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Passover: The Festival of Freedom
Yosef Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman

Passover is the pre-eminent Jewish home holiday (although going to synagogue the first and last days is also traditional). Passover is the holiday that commemorates our redemption from slavery and our exodus from Egypt. Moses the shepherd is chosen by God to approach Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Israelites. Pharaoh refuses.

After 10 famous plagues, the Israelites are allowed to go. They leave in haste and arrive at the banks of the Red Sea as Pharaoh changes his mind again. The final showdown ends dramatically when the sea splits in two, the Israelites walk through the sea-bed to safety, and the Egyptian army drowns as they attempt to follow the Israelites through the suspended waters.

The ritual most observed by American Jews, according to surveys, is not lighting Hanukkah candles or fasting on Yom Kippur, but attending a seder -- a festive spring meal full of symbolism and good food -- on Passover. The Passover seder has endured and evolved, carrying with it some ancient symbols, ethnic foods, and bold universalistic declarations wrapped in the particulars of the Jewish experience. It also has remained in the mind's eye of most Jews as the nostalgic centerpiece of warm and crazy memories of Jewish family gatherings.

Perhaps the leading factor for Passover's super-status is -- what else? -- food. In Passover, more than any Jewish holiday, we have the complete melding of food, ritual and symbolism, and thus of body and soul.

Seder Traditions

Five items are traditionally placed on a round Seder plate:

  1. The shank bone symbolizes the "strong hand and outstretched arm" with which God redeemed the Israelites from bondage.
  2. The roasted egg symbolizes fertility and continuity.
  3. The bitter herb (often horseradish) symbolizes the bitterness of slavery.
  4. The parsley is a symbol of spring and rebirth.
  5. The charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts and wine) symbolizes the mortar with which our ancestors in Egypt laid bricks for Pharaoh.

We drink four cups of wine or juice in the course of the seder. There are different understandings of what the four cups symbolize. One common interpretation is that the four cups represent the four phrases used by God in promising to free us from bondage: "I will bring you out," "I will rescue you," "I will redeem you," "I will take you (to be my people)." (Exodus 6:6-7)

As we recite each of the 10 plagues that God sent against the Egyptians, we remove a drop of wine from our cups to decrease our joy. After all, God's creatures suffered in the process of our liberation. Similarly, we read in the Haggadah that when the angels rejoiced at our safe passage through the Sea of Reeds, God reprimanded them saying, "My children have suffered, and you rejoice?"

Everybody has a role at the seder, which generally occurs on the first two evenings of the eight-day holiday. Actually, there is no prohibition against having additional seders (sedarim) on Passover, so new seders (sedarim) are constantly proliferating. In our family, we have three seders (sedarim). The first two are for immediate family. Then the extended family gets together on the Saturday afternoon/evening of Passover.

There are also feminist seders (sedarim), led by the likes of Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin; peace seders (sedarim) with Arab-Americans and with African-Americans; interfaith seders (sedarim) with Christian groups; gay and lesbian seders (sedarim) and seders (sedarim) for vegetarians. Seders (sedarim) like these have special potential to highlight parallels between the Passover story and modern struggles for justice and liberation from various forms of oppression. Regardless of who is in attendance and what common interests brought them together, each one centers around a version of the Haggadah, the book of tales and blessings that guides the seder.

Children have a special role in the seder. A child recites the Four Questions and then they search for the Afikoman, a piece of matzah (unleavened bread) that is hidden by one of the adults, to be ransomed off by the kids when it is found.

The evening can be a long one, though, so if you have children under the age of 10, either get a babysitter or assign an adult to supervise the kids as they begin to poop out.

Too many seders (sedarim) end early, or never start up again after the Afikoman. Even though your children may not make it past the meal, they will see that it is important to you to complete the seder. It also gives you an opportunity for uninterrupted adult questions and discussions that could range from current events to what each participant wants to be liberated from in his/her own lives.

Passover marks our miraculous redemption from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot commemorates our covenant with God that was defined when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Through counting the Omer (the days between Passover and Shavuot), we articulate the direct connection between these two events, building our sense of anticipation as we move from the day of freedom to the day of when the purpose of that freedom is unveiled. Because Shavuot was also the ancient barley harvest, we call the 49-day countdown, counting the "Omer" ("barley").

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