Our ancestors originally arrived to live in Egypt in order to escape the harsh famine in the land of Canaan. At first, the Children of Israel lived peacefully and prosperously in Egypt. After Joseph, his brothers, and that generation died, a new king was appointed Pharaoh of Egypt. This Egyptian king made the Children of Israel into his slaves. Israel’s lives were made miserable with back breaking labor. all their labors that they performed with them were with crushing harshness. The hardships Israel endured were almost beyond human endurance. Israel prayed to G-d that He relieve them from the cruel slavery. G-d remembered His covenant with Israel’s fathers. He sees a young Hebrew, Moses, who has a passion for justice. Speaking to him from a burning bush, G-d summons him to leadership.
Moses is delegated to go to Pharaoh in the name of the G-d of the Hebrews and demand their release. Pharaoh adamantly refuses to release the Jews from bondage. Pharaoh does not recognize the G-d of the Hebrews. The Almighty then makes Himself known to the Egyptian tyrant and his people by a series of plagues, one more damaging than the other. The tenth plague breaks down Pharaoh’s resistance. He acknowledges the G-d of the Hebrews and grants permission for their freedom.
Israel is told to prepare for the momentous day of leaving Egypt. The Children of Israel are given the command regarding the Passover sacrifice, as a symbol of their readiness to follow Moses into G-d-given freedom. G-d passes over the houses of these faithful Jews, as He smites the first-born of Egypt. The signal is given and a mighty host of six hundred thousand men, with their wives, children and possessions leave, forever, the land where for two hundred and ten years, they and their fathers had suffered humiliating servitude.
Pharaoh is reluctant to let this mass of slaves escape his rule. He chases them with horse and chariot. On the eve of the seventh day after their departure, the Israelites see before them a turbulent sea. Behind them is a furious host of Egyptians. G-d fights for his people. He parts the water of the sea, giving Israel a path to safety, while the hosts of Pharaoh meet a watery doom. Israel rejoices in the salvation of G-d and breaks forth in a song of praise. This is my G-d and I will declare His praise, my Father’s G-d and I will exalt Him.
It is to these happenings that we are transported by the tender and beautiful ceremonies of Passover. They help us relive the momentous events that gave birth to our nation. Truly, as the Haggadah says, Each one must regard himself as if he himself had gone forth from Egypt. For only he who observes the laws written in the Torah and expounded by our Sages, for the celebration of Passover, can recapture the historic significance of the Exodus for Israel.
Although Passover begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan; our sages tell us that one must begin studying the laws of the festival thirty days before Passover. On the Sabbath preceding or concurrent with the first day of the month of Nisan, we add to the regular weekly portion of the Torah, the portion for the month of Nisan, which contains the detailed laws of the Passover festival. The Sabbath preceding the festival is known as Shabbos HaGadol, the Great Sabbath, when the Rabbi of the community delivers a special lecture dealing with the ritual and significance of Passover. Shabbos HaGadol marks a great miracle that occurred on the tenth of Nisan for the Jews who were preparing for the Exodus. The Jews were commanded to offer a lamb as a sacrifice. When the Jews prepared for this sacrifice by taking lambs, the Egyptians who worshipped the lamb as a god, were greatly angered and wanted to lash out at the Jews who were preparing to kill their sacred lambs. G-d performed a miracle for the Jews and afflicted the Egyptians to a point where they had no strength to harm the Jews.
Another great miracle was performed for the Jews on the tenth of Nisan, which is commemorated on Shabbos HaGadol. When the Jews took lambs into their living quarters, the firstborn of the Egyptians asked them what they were doing. The firstborn were told that the Jews planned to sacrifice these lambs in anticipation of the final plague when G-d would kill all the firstborn Egyptian males. Afraid for their lives, the firstborn begged Pharaoh to free the Hebrews, so that their lives would be spared. When Pharaoh refused to comply with this request, the firstborn began to kill other Egyptians in a violent fit of frustration, that because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness they were destined to die. This explains why the verse in Psalms says: Who struck the Egyptians with their firstborn, meaning that the Egyptians were attacked by firstborn Egyptians, as opposed to saying:Who struck the firstborn of the Egyptians, which would have only implied that G-d struck the firstborn Egyptians.
A Jew doesn’t begin preparing for the Passover Holiday until he knows that his fellow Jew has the means to celebrate the festival. Immediately after Purim, the leaders of the community are charged with the task of collecting funds for the benefit of the poor, to whom the preparation for Passover is an economic strain. These funds are traditionally known as Ma’ot Chittin; money for wheat, since the principal purchase made for Passover was that of wheat for Matzah.
