For many people, Passover — also known in Hebrew as Pesach — is all about the matzah. Often a square-shaped cracker made simply of flour and water, matzah is the “bread of affliction” that Jews eat to remember the Exodus from Egypt and redemption from slavery.
However, Passover, which begins tonight, is much more than avoiding leavened foods such as bread, pasta and cereal for eight days. It also combines several ancient festivals with the theme of rebirth to celebrate the transition to spring.
In the agrarian society wherein the Torah was written, spring was a time for the first lambs to be born and for the first grain to be harvested. Following the Exodus that comes at the end of the Passover story, the Jews began their journey as a nation to receive the laws on Mount Sinai. In the present day, spring is the time for cleaning, and Jewish families work very hard to remove all leavened foods, down to the smallest crumb.
“The Torah calls Passover, ‘the Holiday of Spring,’ and this is the basis for aligning the Jewish lunar calendar with the solar calendar system, for otherwise Passover would also fall in other seasons,” explains Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic of Congregation Ahavath Zion in Maplewood. Of course, as he points out, “Passover is never in the spring in the southern hemisphere. At the time the Torah was given, most if not all Jews lived in the northern hemisphere and so the ‘Holiday of Spring’ term is not universal.”
The Passover seder literally means “order,” and this highly-choreographed meal is the holiday’s central observance and one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals. Passover takes place in the Jewish month of Nissan, traditionally considered to be the first month of the new year, and the seder is full of rich symbols related to the start of spring. Just as the flowers are beginning to bloom and the days are growing steadily longer, the Passover seder echoes what is happening in nature.
“Everything from the ritual of cleaning to the whole celebration of rebirth and renewal helps us as a nation and as individuals to recognize our blessings and the gift of freedom,” said Rabbi Francine Roston, spiritual leader of in South Orange. “The majority of Jews, no matter their religious tendencies, celebrate Passover,” said Rabbi Roston. “They sit around the table and celebrate life and spring. It resonates with people on a basic level.”
Unlike Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays that center on the synagogue, Passover observances mostly take place in the home, with the seder being the primary ritual observance. With this, parents have a unique opportunity to teach their children about the history and traditions.
“The purpose of the seder is for kids to ask questions and everything is an opportunity to ask,” said Rabbi Roston. There are plenty of great haggadahs (booklet telling the Passover story and rituals) and books for kids of all ages about Passover.
Kveller, a Jewish parenting website, offers sample seders, recipes, activities and even songs on their Passover site.
The seder plate features several elements related to springtime. First, the karpas (a green vegetable, usually parsley) quite literally represents the reawakening of the land as the long, cold winter finally ends, and many people plant seeds during the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) in January, so that they have lots of parsley ready in time for Passover.
Next, the z’roa, a roasted lamb shank bone, symbolizes both sacrifice the Jews made before leaving Egypt and the birth of the first lambs of the season. Finally, the beitzah, a roasted egg, is round and it signifies the cycle of life, much like the colorful eggs that are part of the Easter tradition. To commemorate both the z’roa and beitzah, families eat a hard-boiled egg and/or lamb during the Passover seder.
With its powerful themes of redemption and new beginnings, Passover provides an important lesson for all of us, said Rabbi Roston. “Just as the earth goes through hibernation, we go through hard times in our lives, and then we have moments of celebration as we do with Passover.”
Services at in Short Hills will be Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. with a congregational seder (with reservations) that begins Tuesday at 5 p.m.. Passover Yizkor Service will be Monday, April 25, 10:30 a.m.
In Livingston, will hold Passover : Friday, April 22, 8 p.m., Chol HaMoed Passover Service; Saturday, April 23, 10 a.m., Chol HaMoed Passover Service; and Monday, April 25, 9 a.m., Pesach/Yiskor Service.
Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston will also hold a Congregation Seder by prior reservation on Tuesday, April 19 immediately following 7:30 p.m. minyan. Services are today at 6:30 p.m.; Tuesday, April 19th at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, April 20 at 10 a.m.; Sunday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m.; Monday, April 25 at 9:15 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, April 26 at 6:30 a.m. ( early Yizkor) and 9:15 a.m. (Yizkor) and 7:30 p.m.
in South Orange will hold a Passover service Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. and its regularly scheduled meditation group on Wednesday at 11 a.m.