Wondering what your Jewish friends were up to last week when they missed class and skipped parties? Many of us – gentiles and Jews alike – know the story of the eight nights of Hanukkah, but we don’t spend a lot of time learning about Passover. Hanukkah is actually one of the less important Jewish holidays; if you want to learn about a really important holiday to the Jewish faith, take a look at this one! It’s regularly coincides with other springtime festivities – such as Spring Break and Easter – but that doesn’t make it any less important.

The Story

The story of Passover is one you may have heard before. Several thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians were holding the children of Israel (Hebrews) as slaves. Moses, a Hebrew, was a good friend of this powerful Pharaoh of Egypt, but was upset when he saw a slaver beating a Hebrew slave. He saved the Hebrew, killed the Egyptian, and fled.

During his time in exile, he strengthened his relationship with God, and came across a burning bush, which is often referred to as the Holy Spirit. From this experience, he gathered that God’s message was for Moses to return to Egypt as God’s servant, and save his people from the slave drivers.

Moses returns to Egypt, and demands the freedom of his people. Though he comes with the ability to perform impressive miracles, the Pharaoh doesn’t care, and doesn’t grant his wish. Finally, God sends nine devastating plagues to Egypt, each worse than the one before, but the Pharaoh still does not relent. Finally, God sends the tenth plague, which will kill the firstborn male of every family. Since Moses knows of this plague in advance, he warns the Hebrews to protect their children by placing a special signal over their homes. The signal is lamb’s blood on the doorpost, signaling to Death to “pass over” this home.

The Hebrews are finally freed, once the Pharaoh’s son is killed, and Moses and the Israelites flee Egypt. During this time, they rush out of their homes, making as much food as they can bring with them. They don’t have time to let their dough ferment into bread before they bake it, and unleavened Matzo bread is created. That’s the basic story as it relates to Passover. It’s really pretty interesting, and clearly defines where this holiday gets its name.

Today’s Celebrations

Nowadays, Passover really represents the enslavement of the Israelites, as well as their harried escape. This holiday extends for about 8 days (7 according to some calendars). It starts with Passover Seder, which is a kind of family dinner and service held at home on the first night of Passover. During Seder, there are certain items present on the “Seder Plate” with special significance, including the roasted shank bone of a lamb, representing the passing over of the Jewish homes. There are additional dietary restrictions for the entire duration of Passover, including the practice of eating unleavened bread, called matzah. In most traditional homes, all forms of yeast or leavening are avoided, including many kinds of alcohol. A very common beverage on the Passover table is kosher for Passover Manischewitz Concord wine, a fruity wine that is specially made with cane syrup for Passover. (Although, the regular “kosher” version does contain corn syrup, which the most observant avoid during Passover.)

Well, that’s the simple version of this very important Jewish holiday. In summary, Passover is named for the 10th plague of Egypt in which Death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, allowing them to escape slavery. Your Jewish friends probably celebrate by spending more time with family, eating Matzos bread, and drinking only kosher-specified wines. In many Jewish communities around the world, friends and family gather to celebrate the historical freedom of their ancestors. Any questions?