The Torah says that fermented food is forbidden on Passover. The Sadducees did not accept the Oral Torah, and therefore interpreted everything in the Torah literally. They therefore declared that all fermented foods are forbidden on Passover. In order to make a clear demonstration that Sadducees were wrong and that we live our lives according to the dictates of the Oral Torah, many maintain the custom of pickling vegetables before Passover, to be eaten on the holiday. According to the oral tradition, the prohibition of fermented foods applies only specifically to grain. Pickled vegetables, which have undergone the process of fermentation, are permitted on Passover.
There are two key words in the regulations for Passover; chametz and matzah. The Torah informs us that the departure from Egyptian slavery came about so hastily, that our ancestors didn’t have time to prepare their bread in the usual manner, but were compelled to bake it before it became leavened. Thus, as they set out on their march to freedom, they ate matzah, unleavened bread. On Passover it is a positive commandment for Jews to eat matzah and a negative commandment not to eat leavened bread, chametz. Foods about which there is even a suspicion of chametz may not be eaten, for the minutest amount of chametz renders an entire product forbidden.
We are commanded neither to eat nor to have in our possession any form of chametz, for eight days of the festival. Scrupulous care must be taken in preparing for this holiday, for foods about which there is even a suspicion of Chametz may not be eaten.
DEFINITION OF CHAMETZ
Foods made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt or from their derivatives of any kind (including such products as alcohol and vinegar), are considered chametz. The only exception is matzah and matzah products made under strict Rabbinic supervision especially for Passover use; this being prepared in such a manner as not to allow any rising of the dough.
Kitniyos are legumes such as soy and kidney beans, peas, corn, rice, mustard, string beans and sesame. Even though these foods are not chametz, they and products containing them are not allowed to be consumed on Passover by Ashkenazim (of European descent) Jews. Sephardic (Spanish, Portuguese, Oriental), Jews are allowed to eat Kitniyos on Passover.
There is a positive commandment to remove chametz from one’s home as the Torah states: ‘By the first day (of the Festival) all chametz shall have been removed from your home.’ There are also two negative commandments regarding chametz, as it says in the Torah: ‘You shall not see and you shall not have in your possession.’ When the Torah speaks about removing Chametz, it means that one must consider any chametz that he owns as useless and worthless as dust. In addition to nullifying and disowning one’s chametz, our Sages rule that one must conduct a thorough search for any chametz that might be in his possession. Our sages teach that it is only after one searches for chametz in his house and removes it, that he is able to nullify it with sincere intent. Our Sages also command us to search all areas that Chametz might have been and remove it from one’s possession, in addition to nullifying it, for another reason. Since people are accustomed to eating Chametz year round, if the Chametz were to only be declared ownerless, but left in the house, a person might forgetfully come about this chametz on Passover and eat it. The physical searching for and removing of chametz, must be accompanied by declaring his chametz ownerless. This way, if he overlooks any chametz in his search, he will not be violating the transgression against owning chametz on Passover.
Every home should be thoroughly cleaned during the weeks before Passover. Every place where chametz may have been brought must be cleaned. Closets, cabinets, cupboards, desks, cars, furniture, bookcases etc. should be inspected. Even the pockets of clothing and books that are commonly used during eating should be searched. The final formal search is conducted the night before Passover eve. The head of the household conducts the search by the light of a candle. He checks all the places that have been cleaned already, even though he knows that there isn’t chametz there. He must check any place where there is a possibility that chametz might have been brought. Even rooms in the house such as the attic and bedrooms, where food is not normally eaten, must be checked, as there is a possibility that someone might have unintentionally brought food in there during the course of the year. After the search, the head of the household must formally renounce ownership of any undiscovered chametz in his possession. All chametz that is still in one’s possession, must be burned the next morning, before the deadline announced by the Rabbi. After the burning, the head of the household makes a final declaration, declaring that his chametz is nullified and ownerless.
If one cannot dispose of all of his chametz before the approach of Passover or if a person owns a considerable quantity of chametz, which if disposed of, would cause him a big financial loss, he may arrange for a sale of the chametz to a non-Jew. All of the chametz in one’s possession should be collected and stored away. Additionally, one should store away all of the dishes and silverware that he uses for chametz throughout the year, unless he intends to make those utensils kosher for Passover. The chametz in the dishes and silverware are also sold to the non-Jew. You should then authorize your Rabbi to draw up a bill of sale and negotiate the transfer to a non-Jew. The transaction is a completely legal one, giving the non-Jew all right of ownership over the chametz that has been sold to him. After Passover, the chametz is repurchased from the non-Jew.
