What Is Passover?
A newbie's guide to a Seder
Monday, March 25 (the 14th day of Nisan, the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar), marks the first night of Passover for Jews around the world, a holiday rich in tradition, customary food, singing, and wine. Lots of wine. Jews retell the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt every year to commemorate the past, celebrate their freedom today, and reflect on those less fortunate. It's a lesson that is always timely.
The Seder (Hebrew for "order") is the meal and service at the center of Passover at which the story is read from a book called the Haggadah (Hebrew for "telling"). The Haggadah not only tells the story of the Israelites' freedom from slavery, but also contains rituals, blessings, joyous customary songs, symbolic food, and the aforementioned wine drinking. Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) can vary as Jews interpret the story on their own. There are versions of the story for kids, feminists, hip-hop aficionados, and hippies, as well as a 30-minute version (a personal favorite). And of course, there's an app for that. Everyone at the table takes turns reading passages, and they do so reclined in their seats. While the Israelites were forced to flee quickly as slaves, now all are free to relax. Many people even sit on pillows in order to be as comfortable as possible – just not so comfortable that they fall asleep before the story is over.
The suspenseful story of Passover tells of the enslavement of the Israelites and their subsequent exodus from ancient Egypt. (Spoiler alert: They are freed.) The pharaoh felt threatened by the Israelites and forced them into slavery to help build up the Egyptian cities. When he heard a prophecy that a boy would free the Israelites, he ordered that every newborn Israelite male be thrown into the Nile River. One boy, Moses, was placed in a basket in the Nile, where the pharaoh's daughter found him and raised him as her own.
When Moses became an adult, he came upon a bush that was on fire but not burning. This seemed suspicious. From the bush, God instructed him to free the Israelites. Moses went to the pharaoh and asked for the release of the slaves. Each time the pharaoh said no, God inflicted a new plague on the Egyptians (blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness) until the tenth plague: the death of the Egyptian first-born sons. God told the Israelites to mark their doors with sheep's blood so He would "pass over" (hence the name of the holiday) their houses when inflicting the final and worst plague. At this point, the pharaoh agreed to free the slaves, and the Israelites, fearing he would change his mind, left Egypt as fast as they could. They did not even have time for their bread to rise before skedaddling. Thus, unleavened bread became the matzah traditional at a Seder today. As the Israelites suspected, the pharaoh had second thoughts and chased after them with his army until they reached the Red Sea. The sea miraculously parted, and the Israelites were able to cross while the Egyptians drowned in the waters. Finally, the Israelites were free!
There are numerous symbols throughout the Seder, but the focal point of the meal is around the Seder plate. The meaning of these symbols can differ depending on whom you ask. Modern Jews often add an orange to the plate, which represents the role of Jewish women, gays, lesbians, and other groups often ostracized. Some Jews also place an olive on the Seder plate to signify the hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Traditionally, the Seder plate contains:
Zeroa: a roasted bone that represents the lamb sacrifice in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Beitzah: a roasted egg that represents the circle of life.
Maror: bitter herbs, usually horseradish, that represent the bitter experience of the slaves.
Charoset: a mixture of apples, sweet wine, nuts, and spices that represents the mortar the slaves used when building for the Egyptians. Some Sephardic recipes also contain dates or figs.
Karpas: usually parsley, but any green vegetable will work. This represents the green of spring and hope, and it is served dipped in salt water to symbolize the tears of the slaves.
Matzah: Three matzot are wrapped in a matzah cover in the center of the Seder plate. Two are eaten during the Seder, and the middle one, called the Afikomen, is hidden for children to find for a prize. It used to be a dollar, but there are rumors of Seders where the lucky Afikomen finder gets a twenty! It's good to be a kid these days.
A common nosh during the Seder is the Hillel sandwich, which commemorates the scribe Hillel, who always looked at the negatives in his life, such as poverty, in a positive light. Jews eat a Hillel sandwich, combining bitter herbs, charoset, and matzah just as Hillel did.
