Passover Primer


Whether this is your first seder or your 100th, here are the essential elements to enjoying the holiday.

For more than three millennia, the Jewish people have retold the tale of their hastened exit from Egypt.

Passover is a holiday full of questions such as the famous Four Questions, the question asked by the Wicked son, the question asked by the Wise son, etc. But before getting to all of this, one might ask, “What is this holiday all about?”

Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies in Park Heights and Owings Mills, spoke of the need for telling the Passover story to future generations by saying, “Pesach is the holiday of ‘transmission’ to our children.”

Before Passover begins, Jewish homes are cleaned of all possible chametz, or leavened bread. Not only does all the Wonder bread get thrown out, but Jews traditionally cannot own anything that could contain chametz. That includes pet food, certain laundry detergents, even cosmetics. Rabbis will stamp as chametz any suspect household item that would be fit for a dog to consume.

According to Rabbi Porter, after preparing by searching for chametz, we begin the holiday with the essential mitzvot performed during the seder. They include eating the matzoh, drinking the four cups of wine, eating the bitter herbs and retelling the Passover story.

In order to perform the mitzvot, several items are needed. Rabbi Porter recommends using two different types of matzoh for the seder, shmura matzoh for the “eating” mitzvah and regular matzoh for the meal. Shmura matzoh is made from wheat that has been shielded from water as soon as the farmer harvests the grain.

Three of these matzot, signifying the tribes of Israel, sit stacked in the middle of the table. As per custom, the middle matzoh, called the afikoman, is broken and hidden out of sight. When the seder leader isn’t looking, a child will steal the matzoh, and since the seder can’t go on until it’s eaten, a grandfather usually pays for the afikoman’s safe return.

Next, to complete the commandment of drinking four cups of wine, procure an average of 16 ounces per person, which could make holiday guests a little drowsy. This leads to another required item for the seder – a pillow!

In order to remember our harsh toil as slaves in Egypt, we are told to eat a bitter herb. Usually people consume some freshly ground horseradish. “But, for those with a weak stomach, it’s permissible to use romaine lettuce, about two ounces of it,” Rabbi Porter says.

Another food eaten to remember the work of slavery is charoset, a mixture of apples and cinnamon. It symbolizes the mortar used in the bricks of the pyramids.

Two other essential items are salt water and a vegetable. Rabbi Porter suggests using parsley, celery, radishes or scallions for dipping into the salt water. The vegetable is an acknowledgment of the arrival of spring, which coincides with this holiday, but to remember the sadness of slavery the salt water represents the tears of the Jewish people while in Egypt.

To tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, each seder guest takes turns reading from the Haggadah, or Passover prayer book. First, the youngest guest asks the Four Questions, and then the rest of the participants answer the youngster with the tale of Jewish slavery.

“There are two purposes to this holiday. One, it is a holiday of personally communing with God who maintains an ongoing relationship with his creation,” Rabbi Porter says. “And two, to know that we were chosen for a reason. God took us out of Egypt for a mission and Torah is our mission statement.”

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