When is Passover? What you need to know ahead of the Jewish holiday

Each April, the past and present mingle during Passover, one of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Passover, or "Pesach" in Hebrew, is an eight-day (or seven in Israel) celebration that commemorates the Jewish people's escape from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Though the story behind Passover took place thousands of years ago, the annual holiday celebration ensures that the events of the past are not forgotten.

Passover involves several traditional events that honor the history of the Jewish people. During the first two nights of Passover, a Seder meal is hosted, which includes ritual blessings and symbolic food and drinks.

At the Seder, a book called the “Haggadah” is recited to recount the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt to the promised land.

“The Seder is all about stimulating the curiosity of everybody to ask questions, and thereby keep the tradition alive and cultivate love,” Rabbi Benny Berlin from Bachurei Chemed (BACH Jewish Center) in Long Beach, NY, tells TODAY.com.

Additionally, Passover customs require several changes to daily life.

During Passover, observant Jews forgo leavened grain and bread products. Instead, these foods are replaced with matzah, an unleavened cracker or flatbread.

Some households also refrain from working, driving, and using electricity.

Keep reading to learn more about the history of Passover, how Passover is celebrated and when you should celebrate this year.

When is Passover in 2024?

This year, Passover begins on Monday, April 22 at sundown and ends on Tuesday, April 30 at sundown.

While the date in the English calendar changes each year, the holiday always falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan through the 22nd.

The second night of Passover also marks the beginning of a 49-day period called the Omer, during which observers are expected to count the days according to the ancient custom of thanking God for the harvest.

The Omer concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai.

What is the history of Passover?

The Passover story comes from the Book of Exodus in the Torah.

Thousands of years ago, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt and forced to labor by the Pharaoh.

When God heard of this, he sent the prophet Moses to convince Pharaoh to free the Jews.

Moses asked Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh refused, causing God to send down ten plagues. The first nine plagues included the Nile River turning to blood, infestations of frogs, lice, and flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.

For the last of the ten plagues, God asked the Jews to sacrifice a lamb or goat and smear its blood on their doorposts as a way to show that their house was Jewish. Then God went through all the houses and killed the first-born son of every Egyptian house, passing over the Jewish homes. In Hebrew, Passover is called Pesach, meaning "to pass over.”

This last plague pushed Pharaoh to set the Israelites free. Since they had to leave quickly, they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. This is why Jews eat matzah, a flat, unleavened bread, and refrain from eating grains on Passover.

The Pharaoh and his army attempted to pursue the Israelites as they left Egypt, but Moses parted the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to escape.

The Passover holiday both celebrates the freedom of the Israelites and commemorates their suffering in Egypt.

How Passover is celebrated today

Preparing for Passover

In the weeks before Passover, many families thoroughly clean their houses to ensure that no crumbs of bread products or leavened food (chametz) are left in spaces where meals are eaten.

Passover meals are served and eaten off of special dishes that have had no contact with chametz.

Matzah, which contains no leavening agents, is traditionally made from the flour of one of five approved grains: wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oat.

Additionally, members of more observant communities abstain from working on the first two and final two days of Passover and refrain from driving, using electricity, lighting fires, and spending money.

The Passover Seder

It's customary for a Seder (Hebrew for "order") meal to be held on the first two nights of Passover. In 2024, the Seder will take place on April 22 and 23.

“The Seder starts off with the ritual blessing on the wine, and then ends with the conclusion that the next year should be in Jerusalem,” Berlin says, adding that a traditional Seder includes 15 steps.

Passover Seder includes reading the Haggadah (which recounts the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt to the promised land), drinking four cups of wine, and singing and eating symbolic foods. During the meal, the children recite four questions, which all aim to answer the overarching question: What makes this night different from all other nights?

  1. On all nights we need not dip even once, on this night we do so twice?

  2. On all nights we eat chametz or matzah, and on this night only matzah?

  3. On all nights we eat any kind of vegetables, and on this night maror?

  4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline?

"During the Seder there is also a hiding of the matzah called the Afikoman which is basically again another way to engage the interest and excitement of children," Berlin says. "A piece of the matzah is hidden and then once it's found and there's a prize for those who find it."

At the meal a dish called the Seder plate is placed on the table. "The Seder plate itself is filled with rituals and filled with symbolism," Berlin says.

There are six foods on the plate each with a different meaning.

Passover Seder Plate (Marina Moskalyuk / Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Passover Seder Plate (Marina Moskalyuk / Getty Images/iStockphoto)
  • Matzah represents the unrisen bread.

  • Zeroa (shankbone) represents the lamb that was sacrificed on the eve of the exodus from Egypt.

  • Beitzah (egg) represents a pre-holiday offering that was brought to the temple.

  • Maror and Chazeret (bitter herbs, often horseradish) represents the bitterness of slavery.

  • Charoset (a traditional Jewish dish made of apples, pears, nuts and wine) represents the bricks made by the Jews as slaves.

  • Karpas (vegetables) represents the hard work of the Jews as slaves.

Aside from the Seder plate, people munch on other beloved dishes, from matzah ball soup to brisket.

One of the final Seder steps is pouring a fifth cup of wine and opening the door for the prophet Elijah.

"There's four cups of wine that are drunk at the Seder throughout the various different parts of the Seder and then there's one cup left for Elijah, the prophet, to symbolize the future redemption," Berlin explains.

No Chametz

During Passover, it's customary to give up any food made with rising agents or leavened grain. Chametz, as it's called, refers to any food that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water.

Yes, that means you can’t eat your favorite cake, cookies or bread for the duration of the holiday, but there are many alternatives you can make with matzah.

"Some people, traditionally those from more of a Sephardic, which means Mediterranean, eat legumes whereas people from the Ashkenazi, or the European custom, traditionally don't," Berlin says.

Why is Passover important?

Since Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, it’s a holiday of celebration, rejoicing, and remembrance.

"Passover is important because it's all about passing on our tradition to the next generation," Berlin says, adding that many people use this time to connect "their suffering and their pain with the suffering that the Jews went through in their Egypt."

In many ways, it's a time when the past, present and future meet. "It's a powerful tradition of connecting with the Jews in the past, how they suffered and were liberated, and then also experiencing whatever suffering you have in your life and how you're liberated today."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com