An Introduction to Passover Traditions

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

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.

The history 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 Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, to free the Israelite slaves and was rejected repeatedly. So Moses warned Pharaoh 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.

The Seder tradition

After sundown the night before the first official day of Passover, Jews conduct the Seder, a special ceremony during which they retell the story of their ancestors' 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 Pharaoh'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 Pharaoh. 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.

Passover traditions - Passover rituals and meaning: wine and matzah
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The Seder can last several hours, but, while lengthy, it's not intended to drag—even for those with shorter attention spans. "One of the goals is to engage children in a dialogue about the meaning of the festival," says David Arnow, Ph.D., author of Creating Lively Passover Seders. "There's a longstanding history of doing amusing things to keep kids interested," including singing a variety of Passover songs at the end of the Seder.

The mood also lightens as the Seder progresses. "At the beginning [of the Seder], it is serious and somber because the participants recall the cruelty of Pharaoh's enslavement and infanticide," explains Rabbi Nathan Laufer, author of Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder's Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah's Story Retold. "But as the [telling of the] story proceeds and the Jewish people are liberated, the mood turns happy."

The Seder meal

The Seder is followed by a festive Seder meal, which varies greatly among households, but may include chicken, salmon, or beef brisket. However, you'll never find challah or any other bread made with yeast on the table. Instead, Jews consume matzah, a flat, cracker-like unleavened bread.

"The Israelites fled Egypt so quickly, the bread dough had not had a chance to rise," explains Steven L. Jacobs, author of The Jewish Experience. "Thus the matzah, or flat bread, became the staple and has evolved into all different kinds of products made with matzah meal, or unleavened dough." In fact, some Jews take it a step farther and refrain from eating any food containing grains, corn, rice, and legumes for the duration of Passover.

Passover FAQs

If you want to know more about Passover and the etiquette around it, get the answers to some of the top Passover questions here.

What is Passover?

Passover (or Pesach) celebrates when the Jews were freed from Egyptian slavery. In the Bible, God visited 10 plagues on the Egyptians, while "passing over" Jewish households.

When is Passover?

Because Passover changes according to the Jewish lunar calendar, it's on a different date every year. It's usually celebrated in March or April.

When does Passover start and end?

Passover usually lasts for seven days, though some celebrate for eight. Passover 2023 begins on the evening of Wednesday, April 5, and ends on the evening of Thursday, April 13.

How do I send Passover greetings?

You can start simply with a "happy holidays," "happy Passover," or just "thinking of you" or "best wishes." You could also use Hebrew greetings like "chag sameach" (happy holidays) or "chag Pesach sameach" (happy Passover).

What is afikomen?

To help keep kids entertained during the Seder ceremony, a small piece of matzah is hidden. The lucky child who finds it gets a small gift.

What should I bring as a Seder guest?

If you're lucky enough to be invited to a friend's Seder meal, a traditional host or hostess gift would be appreciated, though you may want to keep in mind the Passover traditions like not using leaveners (so skip the baked goods). Wine, which is part of the celebration, is a lovely gesture.

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