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What Is Passover and How Is It Celebrated?

Passover is both the most-celebrated Jewish holiday of the year and the holiday voted most likely to elicit a groan. People groan when they consider Passover's dietary requirements. They groan when they think of all the preparations. They even groan when they remember how much they overate during Passover last year.

But the real irony behind the moaning, groaning, and kvetching is that in some ways this is exactly what you’re supposed to feel at this time of year. Passover is a celebration of spring, of birth and rebirth, of a journey from slavery to freedom, and of taking responsibility for yourself, the community, and the world. However, strangely enough, none of this taking of responsibility gets done without groaning. It was with groaning that the Hebrews expressed the pain of their ancient enslavement in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. It was with groaning that they called attention to their plight. So groan, already!

The Torah states that Jews are to observe Passover for seven days, beginning on the 15th of the Jewish month Nisan (usually in April). The first night always includes a special seder (ritual dinner). Plus, traditional Jews outside of Israel don’t work on either the first two or the last two days of the seven-day period. Outside of Israel, Jews celebrate a second seder on the second night of Passover.

You can think of Passover as honoring the renewal of the sun (it’s always on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox), or a time to step firmly into springtime. You can also think of Passover as celebrating the Jewish people’s “birth certificate” and “Declaration of Independence.” Or you can think of it as memorializing something that God did for the Jews 3,300 years ago.

However, to make any celebration or ritual truly meaningful, you must find a way to make it personal. Even Moses — and later the rabbis of the Talmud — recognized this when they instructed the Jewish people how to celebrate Passover. The key isn’t only to tell the story of the Exodus, or even to compare your life to the story of the Exodus, but to actually personalize the history: feel the feelings and experience the sensations of this journey. In this way, the Jewish people as individuals and as a people move forward. Everything a person does during Passover aids this process.

Jewish people have four Hebrew names for Passover, each pointing to a particular aspect of the holiday. The most common Hebrew name is Pesach, which is usually translated as “passing over,” as the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Jews in Egypt. (Killing the Egyptian first-born was the tenth plague, and it convinced the Pharaoh to release the Hebrews from slavery.) But there are three more Hebrew names for Passover: Chag Ha-matzot (“Festival of Unleavened Breads”), Z’man Cheiruteinu (“The Time of Liberation”), and Chag Ha-aviv (“Festival of Spring”).

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