DISHES AND UTENSILS
Since we are not permitted to have any trace of chametz in our food during Passover, special attention must be given to dishes and utensils. It is of course best to use utensils especially set aside for Passover use. However, under certain conditions, some of the utensils used throughout the year, may also be used on Passover. They must be ‘kashered’ or prepared in a special manner for Passover use. China, plastic dishes and earthenware cannot be kashered. Utensils with glued-on handles or containing dents that cannot be cleansed properly cannot be kashered. The laws of kashering are many and varied. In all cases, when kashering becomes necessary, consult your Rabbi.
PREPARING OVEN FOR PASSOVER USE
According to the most lenient opinion the following steps will make the oven suitable for Passover use. The oven should be thoroughly cleaned. After waiting a days time, the oven should be heated to the highest temperature for at least two hours. Finally, the racks should be covered with heavy aluminum foil or changed. For other opinions regarding this matter, or further details about the process of kashering an oven, ask your Rabbi. A self-cleaning oven may be kashered by setting it to self-clean for two hours. The door and frame of the oven are not exposed to the heat of the oven in the process of kashering; therefore, they should be scrubbed and covered with aluminum foil.
The stove top can be kashered by placing the grates over the lit burners for at least 10 minutes. Consult your Rabbi for more specific guidelines and varied methods regarding this process.
In order to kasher a stainless steel sink one should clean the sink thoroughly, not use it for a days time, and finally pour boiled water over the sink.
All processed foods and food products to be used during Passover, require the certification of a recognized Rabbinic authority. This is to insure that no chametz went into the processing or ingredients and that the production was done in equipment especially ‘Kashered’ for Passover. Please note that besides such products as matzah, cakes and macaroons, Passover certification is also required for such items as candy, soft drinks, wines, liquors, milk products, canned and dried fruits.
The Orthodox Union’s Passover certification on the label of a product means that this product is officially supervised and certified for Passover use, by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Products bearing the OU only, without the Passover certification, are not kosher for Passover.
The Passover Seder
The Passover Seder begins with Kiddush. The head of the household declares the day’s sanctity over a cup of wine. G-d is blessed for lovingly ‘giving us appointed times for gladness’ ‘this Feast of Matzos”in memoriam of the Exodus from Egypt.’ At the end of Kiddush, every adult participating should drink the first cup of wine. After Kiddush, a vegetable dipped in salt-water is eaten. This is done in order to arouse the children’s curiosity. We want the children to realize that this Passover meal is unlike any other meal during the year. Then a piece of Matzah is broken. Half of the matzah is put away to be eaten as a final course. The other piece of matzah is lifted and then Maggid, the story of the exodus from Egypt, is begun. The matzah is pointed to and we say that this matzah is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate while in the process of leaving Egypt. The youngest present then asks the four questions, which begin with an introductory question; why is this night different from all other nights?
The four questions are followed by the declaration that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. We thank G-d for freeing us from the Egyptian slavery. If we hadn’t been freed, we would still have been slaves today. It is stated that on the Seder night we are obligated to tell about the Exodus from Egypt. We recall how the Egyptians caused us bitter suffering, by imposing hard labor upon us. We then called out to G-d, asking that he save us and relieve us of the torture. G-d heard our prayers and he then proceeded to take His people out of Egypt. The Egyptians were hit with ten destructive plagues. When all of the first-born Egyptians died, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Jews go. We thank and praise G-d for taking us out of Egypt. We conclude Maggid by praying to G-d that he give us the merit to offer the appropriate Passover sacrifices in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem. At the end of Maggid, the second cup of wine is drunk.
The Seder meal is begun by eating matzah. When we eat Matzah we are reminded of the Exodus from Egypt, when our ancestors were so rushed, that they didn’t have time to let their doe rise. They therefore ended up eating flat-bread, matzah. Eating matzah is followed by eating maror. Ground horse-radish, and Romaine lettuce leaves or stalks may be used for maror. The root of the word maror is mar, which means bitter. This reminds us of the fact that when we were slaves in Egypt, the Egyptians embittered our lives with back-breaking work.
The Seder meal is served. Grace after meals is followed by drinking the third cup of wine. We then continue to thank and praise G-d, by chanting paragraphs from Psalms. The Seder is concluded by drinking the fourth cup of wine. We pray that we will merit celebrating Passover in Jerusalem next year.