Passover (Pessah) and Zionism

The Passover Holiday









Passover, like Hannukah and Tu Bishvat, is a Zionist holiday, symbolizing national values. Passover is a spring holiday, a holiday of renewal and of freedom, and may actually have replaced an older holiday of the vernal equinox. The story of Passover was taken up by the African slaves in the United States, and became symbolic of deliverance from slavery by the might of the Lord. The Passover holiday was also used by Jews in the United States to mark their solidarity with the Civil Rights struggle. interfaith Seders were held and many

While the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, Jews celebrated Passover by coming there to make the Passover sacrifice. A lamb was sacrificed to commemorate the blood of the lamb used to mark Jewish homes against the plague.

The week of Passover opens with a festive ritual meal, called the Seder (meaning "order") at which, originally, the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed was eaten. The last supper of Jesus Christ  was  a Passover Seder, commemorated by Christians on Maundy Thursday during Easter. Some Christians also celebrate the Passover with a Seder meal, but it is often on a different date and with a different significance. Christians who want to celebrate Passover out of solidarity with the Jewish people try to celebrate it in the Jewish manner and on the correct date.

After the destruction of the temple, the Seder meal evolved into an educational vehicle for teaching children not only about the history of the holiday itself, but also about the fundamentals of their religion and national identity. Accordingly, the Seder ritual includes passages of history unrelated to the story of Passover, educational devices such as the four questions asked by children (Ma Nishtana "Why is this night different from all other nights") educational songs, and numerous references to the land of Israel and to Jerusalem. Jews give thanks to Lord for providing the bountiful land of Israel, pray to the Lord to restore them to Zion and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, and conclude the Seder with the wish:  Next Year in Jerusalem. In modern Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, this wish is usually modified to "Next year in the Rebuilt Jerusalem."

The Seder ritual is contained in a book called the  Haggadah (or Hagada).  Haggadah means "telling," from the Biblical injunction to "Tell thy son" of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  The Haggadah  is written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The retelling of the Passover story each year serves to remind the Jewish people of our national language, and the fact that the Haggadah is in Hebrew helped to keep alive and preserve the Hebrew language. Formal and widely accepted written versions of the Haggadah  approximating its present form were apparently first produced about 300 CE, though the first extant Haggadah is from the tenth century. Over the years, many songs and customs have been added from different parts of the world, and reflecting various circumstances of the Jewish exile. Though European (Ashkenazi) and Oriental (Sephardic) Jews were separated by geography and culture, all Jews use nearly the same Haggadah. The version in use today is close to that of Rav Amram Gaon, who headed the Babylonian (in what is now Iraq) Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) of Sura between 856-876 CE.

During the week of Passover, Jews eat only unleavened cracker-like bread (singular Matza, plural Matzoth) made from special flour that has been stored so that no yeast cells or other leavening agents could get into it. The Matzoth commemorate the unleavened bread that Jews had to bake in a hurry when leaving Egypt. Beer is forbidden, as are any cakes or foods that might contain yeast. Wine and spirits are not forbidden. In fact, it is a commandment to drink four cups of wine with the festive Passover meal, the Seder.

Modern connotations of Passover

In the United States, the story of Passover and the exodus from slavery had a special significance for African slaves, and spirituals commemorated the freeing of the slaves. The Seder in Jewish American homes often includes the chanting of spirituals. For the Labor Zionist movement, Passover has special significance because of the issues of social justice and respect for the lot of the oppressed. Some of the kibbutz movements, though not religious, produced their own Haggadot which retell the story of Passover as a story of national liberation and national redemption.   For all Zionists, the pledge of "Next Year in Jerusalem"; and the dedication of the holiday to national freedom make it an important holiday. 

The Passover Seder

See also Seder for a more detailed discussion.

Passover opens with a festive meal, the Seder, in which prayers, educational material, and  historical stories and songs are intermixed with the eating of ritual foods in a fixed order.   

Seder Foods
  • Matzah: Unleavened bread similar to a cracker described above.

  • 'Haroseth: A sweet mixture of crushed nuts, apples, cinnamon, and honey, which symbolizes the mortar the Hebrew slaves in Egypt used in constructing buildings for the Pharaoh. The initial 'H is guttural, like the "H" in "Pesah."  Anyone can prepare this simple and delicious food..

  • Egg: A hard-boiled egg is used to symbolize life and rebirth.

  • Maror: This is usually very bitter horse-radish that symbolizes the hardships of slavery (sometimes lettuce is substituted)!!!

  • Karpas: Usually a boiled potato (sometimes lettuce or another vegetable). The symbolic meaning of this vegetable is not clear. Some say it symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people.

  • Z'ro'a: This meat, sometimes represented as a shank bone, symbolizes the Paschal lamb sacrificed.

  • Salt Water: The egg and the potato are dipped in salt water, symbolizing both the tears of oppression as well as of joy in freedom.


    Passover: Illustration from a Haggadah

    Round Silver Plated Passover PlateThe different foods are often displayed on a special Seder plate

    The Seder Service and Meal

    Following is an outline of the Seder service and meal. Some of the customs are explained differently in different traditions, but all of them are part of the Haggadah for all Jews:

    Kaddesh: Sanctification - This is a blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

    Rechatz: Washing - Ritual washing of the hands without a blessing.

    Karpas: Vegetable - A vegetable is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery.

    Yachatz: Halving  One of the three matzoth on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

    Maggid: The Story - A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. This includes the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings, answered by the adults.  At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

    Ritual eating - Symbolic foods are eaten with appropriate blessings: Matza, Maror, and a sandwich composed of Matza, Maror and 'Haroset, following the custom of Rabbi Hillel.

    Shulhan Aruh: Dinner - The festive meal.

    Tzafun: The Afikomen - The matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive.

    Barech: Grace after Meals - The third cup of wine is poured, and grace after meals is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any day. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk.

    Elijah's Cup - The fourth cup of wine is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah. The door is opened for a while at this point. Supposedly, this custom was initiated during the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews celebrating Passover in secret opened the door to make sure that spies were not listening.    

    Hallel: Praises - Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.  

    Nirtzah: Acceptance - A song stating that the Seder has been executed  and completed properly and hoping that it is acceptable is recited. It concludes with the wish "Next Year in Jerusalem" or in Jerusalem, "Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem," referring to restoration of the temple with the coming of the Messiah. The text and detailed explanation of the Nirzah are given here: Nirtzah.


    The evening is ended with a number of songs or chants, modeled on medieval folk and drinking songs  that were apparently in existence at long ago as the 9th century.

    More about Passover:  PassoverPassoverSeder, Haggadah, Ha Lachma Aniah, Ma Nishtana

    More about Jewish Holidays

    Adapted by permission from The Story of Passover  at  Middle East: Mideastweb Copyright by MidEastWeb for Coexistence. Adaptations copyright by Zionism & Israel Center Please link to this page. Do not copy it to your Web site.

    Some photos courtesy of ajudaica

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