What is Passover? Many Jews honoring hostages from Israel-Hamas war in Passover Seders

As Passover approaches Monday, Jews around the country may be feeling the holiday more keenly than usual.

Passover, the most observed Jewish holiday, is primarily about Jews leaving a place where they were abused and unsafe. Known as the Festival of Freedom, it commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs.

Jews are feeling unsafe again. Antisemitism was already on the rise in the U.S. and it's become worse since the Israel-Hamas War, well into its sixth month. On Friday, Israel launched missile strikes in Iran in retaliation for Iran's drone attack last weekend.

"With so many Israelis brutally murdered on Oct. 7," Rabbi Elie Kaunfer wrote for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, "so many soldiers killed or wounded in battle, so many people — Palestinians and aid workers — dead or suffering in Gaza, we cannot simply celebrate as we did last year."

Some Jews are adding mirrors, flowers or yellow ribbons to their Seder plates to represent the reported rape and sexual assault of Israeli women held hostage by Hamas after the attack and the people still missing. Many will have an empty seat at the table, Deena Yellin of The Bergen Record reported, representing victims and hostages who can't celebrate with their loved ones this year.

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When is Passover 2024?

Passover begins before sundown on Monday, April 22, 2024, and ends after nightfall on April 30 in the United States.

In the Hebrew calendar, Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which will always be a full moon because the Hebrew months are tied to the lunar cycle. The calendar used most often everywhere else, the Gregorian calendar, is based on a solar cycle and because the two calendars don't quite match up, the Hebrew calendar moves forward about 11 days every Gregorian year.

What is Passover?

Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation, according to chabad.org.

The story of Passover comes from the Book of Exodus in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), which details the life of Moses thousands of years ago and his holy mission to demand freedom for the Israelites, who had been kept in slavery by the Pharaoh for 44 years. When the Pharaoh repeatedly refused Moses' pleas and ignored his miracles, God sent a series of 10 plagues against the land.

The final one slew the firstborn of every family in Egypt but passed over the houses of the Jews. Pharaoh first released them and then sent troops after them, but Moses led the Jews to freedom. Passover commemorates those events.

Passover is celebrated by more than six out of 10 U.S. Jews, more so than Yom Kippur, according to a 2021 Pew Research report.

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How is Passover celebrated?

Passover lasts for seven days. On the first and last days of Passover, work is not permitted. Many Jewish families will hold seders (festive, ritualized meals) the first two nights.

During Passover, many Jews do not eat certain leavened foods, known as chametz, because the fleeing Jews took only unrisen bread in their haste to leave Egypt.

The holiday begins with the Passover Seder, which combines food, prayer, teachings, songs and games for fellowship and to pass on the story to younger generations.

Seders involve moving through a book called a Haggadah, which contains stories, prayers, poetry and other teachings in Arabic and Hebrew, some with English translations. Jews are urged to imagine themselves as part of the story.

Some Jewish families or groups will display a seder plate with symbolic foods that mark the holiday. The youngest child present capable of it will ask the Four Questions or "Mah Nishtanah," starting with "Why is this night different from all the other nights?" for the rest of the people there to answer and educate.

The Seder takes place the first night for Jews inside Israel, and the first two nights for all other Jews around the world.

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What foods are eaten (or not eaten) during Passover?

Before Passover begins, Jewish homes are thoroughly cleared of all remaining leavened products before the holiday. That includes bread, pasta, beer, liquor and any other food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has been allowed to ferment and “rise.”

The Seder plate displays six symbolic foods that help retell the miraculous story of Moses and the Passover as recorded in the Book of Exodus.

One of them, matzo or matzah, unleavened bread, is broken to represent the ancient Israelites breaking the shackles of slavery (among other things). Pieces of it are eaten at different stages of the ritual. At the end, everyone must eat at least a small portion of matzo.

Hiding matzo and having children find it during the Passover Seder is a tradition for most Jewish families. Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times
Hiding matzo and having children find it during the Passover Seder is a tradition for most Jewish families. Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times

In some families, the remaining piece, called the afikomen, is either hidden for children to find or "stolen" by the children to be ransomed back.

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How is Passover changing this year to reflect the Israel-Hamas war?

The Passover Seder is heavy with symbolism and meaning and can be changed to acknowledge current events. Many Jews are adapting their usually joyous celebrations in light of the trauma of the deadliest single day for the Jewish community since the Holocaust.

Rabbanit Leah Sarna has suggested putting a mirror on the table to symbolize the 'perseverance of women traumatized in captivity," The Times of Israel reported, and one Jewish website, Adara Rituals, urges Jews to add pomegranates to the Seder plate “as a symbol of standing with Israeli women.”

The Jewish Women International is encouraging families to add flowers to their Seder plates, “as a way to stand in solidarity with the women of Israel — to honor the memory of those who we lost at the hands of Hamas and other terrorists, to give hope to those who survived, and to share our strength with those who are still held hostage.”

Rabbi Kaunfer suggested including only two matzo on the plate instead of the traditional three this year, so "instead of abundance we will feel absence," he said.

"I am not recommending a permanent change to the seder. But this is not a normal year," he said. "With more than 130 of our people literally in captivity, the shock of seeing fewer matzot at the table, when we are used to seeing plenty, is appropriate."

Many Passover Seder tables this year will include an empty seat to represent the hostages, a practice that has been done before for imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and others.

The Israeli nonprofit The Center has a guide to adapting the Passover Seder prayers and lessons to remember the hostages, called "Why is This Night Different?" and several groups have produced haggadah supplements to provide guides for families to talk about the attack and what has happened since.

And many Jews may not celebrate at all. “We can’t celebrate our freedom because we don’t have this freedom. Our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are still in captivity and we need to release them,” Alon Gat, the son of a woman killed in the Hamas attack, told PBS.

However, Rabbi Danielle Upbin argues in the Jewish Press of Pinellas County that "regarding the current crisis in Israel, no additional items are necessary.

"The traditional Passover Seder already speaks volumes," she wrote. "The Haggadah itself is a flavorful desertation on the dichotomy between destitution and resilience, darkness and light, captivity and freedom. The Haggadah calls us to read the current crisis into its pages."

Contributor: Anna Kaufman, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Israel-Hamas war affecting Passover Seders, rituals this year