As mentioned earlier, wine is a big part of the Seder. In fact, Seder participants are commanded to drink four glasses during the service to symbolize the four times redemption is mentioned in the Book of Exodus. They also dip their pinky finger in the wine and place a drop of wine on their plate ten times to represent the ten plagues. A fifth glass is left for the prophet Elijah, who will one day bring the Messiah. Four is a common number throughout the Seder. There are four blessings, four questions that the youngest member at the table reads aloud, which emphasize why this meal is different from all other meals, and four children mentioned in the Haggadah.
Singing plays an important role in the Seder. One of the traditional songs, "Dayenu," which means "it would have been enough," recognizes that each one of God's miracles would have been enough on its own.
Passover lasts eight days, during which Jews don't eat food made with wheat, rye, barley, spelt, oats, or other grains. All chametz (leavening) products are banned – the original gluten-free diet! While certain foods like gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditional, Jews love coming up with new recipes to make the week without bread tastier. Here are a few recipes from my blog, What Jew Wanna Eat.
Matzah Brei with Lox and Schmear
A traditional Passover breakfast with a nod to popular bagel toppings.
Prep time: 10 min.; cook time: 10 min.
2 tablespoons butter or oil
½ medium onion, diced
1 piece matzah
2 ounces lox
1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon cream cheese
Heat one tablespoon of butter or oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium-low, then add onions and cook until translucent and slightly golden. Remove from pan.
Break matzah into pieces and soak in warm water for 15 seconds.
Whisk eggs until uniform in color and add in drained matzah, onions, lox, salt and pepper to taste.
Heat another tablespoon of butter or oil in the pan over medium heat. Add brei mixture and cook while stirring until eggs are set, about 3 minutes.
Add dill and garnish with cream cheese.
Apple Beet Charoset
An alternative to traditional charoset, with the addition of beets, dates, and candied walnuts!
Prep time: 10 min.; cook time: 1 hour Serves six to eight
1½ cup walnuts, diced
½ cup sugar
4 medium beets
4 medium apples (I used Pink Lady; Galas are tasty too.)
½ cup dates, pitted and diced
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup Manischewitz or sweet red wine
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the walnuts in a single layer until toasted, about 5-7 minutes. They are ready when they start to smell nutty.
Have a large piece of wax or parchment paper ready.
Put your ½ cup sugar in a saucepan on medium heat and mix while melting the sugar. As soon as the sugar is melted, add the nuts and quickly coat the nuts. Transfer nuts to the wax or parchment paper and immediately break up the nuts with spoons.
After you make your nuts, get those beets cooking. Wash your beets thoroughly and dry them. Roast on a foil-lined sheet pan for one hour in the 350 degree F oven, or until tender. When your beets are ready, cool them. When cooled, the skin should be easy to peel with your hands. Peel beets and dice into ½-inch pieces.
Peel and core the apples and dice into ½-inch pieces. Combine beets and apples in a large bowl. Then add the diced dates and cooled nuts. Mix that up, then add the sugar and cinnamon. Mix well. Then add the honey and wine, and mix one more time.
Serve with matzah!
Note: Cook time is for beets only. Beets can be cooked ahead of time.
Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Macaroons
Because they use unsweetened coconut, these macaroons are not super sweet, but are nicely balanced with the dark chocolate and a touch of sea salt.
Prep time: 15 min.; cook time: 15 min., serves 12
2 large egg whites
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pinch salt
3 cups unsweetened coconut
½ cup ground almonds
1 cup dark or milk chocolate
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat egg whites with a whisk or electric mixer to get soft peaks. Add in sugar and beat until a very thick meringue forms. Then mix in vanilla, salt, coconut, and almonds by hand.
Drop heaping one-tablespoon-sized dollops of macaroons on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for about 15 minutes until the macaroons are dry to the touch.
After your macaroons are cooled, melt chocolate in a double boiler and dip the ends in chocolate. Sprinkle with sea salt. Place, chocolate-side down, on parchment paper to dry.