What Is Passover (Pesach)?

Seder plate
Passover Seder plate. Penina Meisels/Photodisc/Getty Images

Passover is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays. It commemorates the Biblical story of Exodus, when Hebrew slaves were released by God from bondage in Egypt. Called Pesach (pay-sak) in Hebrew, Passover is a celebration of freedom observed by Jews everywhere. The name derives from the story of God's angel of death "passing over" the homes of Hebrews when God sent the tenth plague upon the Egyptians, the killing of the first-born children.

How Passover is Celebrated

Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (late March or early April in the Gregorian calendar). Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel and for Reform Jews around the world, and for eight days for most other Jews in the Diaspora (those outside of Israel). The reason for this difference has to do with difficulties in reconciling the lunar calendar with the Jewish calendar in ancient times. 

Passover is marked by several carefully structured rituals enacted over the seven or eight days of the celebration. Conservative Jews follow these rituals carefully, though more progressive or reform Jews may practice a more relaxed observance. The most important ritual is the Passover meal, also known as the Seder. 

The Passover Seder

Every year, Jews are commanded to retell the Passover story. This usually takes place during the Passover Seder, which is a service held at home as part of the Passover celebration. The Seder is always observed on the first night of Passover (and, in some homes, on the second night as well). The Seder, which follows a carefully prescribed series of 15 steps, includes a dinner of highly symbolic foods that are prepared on a Seder Plate. The telling of the Passover story (the "Magid") is the highlight of the Seder. It begins with the youngest person in the room asking four ceremonial questions and concludes with a blessing recited over wine after the story is told. 

Kosher for Passover

Passover is a holiday that has certain dietary restrictions associated with it. Jews are instructed to eat foods that follow specific preparation rules that make them kosher for PassoverThe rules of "kosher for Passover" are different from standard kosher rules. The most important kosher for Passover restriction is that leavened bread cannot be consumed. Instead, Jews eat unleavened bread called matzah. This custom is said to derive from the part of the Passover story in which the Hebrew slaves fled Egypt so quickly that their bread didn't have time to rise. Eating matzah is an act of remembrance of the extreme haste with which the Hebrews were forced to flee Egypt to freedom. Some suggest that it represents followers assuming a humble, subservient attitude for Passover—in other words, to be slave-like in the face of God.

Jews avoid any leavened bread or foods that might include leavening ingredients during the entire week of Passover. Some people avoid leavened foods for the month before Passover. Observant Jews also avoid eating any food products containing wheat, barley, rye, spelt, or oats. According to tradition, these grains, called chametz, will naturally rise, or leaven, if they are not cooked in less than 18 minutes. For observant Jews, these grains are not only forbidden for Passover but are carefully searched out and expelled from the home before Passover begins, sometimes in highly ritualized ways. Observant families may keep an entire set of dishes and cookware that are never used for cooking chametz and reserved only for Passover meals.​

In the Ashkenazi tradition, corn, rice, millet, and legumes are also on the forbidden list. This is said to be because these grains resemble the forbidden chametz grains. And because things like corn syrup and cornstarch can be found in many unexpected foods, the easiest way to avoid inadvertently violating the rules of kashrut during Passover is to only use food products that are specifically labeled "Kosher for Passover."