Passover starts this Friday, March 30, and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement over 3,000 years ago. We spoke with Rabbi Yael Rapport, of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, to learn more about the traditions of the holiday and why it's still as relevant as ever.
Passover celebrations call on worshippers "to actually enact portions of the children of Israel’s story at your own table, surrounded by family and friends," Rabbi Rapport tells us, describing the Passover seder, the meal held on the first and second nights of the seven to eight day-long holiday.
A traditional seder consists of 15 components, or steps, that must be done in sequence — Rabbi Rapport explains that the word "seder" literally translates to "order," underlining the ritual importance of the meal. These steps and the full Passover story are found in the Haggadah, the book used to guide the seder. And, according to Rabbi Rapport, the retelling of this story is highly interactive.
During the seder, "you’re not just sitting there, receiving the story," she says. "You’re dipping [vegetables], you’re leaning, you’re reclining, you’re asking, you're searching." Along with blessing the meal and breaking the matzah (unleavened bread), one of the key components in the seder is asking the Four Questions, which start with, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and leads into the retelling of the Israelite's Exodus from Egypt.
Foods traditionally eaten during the seder represent different themes from the Passover story, such as the maror (bitter herbs) and charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, and spices), which capture the bitterness of the Israelite's enslavement and the sweetness of their freedom, respectively. "It’s so important that neither sweetness nor bitterness is diminished in this experience," Rabbi Rapport says. "You don’t just tell the good parts of the story, and you don’t just tell the sad parts of the story."
The seder ends when the children at the table find the afikomen, or the piece of matzah that was hidden prior to the start of the meal. Although the seder is the most significant Passover celebration, Rabbi Rapport says that some people keep observing the holiday after the second night by continuing to avoid leavened breads and reflecting on absent or deceased loved ones. (Of course, like all religious holidays, different people celebrate it to different degrees, so not everyone observes Passover to the letter. There are many other ways observant Jews celebrate Passover that aren't included here.)
But, it's in expressing gratitude for the freedoms they enjoy every day that people can truly bring the spirit of Passover into their own lives. Rabbi Rapport tells us this call to help the less fortunate is part of the seder itself: "We say, 'let all who are hungry come and eat.' As we have this lavish and lengthy dinner party, we are supposed to open our doors to the poor... It’s very common for Jewish communities and families to donate to an organization that goes toward feeding the hungry."
At its core, Passover is a celebration of hard-won freedom from oppression and a reminder not to take that for granted. As Rabbi Rapport says, it's a story that you can "bring into your heart and your own experience."