Pesach

Enslavement


Arrival in Egypt

Jacob and his children had arrived in Egypt to be close Joseph; Joseph was second in command to King Pharaoh, and with his ingenuity had saved the people of Egypt and by extension those from neighbouring countries, from death by famine. Jacob and his children were settled in the city of Goshen and prospered wonderfully--their numbers grew and grew.
 
 
As long as Jacob's sons were alive, the Children of Israel were accorded honour and respect, but after the passing of Joseph, "There arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph"-- some commentaries say, chose not to know Joseph--"And he said to his people. 'Behold the Children of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come; let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply...'"(Exodus 1:8-10).

Enslavement

The Egyptians' way of dealing with their "Jewish Problem" was to enslave the Jews. They were all forced into backbreaking labour, compelled to build cities of treasure houses for Pharaoh. But still, the Jews continued to multiply, to Pharaoh's eyes, at an ever frightening pace. To put a stop to this, Pharaoh summons the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, and commanded them to kill all Jewish newborn males. This, he was certain, would put an end to the propagation of this race. When the midwives defied his order, he commanded that they cast all the newborn males into the Nile--his stargazers had predicted that the saviour of the Jews would die through water--and Pharaoh hoped his plan would ensure an early death for any potential Jewish leader.



 
Moses' Birth

Jocheved, the wife of the Levite Amram, gave birth to a son. Because he was born three months early, she was able to conceal him for that amount of time. When she could no longer hide him, she built a small water-proof cradle and put her child on the brink of the Nile. The child's sister, Miriam, hid among the brush to watch the child.

Pharaoh's daughter came to bathe in the river when she saw the floating cradle. When she opened it and saw the weeping baby, she realized that this was a Jewish child, but her compassion was aroused and she resolved to take the baby home. She named him Moses "he who was drawn from the water."


  
Miriam approaches the princess and offered to find a wet-nurse for the baby. When Pharaoh's daughter accepted, Miriam brought her Jocheved, whom Pharaoh's daughter hired to nurse and care for the child. When Moses grew older, he returned to the palace, where Pharaoh's daughter raised him like a son.
 

Moses is Appointed Leader

As a young man, Moses left the palace and discovered the hardship of his brethren. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and killed the Egyptian. The next day he saw two Jews fighting; when he admonished them, they reveal his deed of the previous day, and Moses was forced to flee to Midian. There he rescued Jethro's daughters, married one of them – Zipporah -- and became a shepherd of his father-in-law's flocks.

In the meantime, the plight of the Children of Israel in Egypt worsened, "and their cry rose up to G-d."
As Moses was shepherding his flock, he came upon a burning bush, in which G-d appeared to him and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand: "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me." Moses objected, citing a speech defect he acquired while in the palace, and so Moses' brother, Aaron, was appointed to serve as his spokesman. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron assembled the elders of Israel to tell them that the time of their redemption had come. The people believed; but Pharaoh refused to let them go and even intensified the suffering of Israel. He increased the burden of labour on his Hebrew slaves, commanding their taskmasters to cease bringing the Israelites straw to make the bricks. Now, they had to go to the fields to collect the straw themselves, but maintain the same quota of brick production.

Moses could no longer bear the pain of his brethren; he turned to G-d saying, "Why have You done evil to this people?" G-d promised that the redemption is close at hand, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land."

G-d then revealed Himself to Moses. Employing the "four expressions of redemption," He promised to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, deliver them from their enslavement, redeem them and acquire them as His own chosen people at Mount Sinai; He would then bring them to the Land He promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage.
 


The Ten Plagues

Moses and Aaron repeatedly came before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G-d, "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness." Pharaoh repeatedly refused. Aaron's staff turned into a snake and swallowed the magic sticks of the Egyptian sorcerers.
Pharaoh still refused to let the Jews go. Moses warned him that G-d will smite Egypt. Pharaoh remained impervious. G-d began to send a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. In the throes of each plague, Pharaoh promised to let the Children of Israel go; but he reneged the moment the affliction is removed.

1) Aaron striked the Nile, the waters turn to blood;
2) Swarms of frogs overrun the land;
3) Lice infest all men and beasts. Still, Pharaoh remains stubborn;
4) Hordes of wild animals invade the cities,
5) a pestilence kills the domestic animals,
6) painful boils afflict the Egyptians.
7) Fire and ice combine to descend from the skies as a devastating hail. Still, "the heart of Pharaoh was hardened and he would not let the children of Israel go; as G-d had said to Moses."
The people of Egypt had suffered too much. They begged Pharaoh to let the Jews go. When Moses came to warn Pharaoh of the eighth plague, Pharaoh says: You say that you want to go serve your G-d? I'll let the men go, as long as the women and children stay behind. No, says Moses, we must all go, men women and children, cattle and herds. Pharaoh once again refused.
The next plagues descended upon Egypt.
8) a swarm of locusts devours all the crops and greenery;
9) a thick, palpable darkness envelops the land.
The Israelites were instructed to bring a "Passover offering" to G-d: a lamb or kid was to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of every Israelite home, so that
G-d should pass over these homes when He comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn. The roasted meat of the offering was to be eaten that night together with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.
Then G-d brought the tenth plague upon Egypt,
10) all the firstborn of Egypt were killed at the stroke of midnight of the 15th of the month of Nissan.

