What is Passover? Why is it celebrated? What you need to know about the Jewish holiday

Display the seder plate and hide the afikomen – Passover begins this week.

Passover, or Pesach, the Festival of Freedom, is a major Jewish holiday during the month of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, usually falling in March or April. The holiday is observed with formally structured seders among families, friends and communities, as well as other sacred traditions.

Passover “is one of the most widely celebrated of Jewish holidays,” Aaron Kaufman, executive director of Penn State Hillel, explained to USA TODAY. “It commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as told in the Bible.”

But what is Passover? Should you wish a Jewish friend or coworker a happy Passover? Here’s what you need to know.

When is Passover? What to know about 2023 dates, meaning of the Four Questions, more.

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When is Passover 2023?

This year, Passover begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 and ends on Thursday, April 13, in the United States. Many Jewish communities will hold seders the first two nights of the springtime holiday.

What is Passover?

Rabbi Benjamin Berger, vice president of Jewish education at Hillel International, said Passover is known as the “festival of freedom.”

“It's a celebration of not only the freedom of the Jewish people emerging from slavery in Egypt, and a tradition that is about remembering, and really putting ourselves in the shoes of those slaves and those who experienced the release from bondage, but also it reminds us of the freedom of all people,” he said.

“Anyone who's experiencing oppression of some sort, whether it's external, from other people, or internal, from our own sense of the things that oppress us internally,” he added.

The Festival of Freedom: Passover recalls Jews' release from enslavement in ancient Egypt

Passover is based in the Book of Exodus in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), which details the life of Moses and his mission from God to demand freedom for the Israelites. The Egyptians' repeated refusals to free them results in a series of 10 plagues, and miracles at the hand of Moses.

Rabbi Maya Zinkow, senior Jewish educator at UC Berkeley Hillel, told USA TODAY Passover "celebrates the movement from slavery to liberation."

"So, we commemorate the time when the Jewish people really became a Jewish people. It's really the story of the birth of our peoplehood,” she said.

How is Passover celebrated?

Jewish people observing Passover will often gather for a seder, which Kaufman called “the ritual combination of service and dinner.”

Some Jewish families or groups will display a seder plate, the “centerpiece” of seders that hold symbolic foods marking the holiday, Zinkow said. For example, maror, or bitter herbs, represent the bitterness of slavery.  

Seders involve moving through a book called a Haggadah, which contains stories, prayers, poetry and other teachings.  It is based on God's instructions in Exodus 10, "That you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son the mighty things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord."

Children are encouraged to take an active role during the Passover Seder, including recitation of The Four Questions.

But different families or communities will use different Haggadahs during Passover. Zinkow explained that during Passover “we are really meant to envision ourselves as a part of the story. And the thing that helps us do that is the Haggadah.”  

A 1936 Maxwell House Haggadah sits on a desk alongside a Seder plate in this March 2011 photo. Each item on the Seder plate has a significance in the story of Moses and Passover as told in the Book of Exodus.
A 1936 Maxwell House Haggadah sits on a desk alongside a Seder plate in this March 2011 photo. Each item on the Seder plate has a significance in the story of Moses and Passover as told in the Book of Exodus.

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“Every single Haggadah will have the same general order of events. Every single Hagaddah is going to have the same central component, but they each have a different take on the story,” she noted.

“And so if every single Jew is obligated to see themselves as a part of the story, the Haggadah is meant to help us do that, right? So, a feminist Hagaddah can help women see themselves as central to the story. A queer Haggadah can help queer people locate themselves in a story.  All kinds of communities, from marginalized communities to people who have maybe no trouble seeing themselves as a part of the story,” she added.

What are the Four Questions?

The guide books for the Passover seder known as the Haggadah has a section much beloved by the younger attendants: the Four Questions.

During this portion of the dinner, the youngest child present (who can read) is tasked with reciting four quandaries to the larger group. Known in Hebrew as 'Mah Nishtanah,' these questions are:

  • On all other nights, we eat chametz (leavened foods) and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?

  • On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror (bitter herbs)?

  • On all other nights, we don't dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?

  • On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?

In a call and response format, after each question is asked the remaining dinner guests respond, explaining to their younger, less wise counterpart how the traditions came to be.

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

Many Jews during Passover do not eat certain leavened foods, known as chametz. Kaufman explained that the dietary changes “reflect the plight of the Israelites as they left Egypt,”

Matzo, an unleavened bread, “is the key and most well-known symbol of Passover,” Berger said.

