Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays that we celebrate. It is the time of the year that we remember the story of Exodus which essentially tells how the Israelites became free of the slavery they suffered in Egypt. Passover goes by many names, but the most common, at least in my family is Pesach, which is pronounced as "paysahch" the last consonant is a sort of rough sound - hard to describe without hearing, some just pronounce it as a bit of a harsh sounding clipped K, but I usually use a more elongated guttural sound more like the "ch" in loch (like loch ness). Anyway, how you say it isn't as important as the festival is :)

So Pesach then is a celebration of Exodus. The great Exodus out of Egypt for the Israelites! So great, there's a book of the bible called Exodus. Okay, no more sarcasm on this one :). What's it all about then? Well, it tells the story of how God inflicted ten plagues on Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to release the Israelites who were slaves. Like many rules, the Pharaoh was slow to learn, I mean just imagine, the first plague - turning water into blood! At that point, most of us would be "whoa - ok, just let these guys go already", but not the Pharaoh (who by the way we just call Pharaoh because there is no clear cut definitive answer as to which one it actually was, though many people postulate that it was Ramesses the Great, but there is no written documentation confirming that so it could be almost any of a number of people including Amenhotep, Merneptah and Tutimaios). Nope, the Pharaoh was a man of steel, it took nine more plagues to get him to change his ways. Some of the other horrors - plague of lice, plague of flies, plague of get the idea, the Pharaoh's mettle was really being tested. The final plague really did it though. The magic number ten - Death of the Firstborn.
"This is what the Lord says 'About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the first born son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well."
Just before this plague, God commanded Moses to get all the Israelites to mark their door posts with lamb's blood which would be a sign to God to Pass Over that household and not kill the first born in it. And that is why it is called Passover!

This last plague finally convinced the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, and according to the story, they left Egypt so quickly, that they didn't have time to let their bread rise. So during Pesach, one of our commandments is to eat no leavened bread. And so, instead of bread, we have that glorious delicacy called Matzah (I know I said no more sarcasm - just can't help myself). Really, Matzah isn't that bad when you get used to it. A favourite of mine as a youngster was honey on Matzah. With a glass of water, because, you know Matzah can be pretty dry.

Okay, back to Pesach. The Jewish calendar runs a little differently to the western calendar that we are used to, so Passover falls at different times each year according to our Gregorian type calendar because of that. According to the Hebrew calendar, Pesach falls on the 15th of Nisan (the month, not the car). We celebrate Passover for seven days (some Jews who live outside of Israel add a day because if you live outside of Israel, you can't be sure your calendar fully conforms to that in Jerusalem, but this isn't mandatory), and it is basically a pilgrimage holiday so in theory all Jews should make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, but obviously, this doesn't happen. Even so, it is a very important holiday for us. The first two and last two days are actual fully-fledged holidays, while the middle 3 or 4 are merely festival days. On the holiday days, we obviously don't work, drive, write etc (basically, we follow the rules for the Sabbath - except obviously we don't eat Challah). The middle festival days are merely celebratory, we can go to work and so on. The rules of Passover basically mean that we can't eat anything containing wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. So bread, cookies, blueberry muffins (my favourite), pasta, cereal and alcohol are all off limits.

Before Passover starts we have a spring clean of sorts - removing all food and drink that contain any of the above (these are referred to as chametz). There is the traditional search for chametz which in my family was done by the children - ten morsels of bread are hidden in the house to be found and burned the morning before Passover starts. We used to search by candlelight and use a feather to dust the crumbs out of corners. My kids have it easy, a flashlight :)

Throughout Passover, we eat Matzah - it's a mitzvah on the holiday days. Other than that bitter herbs are eaten as a reference to the bitter slavery endured in Egypt and we recite the Haggadah which is the story of Exodus. Most families who are observant will have a set of cutlery and crockery specially for Pesach - these have never been in contact with leavened products. Ovens are properly cleaned out before hand (unless you have a special oven only for Passover). Of course Passover is marked all over the world in supermarkets with special sections of food suitable for the festival.

My favourite part of Pesach as a kid was obviously the Mah Nishtana - the four questions we get to ask - basically why is this night different from every other night. It drew us in to the tradition, while at the same time was a sort of play with set responses to explain the importance of being set free of slavery to us. It a way it makes us appreciate our freedom and also explains some of the rituals behind the ceremony - such as why we only eat unleavened bread. In my opinion, this sort of inclusion of children in the festivals is too often lacking on other holidays. Having them ask questions and get answers to the basic things that we take for granted about the festivals makes us all more aware of why we do things - why we eat bitter herbs, why we eat unleavened bread and so on - it makes us more mindful of the reasons and actions we take throughout the festival to remember our past, making it a living tradition rather than simply something we do while our mind wonders.

Anyway, without getting too misty eyed about it - Passover is a great festival - I hope you enjoyed it if you've just recently finished celebrating, and if not then I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about it.