Exodus

The death of the firstborn finally broke Pharaoh's resistance and he literally drove the Children of Israel from his land. So hastily did they depart, there was no time for their dough to rise, and the only provisions they took along are unleavened. Before they left, they asked their Egyptian neighbours for gold, silver and garments, emerging from Egypt a wealthy nation.

Soon after allowing the Children of Israel to depart from Egypt, Pharaoh chases after them to force their return, and the Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh's armies and the sea. G-d tells Moses to raise his staff over the water; the sea splits to allow the Israelites to pass through, and then closes over the pursuing Egyptians. Moses and the Children of Israel sing a song of praise and gratitude to G-d.
 
Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. Jewish people celebrate the Feast of Passover to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses. Jews have celebrated Passover since about 1300 BC, following the rules laid down by God in Exodus 13.  Passover lasts eight days and the first two and last two days are observed as full days of rest. The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days but Jews in the Diaspora lived too far away from Israel to receive word as to when to begin their observances and an additional day of celebration was added to be on the safe side.
 
Preparations

Before celebrations can begin the house must be cleaned from top to bottom to remove any traces of chametz (leaven) from the home.

This commemorates the Jews leaving Egypt who did not have time to let their bread rise, but also symbolises removing 'puffiness' (arrogance, pride) from their souls. The day before Passover begins there is a ritual search for chametz in every home. The children usually join in with great enthusiasm.

A Jew may not eat chametz or derive benefit from it during Passover. He may not even own it or feed it to animals.
Any chametz in his possession, or utensils used to prepare food with chametz, have to be temporarily 'sold' to non-Jews. They can be bought back after the holiday.
 
The Fast of the Firstborn

The day before Passover begins the Fast of the Firstborn is observed. All first born males fast on this day to celebrate their escape from the Plague of the First Born.
 
Seder meals

The highlight of Passover observance takes place on the first two nights, when friends and family gather together for ritual seder meals.

Seder means 'order' and the ceremonies are arranged in a specific order. Special plates and cutlery are used which are kept exclusively for Passover.

The Haggadah is a book which tells in fourteen steps the story of the Jewish experience in Egypt and of the Exodus and revelation of G-d.

As the story of each of the ten plagues is read out a drop of wine is spilt to remind Jews that their liberation was tinged with sadness at the suffering of the Egyptians.
 
The Four Questions

The haggadah also contains songs, blessings, psalms and Four Questions. These four questions are:
 
Why do we eat unleavened bread?

Unleavened bread or matzo is eaten to remember the Exodus when the Israelites fled Egypt with their dough to which they had not yet added yeast. The Children of Israel are commanded to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leaven from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children.
 
 

Why do we eat bitter herbs?

Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, are included in the meal to represent the bitterness of slavery.

Why do we dip our food in liquid?

At the beginning of the meal a piece of potato or egg is dipped in salt water to recall the tears the Jews shed as slaves.

Why do we eat in a reclining position?

In ancient times, people who were free reclined on sofas while they ate. Today cushions are placed on chairs to symbolise freedom and relaxation, in contrast to slavery.

Usually the youngest person present will ask the questions and the father will respond. The paradox of this is that these four questions should be asked spontaneously, but celebrations cannot happen unless they are asked!

Children

Children are central to Passover proceedings and symbolise the continuity of the Jewish people. Customs are designed to hold their attention. There's the hunt for the afikomen, where a piece of matzoh is hidden which children have to find and hold 'ransom' until a reward is given.

 
 
The Passover meal
 
 
 
The seder meal: clockwise from top, lettuce, lamb bone, charoset, horseradish and beetroot paste, celery and roast egg.

Each of the components of the meal is symbolic. The food is eaten in ritual order and its meaning and symbolism is discussed.
  • Matzo (unleavened bread) which is eaten symbolically three times during the meal.
  • A bone of a lamb to represent paschal sacrifice. When the Temple at Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life, Jews would go there at Pilgrim Festivals to sacrifice a lamb or goat.
  • An egg, also to represent sacrifice, but which also has another symbolism. Food usually becomes soft and digestible when cooked, but eggs become harder. So the egg symbolises the Jews' determination not to abandon their beliefs under oppression by the Egyptians.
  • Greenery (usually lettuce) to represent new life.
  • Salt water to represent a slave's tears.
  • Four cups of wine to recall the four times God promised freedom to the Israelites, and to symbolise liberty and joy.
  • Charoset (a paste made of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine) to represent the mortar used by the Israelites to build the palaces of Egypt.
  • An extra cup of wine is placed on the table and the door is left open for Elijah. Jews believe that the prophet Elijah will reappear to announce the coming of the Messiah and will do so at Pesach.
  • The concluding words of the Haggadah look forward to this: "Next year in Jerusalem!"
Pilgrim festival

Passover is also a pilgrim festival. It is one of the three occasions in the year when, according to the commandments of the Torah, Jews were to go to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Passover readings

In the synagogue there are special readings for each day of the festival.
On the first day the Passover the story from Exodus is told.

On following days, readings tell of the celebrations after the Children of Israel had crossed the River Jordan; of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments and God's covenant with Israel; of the resurrection of the valley of dry bones symbolising the spiritual rebirth of Israel; of the departure from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea; and a summary of the laws and rituals for Passover.

On the last day of Passover a passage from the Book of Isaiah is read which tells of the Messianic era or 'Passover of the Future'.

 
This site has been presented in loving memory of Eva and Joe Sarfaty

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