder is fragmentary. There is some evidence that early seders may have included marching around the room with a sack on your back. In the Morrocan Jewish community, they still have that custom. The seder we see today comes from a model of Roman style banquets, where people reclined. Reclining represents freedom and leisure. The idea is that only free people can sit when they eat. Now, we are free people, so we sit," he adds.

The haggadah is read by everyone around the table, in English, and in Hebrew, accompanied by song, laughter, pious remembrance, and of course, traditional foods. While everyone celebrates holidays a little bit differently, here are the 8 Easter traditions from around the world.

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What do people eat on Passover?

You can't have a Jewish holiday without melt-in-your-mouth traditional food, and Passover is no exception. There are many foods you can't eat, according to tradition, but what you can more than makes up for what you might be missing (at least until the last day or two).

In addition to matzah, the rest of your menu may be determined, in part, by your heritage. According to Tori Avey, Ashkenazi Jews—who hail originally from Russia, Poland, and Lithuania—eat foods such as brisket, gefilte fish, and matzah ball soup, but are forbidden to eat kitniyot, which includes beans, legumes, rice, peas, millet, corn, and seeds. Sephardic Jews—from Spain, Morrocco, Turkey and other locations on the Iberian Penninsula—on the other hand, eat freely of those foods throughout the holiday.

During the seder itself, all Jews traditionally have a "seder plate" with symbolic foods, including bitter herbs such as horseradish, which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and charoset, almost like a chutney made from apples, nuts and cinnamon, to represent the mortar the ancient Israelites used to build with bricks as slaves. Part of the seder involves drinking four glasses of red, sweet wine, to represent redemption.

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Passover is a great holiday for children

Children play a big role in the Passover seder. They are often called upon to act out a play about Moses and Pharaoh, or to make crafts based on the ten plagues. The youngest child at the table kicks off the story of Passover by asking, often in song, the Four Questions, in Hebrew, the mah nishtana. It includes the most well-known Passover question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

Children also get to hide a special piece of matzah, called the afikomen, which is saved to be eaten after the meal. The afikomen is significant in that it represents freedom from slavery, but to children, it also represents the prize, or treat, they will receive once an adult finds it. Passover is a joyous holiday, made all the more significant, by the special roles children play in it.

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It takes a miracle

The miracles of Passover are many fold, and have been the subject of debate for generations. Some modern-day people wonder, why do we not witness such miracles now? "The fact that an enslaved group could slip away from one of the most powerful tyrannies of ancient history is miraculous in and of itself," Rabbi Patz says.

And many "miracles" are actually pretty simple to explain, like the parting of the Red Sea. "The passage through the sea of reeds, what the Red Sea was then called, is easy to explain, from a historical point of view," explains Rabbi Patz. "The Israelites came from the inland part of the country, what we now call the West Bank. They had never seen the sea, or experienced tides before. They got to the sea bank at night, when it was dark. A strong wind was blowing. The water was 10 feet deep, and impossible to cross before the tide went out, but they got there during low tide. Add to that, the fact that in ancient times, people filled the shallow part of the sea with rocks, so they could walk across it during low tide. The Israelites got through, but the tide rushed back in, and the Egyptians didn't make it across. Is that a miracle? You bet it's a miracle. The Israelites thought they couldn't escape, and they did. The proof of it? The Jewish people are here today, able to tell the story." These are the 9 myths and legends about popular Easter traditions.

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A celebration of possibility and hope

Although Passover traditionally commemorates freedom from slavery in Egypt, slavery can take many modern forms. "Passover's relevance to today's world is centered significantly upon redemption," says Rabbi Bregman. "To the Jewish people, although the holiday marks a physical going free, the essence of Passover is to focus on becoming spiritually free. The chametz we don't eat represents the 'leavening' in us, meaning, the haughtiness and ego that prevents us from fulfilling our potential."

Rabbi Patz adds: "Passover celebrates the possibility and the hope that redemption is yet to be. I like this phrase in the book of Zachariah—'We are prisoners of hope.' We may not have many reasons to hope, but we are not giving it up. Jews are not optimists by nature. The key reason for celebrating Passover—that we were slaves and now we are free—is the assertion that there is hope for the Jews, and for humanity, and that there can be justice, mercy, and peace." Now that you're a Passover expert, check out the surprising things you never knew about Good Friday.