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Celebrating Passover

What is Passover? Passover is the eight-day observance commemorating the freedom from slavery and exodus of the Israelites (Jewish slaves) from Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II about 3,000 years ago. According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was instructed by God to go to the Pharaoh and demand the Israelites freedom. Moses' plea of "Let my people go" was ignored. Moses warned the Pharaoh that God would send severe punishments to the people of Egypt if the Israelites were not freed. Again the Pharaoh ignored Moses' request for freedom. In response, God set a series of 10 plagues on the people of Egypt.

After nine plagues were unsuccessful in changing the Pharaoh's mind, God sent a 10th plague to kill the first-born of both man and beast. The Israelites were told to mark their dwellings with lamb's blood so that God could identify and "pass over" their homes. The holiday's name, Pesach, meaning "passing over" or "protection" in Hebrew, is derived from the instructions given to Moses by God.

THE PHARAOH finally agreed to freedom and the Israelites quickly left their homes. They packed raw dough and as they fled through the desert they would quickly bake the dough, in the hot sun, into hard crackers called matzohs. Today to commemorate this event, Jews eat matzoh, unleavened bread, during Passover.

The Pharaoh changed his mind and his army chased them through the desert towards the Red Sea. The Israelites escape was blocked by the Red Sea but a miracle occurred. The waves of the Red Sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross to the other side. As soon as they reached the other side, the Israelites watched as the waters closed and sweep away the Pharaoh's army. The Israelites realized they were finally free.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. As the Jewish day begins at sundown the night before, this year the first night of Passover will be April 12. The first two nights of the eight-day holiday are celebrated with family gatherings and special meals called Seders in which the stories and history of Passover are retold through the reading of the Haggadah. The Haggadah itself stresses the importance of the Seder as "a spectacle meant to excite the interest and the curiosity of the children." Everything in the Seder is meant to make the children curious and to ask questions.

LEADING UP to the first night of Passover, the home is cleaned and cleared of all yeast foods, called hametz. Kitchen utensils and dishware normally used in the home are not used during Passover. Special dishes, silverware and utensils used just for the Passover holiday are taken out of storage, cleaned and used. Only foods that are "Kosher for Passover" are allowed. No leavened (containing yeast) foods or grains are eaten. This is to remember the Israelites who fled quickly into the desert and were forced to bake dough into hard crackers in the desert sun. The table centerpiece is the Seder plate, containing the five symbolic foods that represent the struggle of the Israelites in their quest and journey to freedom:

Haroseth, symbolic of the mortar the Jewish slaves used to assemble the Pharaoh's bricks.

Parsley, dipped in salt water, symbolic for the tears of the Jewish slaves.

Roasted egg, a symbol of Spring.

Shank bone, symbolic of the sacrificial lamb offering.

Bitter herbs, symbolic of the bitter affliction of slavery.

During the Seder, four glasses of wine are poured to represent the four stages of the exodus: freedom, deliverance, redemption and release. A fifth cup of wine is poured and placed on the Seder table. This is the Cup of Elijah, an offering for the Prophet Elijah. During the Seder the door to the home is opened to invite the prophet Elijah in. It is believed that Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah at the Passover Seder.

ON ALL OTHER nights when we eat a formal meal we eat sitting up straight. On Passover, we lean on a pillow to be comfortable and to remind us that once we were slaves, but now we are free. To share our freedom, it is customary to invite strangers into our home to share the Seder celebration. It is also a time to reflect on those in the world who are still slaves or oppressed by tyrants. This year the metropolitan-Washington, D.C., area Jewish community is gathering support for the oppressed people of Darfur with a rally, Sunday, April 30, on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Sue Benezra is the public relations vice present of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation. Some information provided by the Web site www.holidays.net/passover. For more information about the congregation, call 703-391-8669 or Chaverim18@aol.com.