Kaufman explained that “As the story goes, the Israelites had to leave Egypt so quickly, they didn't have time to bake their breads.”

“They needed provisions for the long journey through the desert. So they had their dough, and they just threw it in their packs, and it baked on their backs in the heat of the sun into this flat cracker-like substance,” he said.

Berger noted that “we call it the bread of affliction in order to commemorate that experience."

"But at the same time, we also call it the bread of freedom because our ability to sit wherever we sit in the homes that we sit in around the table, and actually to eat it in a way that satiates us,” he added. “That is considered one of the greatest luxuries because it means that we're alive, and we have the ability to eat in freedom.”

The Sedar plate is used to display six symbolic foods that help retell the miraculous story of Moses and the Passover as recorded in the Book of Exodus. The foods are:

  • Three pieces of matzoh, or unleavened bread, to represent the ancient Israelites breaking the shackles of slavery; and to recite the blessings required on Passover and other holidays. The three matzoh also represents priests, Levites and Israelites, and commemorates the story in Genesis when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and bread was hastily baked for their visit.

  • Parsley, or karpas in Hebrew, represents the slaves' back-breaking labor. It is dipped in salt water, representing the slaves' tears.

  • The Beitzah, a hard-boiled or roasted egg, represents the life cycle and the meat sacrifices brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem prior to the holidays. The egg is eaten after it, too, is dipped in salt water.

  • The lamb shank or bone represents the lamb sacrificed and eaten on the eve of the Exodus. The lamb's blood was used to mark the Israelite slaves' doorposts so that the final plague − death − would "pass over" their homes.

  • Bitter herbs, or "maror," traditionally consists of horseradish or romaine lettuce stems, and recalls the bitterness of the Israelites' experiences in captivity.

  • Charoset is a blended mixture of apples, pears, nuts and wine. It represents the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used in building for their Egyptian masters.

Popular Passover dishes include roasted chicken, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, potato kugel, candied carrots and rack of lamb.

Matzo, kugel, and plenty more: 5 Passover recipes to whet your appetite

Sacred foods and dramatic storytelling: The joyous feast of Passover Seder

What is the afikomen?

The afikomen is also part of many seders.

“At the beginning of the seder, one part of the ritual is there's three pieces of matzo on the table, and one is broken in half and set aside, and that becomes afikomen. And it is the last thing we eat at the Passover seder meal,” Kaufman said.

In some families, the afikomen is hidden. Sometimes parents hide the piece of matzo, and children search for it. But in other families, children are in charge of hiding the afikomen while parents have to look.

Should I wish someone a “Happy Passover” or other greetings? Is it appropriate to say "Happy Passover"?

If you want to greet a loved one who is celebrating Passover, “Happy Passover” is an appropriate sentiment.

You could also say “chag sameach,” which means happy holiday in Hebrew, or chag kasher v’semeach, which means have a happy and kosher Passover.

Pronounce the "ch" in these words with a strong H sound, like in "Loch."

Is Passover the same week as Easter and Ramadan?

This year it is.

Jews, Christians and Muslims all use different calendars and methods of determining important holidays, and sometimes they overlap.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew 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 the two calendars don't quite match up. The Hebrew calendar moves forward about 11 days every Gregorian year.

When is Easter 2023? What else should I know about the spring celebration?

Determining the date of Easter has been complicated.

The date Easter was originally celebrated was right after Passover began, on 16 Nisan, whatever day of the week that happened to be. In the West, Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, the day the Bible says he rose, the first Sunday after 14 Nisan. Then at the First Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325, the Church broke away from the Hebrew calendar and established that Easter was to be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, meaning Easter could be any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one and prohibit Easter from being celebrated before or at the same time as Passover, so their Easter celebration is usually a little later than the dates celebrated by Protestants and Roman Catholics.

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What is Shavuot?

During Passover, a 50-day period begins called the Omer. At the end of it, Jews celebrate Shavuot.

According to the Jewish faith, Shavuot celebrates the time when Moses received the 10 Commandments and the Torah by divine revelation — for Christians, in this case, the Torah would be considered the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament — on Mount Sinai.

"The giving of the Torah was a far-reaching spiritual event—one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times," explains Chabad.org. "Shavuot also means “oaths,” for on this day G‑d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him."

Jews who observe the holiday of Shavuot typically self-reflect during the 49-day "Counting of the Omer" period and work on their spiritual growth.

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Contributor: Anna Kaufman, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: What is Passover? When is it in 2023? Should you say happy Passover?