Passover, also known as Pesach, is one of the most important Jewish holidays, along with the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Passover celebrates the protection that God offered to the Jews during the time when they were enslaved in Egypt. Moses, an important figure in Jewish history, had asked the Egyptian pharaoh repeatedly to free the Jews from their servitude, and the pharaoh had refused. Because of the Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews, God brought ten plagues down upon Egypt: water was turned to blood, frogs proliferated, gnats swarmed, flies grew to great numbers, disease eradicated much of the livestock, people broke out in boils, fiery hail fell from the sky, locusts appeared and ate all the crops, and the land was covered in darkness. These plagues fell upon the Egyptians, but did not affect the Jews.
However, the final plague was that every firstborn son would die, whether person or animal. This is where the origin of Passover arises. The Jews were instructed to protect their firstborn children by making a mark on their doors with the blood of a specially slaughtered lamb; this meant that the final plague of the Angel of Death would pass over them, and the firstborn would be safe. After the last plague, the Jews were permitted to leave Egypt, led by Moses, and eventually made their way to the promised land of Israel.
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions all recognize the plagues of Egypt. Some people theorize that the Last Supper of Christian tradition was a Passover Seder feast and find symbolic resonance in this idea, especially since Easter and Passover are also celebrated around the same time of year.
Passover is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Nisan, starting on the fifteenth day (this is usually at some point in April). Families gather on the first night of Passover to read the story of the Jewish journey out of Egypt. This celebration is called the seder. The story (known as the Haggadah) is told over a feast of symbolic food such as wine, lamb, special herbs, egg, and matzo (unleavened) bread. The unleavened bread is a reminder of the conditions that Jews suffered under the rule of the Egyptians. This reminder is so important that families spend the days before Passover cleaning the house and removing leavened bread of any sort.
During the seder, children are encouraged to answer questions as the story is told, in order to give them a sense of their heritage and the importance of the Passover in Jewish life. A fun and festive part of the Passover seder is the hiding of the afikomen (a piece of unleavened bread which is the last thing to be eaten that night). Children find the afikomen and are usually rewarded with some small token.
Oftentimes, Passover seders are open to the larger community. To truly get a sense of this major Jewish holiday, consider attending one in your local community or at the house of a friend.