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First day of Passover

Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan, the first month in the ecclesiastical year of the Hebrew calendar and lasts for seven or eight days. It usually falls in April of the Gregorian calendar.

During Passover, Jewish people commemorate the liberation from slavery and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as told in the Haggadah (or Haggada). These events took place around 3000 years ago.

First day of Passover

Unleavened bread (Matzoh) commemorates the Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt.

©iStockphoto.com/dra_schwartz

What do people do?

During Passover, Jewish are forbidden to eat, drink or own chametz or chometz. Chametz is any food, which is made from grain (barley, oats, rye, spelt or wheat) and water and has been allowed to rise. This means that they have to clean thoroughly all rooms in their homes and other spaces that they own or use to remove every last crumb of chametz. Any objects, which cannot be cleaned or destroyed before the start of Passover need to be stored in a sealed cupboard or room and sold to someone who is not Jewish. They are then purchased back after the end of Passover. Just before of Passover, children ritually search their houses for any remaining scraps of chametz.

In Israel, Passover lasts for seven days, but in other countries people may observe it for seven or eight days. The first and last day (or two days in some countries outside Israel), are particularly important. People recite special blessings or prayers, make a particular effort to visit a synagogue or listen to readings from the Torah and eat a ceremonial meal. Readings of the Haggadah, the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their exodus from Egypt are particularly important. The center of the ceremonial meal is the Seder Plate and red wine or red grape juice. Each food has a special meaning in relation to the Passover story.

Public life

None of the Passover days are federal holidays in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States. However, many Jewish businesses and organizations are closed for some of the days or have restricted opening hours on others. Jewish people may also choose to take some of their annual leave at this time.

Background

The story about the origin of Passover is widely known as it is also the story of the life of Moses. For a time, the Israelites lived in peace and prosperity amongst the Egyptians until a new Pharaoh saw them as a threat to his power. He enslaved the Israelites and ordered all their sons to be killed at birth to prevent a new leader from arising.

According to the story of Moses, one mother was able to conceal the birth of her son Moses. When she could no longer hide him, she laid him amongst the bulrushes and asked one of her daughters to watch him. After a short time, the Pharaoh's daughter noticed him and decided to adopt him. She sent Moses' sister to find an Israelite woman to nurse him so he was 'reunited' with his mother. When Moses was older, he moved into the palace where the Pharaoh's daughter raised him as if he was her son.

As a young man, Moses noticed the suffering of the Israelites and left Egypt to become a shepherd. God appeared to him one day in the form of a burning bush and commanded him to return to Egypt to lead his people into freedom with the help of Moses' brother Aaron. Although Moses and Aaron repeatedly begged the Pharaoh to free the children of Israel, they were not successful. As a punishment, God inflicted 10 plagues on the Egyptians. After the 10th plague, in which all first-born children of the Egyptians died, the Pharaoh agreed to free all Israelites and to allow them to leave Egypt with their possessions. As they had to leave in a hurry, they did not have time to allow bread to rise, so they baked unleavened bread, known as matzoh (plural matzah), for the journey.

Passover is related to the Christian Easter and the Islamic Day of Ashura.

Symbols

Many aspects of Passover have a symbolic meaning. The cleaning process to remove chametz represents the removal of egotism and spiritual coarseness from life, the matzoh represents the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt, and the red wine or grape juice represents the blood of sacrifices and male circumcision. Passover symbols include the matzoh, the special kitchen utensils that families use only at this time, the candle, feather, wooden spoon and paper bag used in the symbolic hunt for chametz and the Seder Plate used in the special Passover meals.

The Seder Plate consists of three matzoh piled on top of each other on a plate or clean cloth, which are covered with another plate or cloth. Small pieces of symbolic foods are then placed on top. The foods are: zeroa (a roasted shank bone or chicken neck); beitzah (a hard boiled egg); maror (freshly grated horseradish or the stalks of romaine lettuce); charoset (a mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine); karpas (a non-bitter vegetable, such as an onion or a boiled potato); and chazeret (more horseradish or romaine lettuce). A dish of salt water and wine accompany the Seder Plate. Each of the foods on the plate represents a different aspect of the Passover story and is eaten in a particular order and in combinations during a ceremonial meal.

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