Passover celebrates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, which is considered the pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people.
Passover, called Pesach in Hebrew, begins at sunset on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, generally between late March and mid-April, and continues for seven days. In Jewish communities outside of Israel (the Diaspora) it lasts for eight days. The last two days of Passover are observed as full holy days.
Passover, known as Pesach in Hebrew, is also called Hag Ha Aviv (Holiday of Spring), Hag Ha’Matzot (Holiday of Unleavened Bread) and Z’man Heiruteinu (Season of our Liberation). Known as “Passover” in English, it celebrates the escape of the Jews from Egypt as described in the Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible) as Sefer Shemot or the Book of Exodus. The Exodus is dated on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan in the year 2448 B.C.E.
Passover marks the pivotal event in Jewish history, when the Jewish people were freed after more than 200 years of slavery and led out of Egypt by Moses. With its message of freedom from persecution and the promise of protection in Israel, it is the most celebrated holiday for Jews living outside of Israel. Passover is observed in the home and in local synagogues with special ceremonies and prayers. It is traditionally a happy time, with festive meals, music and Torah study. Families gather to read the story of Exodus (as commanded by the Torah).
Passover is tied to the “Ten Plagues” that came upon Egypt leading up the Exodus of the Jews (Y’tziat Mitzraim). The Exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred on the fifteenth of Nisan in the year 2448 B.C.E. A document called the “Ipuwer Papyrus,” discovered in Egypt in the 1800s, is said to detail a series of catastrophes that struck Egypt in ancient times and that are thought to be connected to events in the Book of Exodus.
After each plague, Pharaoh’s advisors begged him to send the Jews away, but each time he refused. Before the final plague was unleashed on Egypt, Moses was instructed by God to have the Jews take an unblemished lamb, sheep or goat on the tenth of the month of Nisan, keep it until the fourteenth day, and slaughter it at sundown on that day. They were told to smear its blood on their doorposts and thresholds and roast the entire animal. They had to eat the meal in a hurry, so the bread was unleavened since there was no time for the dough to rise.
As the Jews ate their last meal in Egypt, it is said that God passed through the land and killed every first-born male, both human and animal. Only the Jewish homes were spared – “passed over” – thus, the name “Passover” for this holiday. In the middle of the night, three million Jews left Egypt and marched for three days with the Egyptians in pursuit. God parted the sea so they could pass through to the “Promised Land,” and the waters fell back onto the Egyptians as they tried to follow them.