What you (maybe) didn’t know about Passover

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A family celebrates the seder
A family celebrates the seder. (Photo by Leland Bobbe/Getty Images)

By My Jewish Learning

Passover celebrates the ancient Exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Here are some facts you might not have known about the holiday.


1. In Gibraltar, there’s dust in the charoset.

The traditional charoset is a sweet Passover paste whose texture is meant as a reminder of the mortar the enslaved Jews used to build with in ancient Egypt. The name is related to the Hebrew word for clay. In Ashkenazi tradition, it is made from crushed nuts, apples and sweet red wine, while Sephardi Jews use figs or dates. But the tiny Jewish community of this small British territory takes the brick symbolism to another level, using the dust of actual bricks in their recipe.

2. Abraham Lincoln died during Passover.

The 16th American president was shot at Ford’s Theatre on a Friday, April 14, 1865, which coincided with the fourth night of Passover. The next morning, Jews who wouldn’t normally have attended services on the holiday were so moved by Lincoln’s passing they made their way to synagogues, where the normally celebratory Passover services were instead marked by acts of mourning and the singing of Yom Kippur hymns. American Jews were so affected by the president’s death that Congregation Shearith Israel in New York recited the prayer for the dead — usually said only for Jews — on Lincoln’s behalf.

3. Arizona is a hub for matzah wheat.

Chasidic Jews from Brooklyn have been increasingly sourcing wheat for their Passover matzah from farmers in Arizona. Excessive moisture in wheat kernels can result in fermentation, rendering the harvest unsuitable for Passover use. But rain is scarce in Arizona, which allows for a stricter standard of matzah production. Rabbis from New York travel to Arizona in the days leading up to the harvest, where they inspect the grains meticulously to ensure they are cut at the precise moisture levels.

4. At the seder, Persian Jews whip each other with scallions.

Many of the Passover seder rituals are intended to recreate the sensory experience of Egyptian slavery, from the eating of bitter herbs and matzah to the dipping of greenery in saltwater, which symbolizes the tears shed by the oppressed Israelites. Some Jews from Iran and Afghanistan have the tradition of whipping each other with green onions before the singing of “Dayenu.”

5. Karaite Jews skip the wine.

Karaite Jews reject rabbinic Judaism, observing only laws detailed in the Torah. That’s why they don’t drink the traditional four cups of wine at the seder. Wine is fermented, and fermented foods are prohibited on Passover, so they drink fruit juice instead. (Mainstream Jews hold that only fermented grains are prohibited.) The Karaites also eschew other staples of the traditional seder, including the seder plate, the afikomen and charoset. Their maror are a mixture of lemon peel, bitter lettuce and other herbs.

6. Israeli Jews have only one seder.

That’s unlike everywhere else, where traditionally a seder is held on each of the first two nights. Known as “yom tov sheni shel galuyot” — literally “the second festival day of the Diaspora” — the practice began 2,000 years ago when Jews were informed of the start of a new lunar month only after it had been confirmed by witnesses in Jerusalem. Because Jewish communities outside of Israel were often delayed in learning the news, they couldn’t be sure precisely which day festivals were meant to be observed. As a result, the practice of observing two seder days was instituted just to be sure.

7. “Afikomen” isn’t Hebrew.

For many seder attendees, the highlight of the meal is the afikomen — a piece of matzah that the seder leader hides and the children seek; the person who finds the afikomen usually gets a small reward. Most scholars believe the word “afikomen” derives from the Greek word for dessert. Others say it refers to a kind of post-meal revelry common among the Greeks. Either theory would explain why the afikomen is traditionally the last thing eaten at the seder.

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