Passover Traditions 101

Learn more about this essential Jewish holiday’s customs and rituals.

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In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-pitying Cameron sulks in bed and cries: “When Cameron was in Egypt’s land… Let my Cameron go”—a riff on the African-American spiritual song “Go Down Moses.” While it’s one of the movie’s more memorable comedic moments, the song actually references the Hebrew Bible story of Exodus—Moses’ liberation of the Israelite slaves in Egypt—commemorated every year during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Jews all over the world celebrate Passover for seven days (or eight, if they’re traditional Jews living outside of Israel) and, while the date varies annually, it’s always the same on the Jewish lunar calendar: the 15th day of Nissan, the first month of the Hebrew monthly calendar year, typically falling in mid-spring.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses asked the evil Egyptian leader, Pharoah, to free the Israelite slaves and was rejected repeatedly. So Moses warned Pharoah that God would punish Egypt with 10 plagues: frogs, boils, and hail, among others. God told Moses to alert the Israelites to mark their homes so He would know to “pass over” their houses when casting down the last plague—hence the holiday’s name.

After sundown the night before the first official day of Passover, Jews conduct the Seder, a special ceremony during which they re-tell the story of their ancestor’s liberation. During the Seder, family members read from the Haggadah, Passover’s own story book, and sing traditional holiday songs. A Seder plate containing five items—each a fundamental part of the ceremony and symbolic of an element of Exodus—sits on the table. There’s a spring vegetable such as parsley, which is dipped in salt water and eaten to resemble the taste of their ancestors’ sweat and tears. “Maror,” usually horseradish or romaine lettuce, serves as a reminder of the bitter oppression of slavery and Pharoah’s difficult-to-swallow decree to drown Israelites’ male infants. “Charoset,” a mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine, and honey, recalls the mortar Israelites used to build cities for Pharoah. And a roasted shank bone, which represents the Passover sacrificial offering, and a roasted egg, symbolizing rebirth and renewal, are always on the plate, though they aren’t actually eaten.

In addition, four cups of wine are drunk throughout the Seder. The wine symbolizes the four stages of redemption that the Israelites experienced. A fifth cup is set aside for “Elijah” and not imbibed; this cup represents the hope for future redemption.