Passover, also known as Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the major and most sacred celebrations in Jewish tradition, commemorating the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. It begins on the 15th of Nisan and lasts for either seven or eight days. It is a holiday that focuses on the communal celebration of the seder, which is the first of a number of unique rituals that take place during the week.
While Passover is not a public holiday in the United States, Jewish businesses may hold different working hours during the Passover week.
Passover has its origins in ancient spring celebrations that commemorated the first harvest and first lambs of the season. For Jewish people, it is a celebration of the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt into freedom with the help of God.
Due to a bout of famine in Canaan, Joseph, the founder of one of the tribes of Israel, leads his family to settle in Egypt. While the first years of the settlement are peaceful, a growing Jewish population scares the Egyptians who, after Joseph's death, enslave the Jewish people and drown their firstborns in the river Nile.
One of the firstborns who is saved from drowning is Moses, who receives a visit from the God Yahweh ordering him to go back to Egypt and release his fellow Hebrews. Moses then travelled to Egypt to ask the pharaoh to concede the Jewish people three days to celebrate their feast, but the ruler denied all his requests.
As retaliation, God cast ten plagues on the Egyptians, such as storms and three days of darkness, diseasing their livestock, turning the water in the Nile to blood, among others. The last plague consisted of the killing of every firstborn son. For this last one, however, God instructed the Israelites to mark the doors to their homes with lamb's blood so that their firstborns would be "passed over", hence why the holiday is known as Passover.
Scared because of the plagues, the Egyptians allow the Israelites to leave in freedom and led by Moses the Jews quickly leave Egypt. However, as they approached the Red Sea, the Jewish people were ambushed by the Egyptian army. In a miraculous act, God then parted the sea so that Moses and his followers could cross it, closing it as soon as they were through and safe, consequently drowning the Egyptians.
After 40 years in the Sinai desert, the Jews finally reached their home in Canaan, later to be named as the Land of Israel.
Many Jewish families do a thorough spring cleaning of their house before Passover. This is to ensure that they throw away any chametz (food produced from leavened grain) they have lying around. As the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry, they had no time to let their bread rise, and as such, it is forbidden by Jewish law to eat or possess any food containing leavened grains.
This tradition is what originated the eating of the Matzo, a flatbread that is made only from flour and water. The Matzo is eaten after dusk on the first night of the Passover, and again on the night after that.
The seder is the central and most important ritual of the Passover. On the first night of the Passover, families gather for this special dinner, which consists of a choreographed meal where the finest china is used, and symbolic food is laid on the table, such as the matzo, bitter herbs, lamb and nuts. The story of the Exodus is told through the book Haggadah, which also lays out the script for the meal of the seder, that is divided into 15 steps. It is also required that four cups of wine should be drunk during the seder. Children have an important part in the seder and have the role of asking four questions during the meal about why this special night is different from other nights.