baby moses

Pesach / Passover is among the greatest and oldest of Jewish festivals. It's incredibly rich in both themes and potential ways to explore them. Born out of natural seasonal rhythms like so many festivals, layers have been added over time - each bringing its own new emphases into the mix. So that we have the early elements of joy and appreciation with nature's cycling into spring, the remnants of sacrificial practices from a tribal shepherding culture, then an overlay of agricultural tempos and rituals, and then another layer concerning slavery and liberation coupled with an evolving more national consciousness.

Is it any wonder then that this holiday has four names?

a flower

Chag ha-aviv / חג האביב

"The holiday of spring": Already we are reminded to pay attention to the example of nature's own liberation, renewal, rebirth…

a flower

Chag ha-pesach / חג הפסח

"The holiday of the pesach": The original meaning of "pesach" has been lost over time, but is thought to refer to elements of shepherds' earlier sacrificial practices – and the spring part of the yearly cycle was when new lambs and kids were born to the flock. Some of the rituals and symbolisms, like smearing blood from a sacrifice onto tent-posts/door-posts, was to ensure one's safety and/or as an antidote to misfortune and illness. That certainly resonates then in this later usage and makes imminent sense - to ensure passing over the homes of the Israelites during the final plague's slaying of the firstborn in Egypt.

Familial, tribal and then village sacrifices were first local affairs. With increasing consolidation as a people, followed by further political reforms down the road (in the time of King Josiah of Judea), these and also the agricultural elements became more centralized as well as standardized. The more local, independent variants were replaced by seasonal pilgrimages exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem, with the gifts for God in tow. 

a flower

Chag ha-matzot / חג המצות

"The holiday of the matzot": Pesach is the first of the three agricultural and pilgrimage chagim / holidays (plus Shavuot and Sukkot). This is when the very first grain would be ready to be harvested - barley, and thus the time to offer up the first sheaf to G-d. Again, in some form this holiday name and some practices predate the "slavery in Egypt" events. Interestingly, matzot were originally made from barley flour. Only later was there a gradual switch to wheat flour (wheat harvest is somewhat later).

hands breaking handcuffs

Zman cheruteynu / זמן חרותנו

"Our time of liberation": This fourth name takes us more into the traditional story of the hagada. In historical and conceptual terms, we are looking at fundamental identity changes - not only from slavery to liberation and redemption, but the first steps of a truly larger, even more radical shift.

From Individuals to a Nation

We have gone from 1) a personal covenant with G-d to 2) a more distinct, bonded group identity born of shared experience, which is 3) on the very cusp of entering a more formalized group agreement - and 4) with more set rules and structure in the deal! We have been transformed from individual to more pronounced group consciousness, thrown our lot together in escape and survival after liberation, and then are taken even further in this evolving national identity a mere seven weeks further down the road (Shavuot then celebrates our receiving of the Torah).

And yet, the Pesach we celebrate today keeps that very national identity alive and passed on through the most intimate setting, that initial unit - the family. And it does so in a way that encourages personal, individual participation and attention from everyone - very purposefully inclusive of all ages and backgrounds - in the very format of the seder.

There are three basic mitzvot / obligations connected to Pesach:

To retell the story of being slaves in Egypt and then liberated, and what that experience means:

a scroll

Retelling can be like a good book you reread, or alternatively something other than "as-is" review. "Retelling" in the hagada can also be viewed as a model - a compilation of questions, reflections and examples of recounting. "Retelling" is not only intended to be some history to commemorate, but rather to be used and interacted with - to examine, add to, compare with and apply in our contemporary lives, experiences and choices.

To eat unleavened bread:

mazzot - unleavened bread

(FYI - As a positive commandment, you are only obligated to eat matza at the actual seder/s).

The symbolism of the matza is multiple - the "bread of our affliction" as slaves; the stripped basic components of sustenance compared to the bountiful feast ahead of us; the faith in G-d inherent in making that hasty escape; straightforwardness and purity of essentials with one's new beginning; that very first taste of something suddenly transformed into freedom and a new identity… Matza, in short, is much more than something with a taste occasionally described as only slightly better than cardboard (just taste some noncommercial homemade version instead of the manufactured kind) - it's truly "heady stuff"!

To abstain from eating or owning chametz (food that is leavened) for the duration of the chag / holiday:

a toasted bread with a forbidden sign

Remember that in early times, this would be an occasion of first harvest. 

One starts anew (and one can also surmise that spring cleaning goes waaay back). It may well have been that clearing out absolutely anything remaining from the previous harvest (including sour / fermented dough used to make the "next batch") would be viewed as part of ensuring good luck for the new harvests of the coming year. (In some respects, this time in Nisan was considered the agricultural new year, while Rosh Hashana was the greater, civil new year - e.g. when the actual number of the year would advance forward).

In terms of "liberation", one's liberation starts with taking responsibility for, "clearing out" and purifying one's self. The process of cleaning and then using different utensils and foods creates both a physical and symbolic "clean break" to start afresh (and when better than with the commencement of spring?). That everyone is doing this simultaneously adds a powerful element of group identity and national consciousness, of course.

Further, chametz can be viewed as something lacking limits if not carefully controlled. It has been compared by the rabbis to that part of us which has evil inclinations / yetzer ha-ra. A matza, by contrast, is flat, basic, not puffed up, "full of hot air", "arrogant" or flamboyant. The removal of all chametz is no easy task, as anyone who has gone through the yearly complete proscribed procedure can attest. It's somewhat akin to a process of re-examination and removing negative elements that one would go through personally. The entire course reflects a starting-over, clean, with one's essence - so as to live, interact, do and create truly anew and better. And in no small sense, while quite a challenge, that too can be very liberating.

Questioning, Invigorating and Reinventing

a girl thinking

For Pesach there are already plenty of good overviews and more, both on the web and in scores of books. And fortunately, we already have a hagada, which provides a framework, ordered presentation and scripts to make use of as we choose. What Learn Hebrew Pod aims to do here is twofold:

  1. to provide you with some basic general orientation.

  2. to offer sample ideas and material as a perspective on how to take a new look at mining some traditions and enriching the Pesach experience.

Questioning, invigorating and reinventing is deeply rooted in the very concepts, history and tradition of Pesach and the seder - so actually this approach is quite in keeping with the central spirit of this chag! We hope this may help make your Pesach - family experience, plans, and/or teaching - more meaningful, thoughtful, different and creative for a change. It is, afterall, the chag that celebrates change and renewal.

Continue Exploring

a kid exploring

You will find more on themes, and in further depth, in these sections - Worthwhile Information & Tidbits, So Many Ways to Go... , and Let's Talk About It. You will find activities and more in Let's Get Busy. There is much overlap in the sections of this packet - especially due to the very nature of this chag. A discussion can turn into an activity and vice-versa. What is used in a classroom or youth group is also often usable in a seder, and the reverse is also true. A seder is, after all, an educational exchange by purpose and design.

Hebrew terms are provided throughout our resources, but a simpler, basic vocabulary list can also be found in Good to Know in Hebrew. Two lists of some more specific seder-related vocabulary are provided in a subsection review in Worthwhile Information & Tidbits.

You may have already noticed that our method of transliteration is a bit different than some - see the explanation guide here.