Passover or Pesach, also known as the Festival of Spring or the Feast of Unleavened Bread – one of the most important and oldest holidays in the tradition of Judaism. This great celebration of freedom, commemorating the exodus of the Jews led by Moses from slavery in Egypt, also symbolises the announcement of the redemption of the world upon the coming of the Messiah.

The celebrations begin on the 15th of Nisan and last seven days in Israel and eight days in the Diaspora. The first two and the last two days are considered the most solemn in the Diaspora, while in Israel – only the first and the last day. The days in between are known as weekdays of the festival, during which light work is allowed.

Preparations for Pesach take many days. This results from the necessity to ensure that the entire household – kitchen, dishes, pots, and pantry – are kasher shel Pesach, i.e. suitable for preparing and celebrating Pesach. Characteristic for this holiday is a strict ban on eating or even keeping sourdough bread at home. Known as chametz (from Hebrew “leavening”), the definition has been extended to all acidic products (e.g. vinegar), foods obtained by fermentation (alcohol distilled from cereals, grape and fruit wines), and products that are decayable, such as rice, corn, seeds. The basic food is matzo, thin flatbread kneaded from flour and water. The kneading and baking process cannot take more than 18 minutes, because after this time dough fermentation begins. The last stage of pre-holiday preparations is the search for chametz (Hebrew: Bedikat chametz), during which all the nooks and crannies of the house are thoroughly cleaned out, and any discovered crumbs are burned in the fire.

The first two evenings are the most solemn moments of the holiday. The supper in which all family members partake is called the Seder (Hebrew, literally “order”). During the supper, the Passover Haggadah is read – a text that tells the story of the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the related plagues that fell on Egypt as well as the miracles performed by Moses. The Seder is accompanied by many age-old rituals, including the preparation of traditional dishes served on a special platter. These are three pieces of matzo symbolising the Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites, i.e. the three groups of Jews who came out of Egyptian enslavement; zeroa – a piece of roasted meat on the bone, in memory of the lamb eaten by the Hebrews before setting out from Egypt and beginning their wandering in the desert; maror – bitter herbs (e.g. grated horseradish, lettuce, chicory) symbolising the tears and the bitterness of captivity; beitzah – an egg hardboiled in ashes, which is a symbol of rebirth; karpas – usually parsley, celery, or cucumber dipped in salt water in memory of the tears shed in slavery; charoset – a sweet paste made of grated apples and nuts mixed with a bit of raisin wine, the consistency of which resembles clay from which Hebrew slaves made bricks.

An ornate chalice filled with wine is placed on the table, intended for the prophet Elijah, who visits all houses that night and therefore the door is always left slightly ajar. On this day, no traveller should be denied hospitality, because the expected prophet may be hiding under his guise. The four cups of wine drunk at the supper are a reminder of the four divine promises of deliverance from slavery:

“I will lead you out… I will save you… I will deliver you… I will receive you…”

It is also part of the tradition of the festive evening for the youngest child to ask four questions, starting with "How is this night different [from others]?" The questions are answered by the leader of the Seder, explaining the meaning and history of the holiday.

At the end of the feast, before reading the last part of the Haggadah, the afikoman is served, one of the three pieces of Seder matzo. Beforehand, it is hidden in some place, and the child who finds it is rewarded with sweets. There are also many traditional songs connected with the Seder, which include, among others, Chad Gadya (from Aramaic: “One Little Goat”). The song tells the story of a little goat bought for two small coins which was then bitten to death by a cat, which was bitten to death by a dog, which was battered with a stick that was burned in a fire, later flooded by water which was drunk by an ox, which was slaughtered by a butcher, who was finally killed by the Angel of Death. This simple counting-out song has assumed a symbolic and religious meaning in which the goat is to represent the Jews persecuted by other nations.

Another piece recited during Pesach is Echad Mi Yodea (Hebrew for "Who Knows One"), listing the most important concepts of Jewish religion and history. Dayenu (Hebrew for "It Would Have Been Enough") tackles similar themes, discussing the grace of God and the miracles he performed during the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

The Seder supper lasts many hours until late at night, it ends with the wish of L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim – "Next year in Jerusalem," which emphasises the eternal longing and desire to return to the homeland.


The text comes from the Diapozytyw website, formerly owned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute; it is an excerpt from the book Historia i Kultura Żydów Polskich. Słownik (History and Culture of Polish Jews. Dictionary) by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP.


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