A commemoration of faith and freedom.
Holidays are often all the more special because they allow us to take a much-needed pause from the busyness of day-to-day life to reflect on the blessings and loved ones around us. With its rich history and traditions, the Jewish holiday Passover (Pesach) is a time dedicated to rest—working is actually meant to be off-limits for much of the holiday—and coming together with family to celebrate this community’s triumphant, ancient story of faith and freedom. Passover is celebrated over an eight-day period in the early spring, from the 15th to the 22nd of the Hebrew month, Nisan. In 2022, it falls from April 15-23. This holiday marks the anniversary of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in ancient Egypt. Among its many traditions, Passover is observed through mealtime rituals: leavened foods (chametz) are avoided, and two Seder dinners—which include four cups of wine, bitter herbs, and matzah—hold special significance in alignment with the story of Exodus (Haggadah).
The Significance of Passover
As the biblical story of Exodus goes, the Israelites endured years of slavery under the rule of pharaohs in ancient Egypt, with little hope in sight. But God saw their plight and sent one of their own people, Moses, to the pharaoh with a command to let his people go. Although there were many warnings, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he refused to listen. God unleashed ten plagues on Egypt in answer, which devastated the land. The final plague took place at midnight on the 15th of Nissan—each household’s firstborn was killed, but by having faith in God’s commands and marking their own doors, the Israelites’ children were spared. Although Pharaoh’s power was diminished, the Israelites were soon chased out of Egypt. Leaving in a rush, the bread they had baked in preparation for their journey didn’t have time to rise before the Israelites began their journey.
Learn more about the Exodus story in the video below.
The Passover Story for Seder, by Joshua Huff
Notably, “Pesach” means “to pass over” in Hebrew, which is where this holiday gets its name. The emphasis on eating unleavened bread (matzah) is also a nod to the Exodus story. Matzah is broken at the beginning of the Seder, and it is known as the bread (lekhem) of affliction (oni), representing the food eaten when the Israelites had to flee oppression. But later, this same bread comes to symbolize freedom, as it was a source of sustenance after the Israelites were freed from their bondage.
Seder, which takes place on the first two nights of Passover, is a focal point of the holiday, and the traditions surrounding it are laden with meaning. In addition to the story behind matzah, the inclusion of bitter herbs on the Seder plate harkens back to the bitterness of the Israelite’s slavery, and the drinking of wine or grape juice symbolizes royalty and being lifted out of these harsh circumstances. The mealtime also includes a recitation of the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus, which is passed on to future generations of children.
Passover In Our Community
Reaching out to our community, we discovered that some of the strongest associations with this time of year involve not only traditions, but also the bonds they form between families and loved ones. For instance, many of the stories from the Haggadah are retold in songs, and while the words are usually the same, the melody in which you sing is up to the singer. Most people find that these songs (and the family memories intertwined with them) are their favourite part of the holiday, as Jessica shares:
“My sister and I both went to Jewish Day School, where the story of Passover and education around the Seders was an important part of the curriculum. The songs of the Haggadah (Jewish text that sets the order of the Passover seder) that we learned were different than those our father had grown up with, and of course we were INSISTENT that ours be sung at the Seder. Our family came to a compromise: alternating verses between our (Toronto) melodies and our father’s family’s (Montreal) melodies. The result was a hilarious mish mash of off-key Passover songs and some very delighted grandchildren. As our grandparents aged and our seders moved from their home in Montreal to ours in Toronto, this silly tradition travelled with us, and is still the part of the celebration I look forward to every year. Now that I have my own little one, I can’t wait to see which melodies he prefers.”
The reading of the Exodus story also includes the “4 questions,” which should be read by the youngest person at the table. Talia reflects that “A Seder is meant to bring people together and reflect on our past and our future. It’s not always my daughters' favorite time as they are often the youngest and have to sing the four questions… but they’ve always loved finding the afikoman!”
Although COVID and distance has made getting together with her family more difficult in recent years, Talia has continued to observe Passover traditions alongside friends, like Jennifer, who even spent her first ever Seder at Talia’s home.
“I was in LA for work and my trip overlapped with Passover. Talia kindly welcomed me to her home and I was able to help prepare for her Seders. The care she put into the setting of the table, the respect to the order of events of the Seder, the enthusiasm in reading every page of the Haggadah, and the meaning behind every dish on the table…That was the moment I realized how beautiful Jewish holidays and traditions were. That inspired me to convert to my husband’s religion and work really hard to honour the celebrations of his family to my future children.
Jennifer’s family has since infused their celebration of Passover with a new family tradition, “one that my Mother-in-law always makes sure we include. As the Story of Passover is meant to remind us of what the Jews in Egypt had to overcome, we now go around the table and reflect on an achievement from that past year, or to share something we are grateful for. It is a wonderful tradition that helps us appreciate the freedoms that we have in our lives today.”
So much of Passover is about reflecting on the past, and remembering the importance of this community’s ancient roots. In honour of this time of year, Root & Seed is offering special Passover question cards for a limited time through our Conversation Tool. Record your family’s special melody for a Seder song, reflect on how your Passover traditions may have changed over the years, or remember the stories behind heirlooms on your table—there’s the centrepiece Seder plate itself, of course, but families may also pass down fine white tablecloths, kiddush cups (for the wine), candlesticks, matzah holders, or the book of Haggadah. If there’s a special significance behind these items in your family, this time of year could be the perfect time to start a conversation around them, and work to preserve their stories for the future.
We also invite you to download Root & Seed's free, printable Passover Activity Book. It’s a great addition to the holiday for adults and kids alike. Explore how you would design your own Seder plate, let us see how you imagine the 10 plagues, get in on a few fun games to play with matzah, and even make some delicious matzah ball recipe that the whole family can enjoy!
A Passover Staple
The Herby Matzah Ball Soup Recipe from Paige Plates is so delicious that we wanted to share it here too. She reminds us that the matzah balls are delicious cold, right out of the fridge! But enjoyed in a fresh chicken broth is “so comforting and delicious. It tastes like home.”
The instructions to make the chicken soup and the matzah balls are below. When both are ready, ladle soup into bowls and drop in matzah balls. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and dill, and serve!
In a large pot or Instant Pot, add pieces from a whole chicken, 1 Tbsp peppercorns, a skin-on onion halved, a shell-on head of garlic halved, a handful of parsley, and as many roughly chopped carrots and celery as you can fit. Cover with cold water and cook until chicken is cooked through and falling off the bone, either 40 minutes manual in the IP, or 2 hours on the stove (bring to a boil then simmer at low).
Take out pieces of chicken and set aside to cool. Strain the broth and discard the veggies.
Get all the meat from the chicken pieces and discard the bones
Add the stock back to the pot and add 2 diagonally sliced carrots and celery stalks. Bring to a boil and cook until veggies are just barely soft. Add in as many pieces of chicken as you want (save the rest for salads!)
Herby Matzah Balls
In a large bowl, combine 4 eggs, 1/4 cup schmaltz (store-bought chicken fat or scrape the top of your homemade stock after refrigerating!) or vegetable oil, 1/4 cup chicken stock, 1 cup matzah meal, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 1/4 cup chopped dill, salt, and pepper
Refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight
When firm, roll mixture into small balls
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and carefully drop the balls in. Reduce heat to a simmer, top with a lid, and simmer for 30-40 minutes until cooked through.
Note: They freeze well!
How do you and your loved ones choose to commemorate Passover? Are there any special heirlooms or traditions that make this holiday time particularly special to you? Share in the comments below!