Passover (Pesach)

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is a major Jewish festival, held each spring to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt over 3000 years ago. The strict observance of this festival centers around a home celebration called the seder (a word meaning “order”) and meal; the prohibition of any leaven; and the eating of unleavened bread, called matzah.

Passover begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan, which can fall in either March or April. During the first and second evening of Passover, Jewish families gather with their close friends to read from a book called the Hagaddah, which literally means “the telling.” This book contains the prayers, rituals, Scripture readings and songs for the seders. The holiday is a special time to remember God’s work in providing freedom and deliverance for the Jewish family.

Dates for Passover

Hebrew Dates: 15 Nisan
5776
15 Nisan
5777
15 Nisan
5778
15 Nisan
5779

Gregorian Dates:
(begins sundown, evening before)

April 23-30
2016

April 11-18
2017

March 31 - April 7
2018

April 20-27
2019

 

History

The story of the Passover is found in the Bible in the book of Exodus, as the Israelites are blessed with freedom from their enslavement in Egypt. After generations of slavery, God leads Moses to go to Pharoah and demand that the Israelites be set free. Pharoah refuses and God disciplines Pharoah and the Egyptians by bringing down a series of ten plagues upon the land.

At the end of each plague, Pharoah toys with allowing the Israelites to leave, but always decides against it, realizing the amount of free labor that was benefitting his kingdom. The final plague touched the Pharoah and the Egyptians deeply – the death of every first born male. The tragedy was so great that Pharoah reluctantly agreed to free the Israelites.

The name Passover comes from the story of how the Israelites were spared from the effects of the tenth plague. They were instructed to take a year-old male lamb without blemish and prepare it to be a part of an elaborate meal. Without breaking any of its bones, the lamb was roasted and eaten along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The entire family was gathered together and the meal was to be eaten quickly, while dressed for a journey.

Some of the blood from the lamb was painted to the frame of the outside door to the house. That night the angel of death “passed over” any home to which the blood of the lamb had been applied.

Even with the intensity and severity of the plague, Pharoah eventually regrets his decision and, along with his armies, gives chase to the Israelites to the Red Sea. Following the instruction of God, Moses stretches forth his staff over the waters, parting the Sea and allowing the people of Israel to escape on dry land. The waters then returned, crushing the Egyptians.

The celebration of the Passover is a seven-day observance in Israel and certain other locations, such as America. The first and last days are considered holy days and are legal holidays. These days consist of no work, prayer and special meals. The days in between are known as “Weekdays of the Festival.”

Outside of Israel the festival is observed through eight days. The additional day dates back to the days of the Babylonian Exile (around 700BCE ). At that time, religious leaders notified the people of the beginning of the holiday through an elaborate network of fires set on the top of strategic mountains. To guard against the possibility of error, an extra day was added to many of the festivals. Even though dependable calendars and methods of communication exist, the process and tradition remains a staunch part of the Jewish law and shapes the practice of many outside of the boundaries of the nation of Israel.

Customs and Rituals

There are several commandments which are unique to the celebration of Passover. These can be seen in the following rituals: matzah or the eating of unleavened bread; maror, the eating of bitter herbs; chametz, the abstention from eating leaven; b’iur chametz, the removal of leaven from the home; and haggadah, the participation in the seder meal and the telling of the Passover story.

The seder finds its origins in a number of biblical passages. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of the lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. Also, three passages in Exodus (12:26-27; 13:8, 14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) describe the duty of the parents to tell the story to their children.

Funerals, Shiva, and Jewish Mourning During Passover

According to tradition, the funeral may be conducted during the Intermediate Days of Passover, in the Hebrew Hol HaMoed.  In Israel, Passover lasts for seven days with the first and last days being major Jewish holidays. According to Orthodox and Conservative traditions, no work should be performed on those days. The seder ceremony is held on the first nights of Passover. Outside Israel, Passover may be held eight days, with the first and last two days being held more holy.

The Jewish burial, in a traditional context usually takes place within twenty-four (24) hours after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences is welcomed.

A public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. In Judaism, there is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation, but there are defined and structured Periods of Mourning. Today, Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends and the community are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness and considered a mitzvah (good deed).

After the burial, the first period of mourning begins called shiva. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family stays home from work, refrain from public appearances, and do not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support. Visiting a shiva home to pay respect is called making a shiva call.

Normally, one would not sit shiva or observe traditional mourning rituals during the week of Passover. Shiva generally begins after the conclusion of the Passover Festival.

Rabbis have long understood that strict adherence to these regulations could be emotionally stressful for the mourners and close family members. If people should visit those in mourning during the Intermediate Days of Passover, they are generally welcomed and not turned away. After Passover, the mourner should observe at least one whole day and a small portion of the next day for formal mourning. Along with the reverence of the final day of Passover, the mourner would then observe three days of formal mourning. During the last four days, the mourner should try to practice modesty in public out of respect for the family and their loss.

Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, it is encouraged that a Rabbi is consulted for proper procedures for mourning during Passover. The Rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture when offering guidance.

Remembering Loved Ones During Passover (Yizkor)

On the last evening of Passover there is a prescribed time to commemorate and reflect upon deceased loved ones. The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year and considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased. Because Passover is such a time of remembrance and family, it is very appropriate to honor deceased family members. Often, family members create lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials. 

Within the Jewish faith the tradition of inscribing ones name in the book of life is a common philosphy. As such, a few of the most common ways to commemorate loved ones are lighting a yizkor (yiskor) candle, planting a tree in Israel, a permanent marker (i.e., Name Plaque). Other meaningful and appropriate ways to appropriately memorialize loved ones include the creation of a Plaque and Memory Page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is an appropriate way to show honor and respect for the deceased.