The first of the three pilgrimage festivals (in tandem
with Shavuot and Sukkot) takes place in the Jewish spring
month of Nisan. This happens at the time of the first barley
harvest in Israel. The significance of this great festival
lies in its commemoration of the exodus of the Israelites
from Egypt, by which they enter history as a people.
It is reported in the Bible (the first and second
book of Moses) that the Israelites migrated to Egypt during
a mass famine. At first, they fared relatively well. But
then, they were increasingly oppressed by order of the Egyptian
ruler, the Pharaoh, and had to assume difficult forced labor.
Subsequently, Moses – by the command of God - became their
leader. Under God`s protection, and together with his brothers
in faith, he waged a dramatic exodus from Egypt through
the Red Sea (splitting of the Red Sea) to Canaan in present-day
Israel. The migration through the desert took 40 years.
The name “Pesach” means “to pass over”, “to spare”.
It reminds us that in the last of the Ten Plagues, God spared
the Israelites by putting to death all the firstborn children
of the Egyptians so that the Israelites could escape.
During the eight-day Pesach celebration, only unleavened
bread (matzo) is consumed to commemorate the fact that the
sudden departure from Egypt did not allow for the dough
to ferment and prove prior to baking. Matzo is thin, crispy
flatbread. At Pessach, no bread is allowed in the kitchen
or the entire apartment, and even all bread crumbs are eliminated.
Every corner is deep-cleaned like during spring cleaning.
The focus on the first feast day after evening prayers is
an abundant dinner within the family circle. This dinner
is called “Seder”, which corresponds to the Hebrew word
for “order”. Certain dishes, which bear a symbolic meaning,
are eaten together after stories about the Exodus from Egypt
and after some passages from Pesach-Haggada (i.e. Pesach
stories) – related to special dishes – are read and explained.
In addition, four cups of wine are drunk at certain intervals
of the meal. They symbolize the four promises of God. God
wants for the children of Israel: 1.) an exodus out of Egypt,
2.) salvation, 3.) deliverance, and 4.) acceptance.
The idea of liberation and the glorification of God are
central to the Sedar meal. In the second part of the long
evening, songs are first sung together. On the last day
of the holiday, a celebration for the souls in the synagogue
takes place in remembrance of the deaths. The subsequent
period – the seven weeks until Shavuot – evolved over time
to a period of mouming.