Every year, Jewish people celebrate the annual religious festival of Pesach, known in English as Passover. The festival lasts for up to eight days or seven days depending on where you live. As part of Pesach, Jews consume a special meal called the ‘Seder Meal’, during which they consume a series of symbolic foods and drinks to commemorate the events of the book of Exodus; the story of how the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt were led to freedom by Moses.
Pesach is acknowledged by Jewish families through a variety of traditional rituals. Each of these rituals symbolise different aspects of the Jewish faith and the Exodus story. For example, the mother of the family will burn all of the usual sliced bread containing yeast in the home and replace it with unleavened bread to symbolise the unleavened bread the Hebrews ate before their escape from Egypt, as they were in such a hurry they didn’t time to prepare bread with yeast. In order not to contaminate their food, Jews will use separate crockery sets for the festival.
Traditionally, families will set an extra seat at their Seder Meal table, reserved for Elijah the prophet. A child will be invited to open the door to call for Elijah – children represent the promise and hope of the future, and a child opening the door for Elijah represents the hope and promise associated with Elijah’s coming. At the door’s closing all are seated, and the child returns to inspect the level of wine to see if Elijah has drunk from his cup.
This is not the end of the children’s roles in the Seder Meal. As part of the Seder Meal, the youngest child will traditionally ask the leader of Seder Meal, (who distinguishes their position by wearing a white robe called a kittel against everyone else’s usual holiday clothes), the famous Four Questions. These four questions all centre around one key question – what differentiates the Seder Meal from an everyday meal? The Questions begin when the child asks the Seder Meal leader ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’, to which the leader asks what differences the child has noted. The questions are as follows:
. Why is it that on all other nights we eat bread or matza, but on this night we eat only matza?
. Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables and herbs, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
. Why is on all other nights we don’t dip our vegetables, but on this night we dip them twice?
. Why is it that on all other nights we eat sitting upright, but on this night we eat reclining?
To understand the significance of these questions, the traditional foods and drinks and ways by which they are eaten must be understood.
The Seder Plate consists of a diverse selection of symbolic foods, each representing different aspects of the story of Exodus and the Jewish faith, all displayed in particular places on the Seder Plate itself. Jews must consume:
. Matza – a kind of flat bread with the texture of a cracker, crucially containing no yeast. Three whole matzot are placed into a special compartment underneath the plate. As previously stated, this yeast free bread replaces all other breads with yeast during Pesach, (which are burned), as a symbolism of the breads the Hebrew slaves in Egypt consumed before their escape – they were in such a hurry they hadn’t time to add yeast to their recipes. This is the answer to the first of the Four Questions.
.Zeroah – a roasted lamb bone. This symbolises the final and the worst of the Ten Plagues that God sends to Egypt in a bid to persuade the Pharaoh to set his people free from slavery. For this plague, an Angel of Death passes over (hence the name Passover) the houses of Egypt, killing all of the firstborn Egyptian sons. To differentiate themselves from the Egyptians, the Hebrews painted a cross on their doors using the blood of a sacrificial lamb; this ensured the firstborn Hebrew sons’ safety by showing the Angel of Death to pass over those houses and leave them untouched. This part is of much significance in the story of Exodus. The Zeroah is placed in the top right section of the Seder Plate.
.Beitzah – a hard-boiled egg. Similarly to the chocolate eggs Christians enjoy at Easter, the round shape of the egg symbolises the circle of life and the Spring, the season in which Pesach is celebrated. It also reminds Jews of the ‘korban chagigah’ (festival sacrifice), offered in the Temple in Jerusalem at Pesach. The Beitzah sits in the top left section of the Seder Plate.
.Maror – a bitter herb such as horseradish. The bitterness of the herb symbolises the bitterness of life enslaved in Egypt. This is positioned in the centre section of the plate. This answers the second of the Four Questions.
. Karpas – a sweet herb like parsley, symbolising the sweetness of freedom for the Hebrews when they were finally released from slavery. The Karpas is traditionally dipped into salt water. This symbolises 3 key ideas – the salty tears the Hebrews shed whilst enslaved in Egypt, the saltiness of their sweat as they worked so hard for the Pharaoh, and the saltiness of the Red Sea G-d parted for their escape. The physical dipping action also illustrates the Hebrews painting their doors with lamb’s blood to protect them from the Angel of Death. This is part of the third of the Four Questions. The Karpas sits at the bottom left section of the plate.
. Charoset - a sweet mixture of apples, spices, pears, walnuts and wine. Charoset reminds the Jews of the mortar their ancestors used to build for the Egyptians whilst enslaved in Egypt. The Maror is dipped into the Charoset – the second of the dips mentioned in the Four Questions. Charoset is positioned in the bottom right section of the Seder Plate.
. Chazeret – can be Romaine lettuce. This forms the second part of the bitter herbs, and is eaten in a Matza sandwich together with the Maror. Like the Maror this symbolises the bitterness of life in slavery, and is placed at the very bottom section of the Seder Plate.
The fourth of the Four Questions refers to the Jews reclining as they eat – this also has a symbolism. In olden times, it was customary for the rich people to recline as they ate, whereas simple poor people would be seated on the floor. Jews lean to the left as they eat to symbolise the fact that they were once poor slaves in Egypt, but thanks to G-d they are now a free people. Their drinks at the Seder Meal are also symbolic. As the family eats and drinks, they take it in turns to read the story of Exodus from the Haggadah; a holy text in the religion of Judaism, setting forth the order of the Pesach Seder Meal. Jews believe it is important to be reflective and ‘drink in’ all of the sacred and holy customs happening around them at the celebrations, and so they drink red wine, or grape juice as the substitute for children. It is traditional for each individual attending the Seder Meal to drink four cups of wine or grape juice, as a symbolism of each of the four evil decrees that the Jews were liberated from – slavery, the order to the Hebrew midwives’ to murder all new male Hebrew descendants at birth, the drowning of all Hebrew boys in the Nile by Egyptian thugs and the decree ordering the Hebrews slaves to use their own straw for brick production. However, when the part of the Exodus story where G-d sends 10 Plagues to Egypt is reached, Jews at the Seder Meal do not wish to ‘drink in’ the horrors of this time, and so when each plague is read from the Haggadah, a drop of wine is spilled (ten drops in total), so the cup is left pure from all of the wickedness of this part of the Exodus story.
The Jewish festival of Pesach is similar to the Christian festival of Easter as both have a theme of new beginnings, liberation and sacrifice – Christians are liberated from their sins thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice being crucified on the cross. Each festival lasts for one holy week (although in some areas Pesach lasts eight days). However, on the culmination of the festival on Easter Sunday, Christians do not have to consume a specific meal; although it is traditional to eat roast lamb, it is not obligatory. There are some foods with symbolisms that are customary for Christians to eat at Easter:
. Hot cross buns. These pastries depict the wooden cross Jesus was crucified on. The rising of the hot cross buns in the oven represents Jesus’ rising from the dead.
. Chocolate Easter eggs. These treats symbolise new life and their shape also reminds Christians of the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb to reveal his resurrection.
However, it is not compulsory to eat these items and they do not have to be consumed in a certain way.
Pesach is extremely important to Jews as it marks the beginnings of their freedom as a people and reminds them of their debt to G-d for his devotion to their safety. It reminds the Jewish people of the sacrifices that their ancestors made in Egypt all those years ago, and the sacrifices that have been made and the risks that have been taken for their freedom. This encourages the Jews to value the luxuries they enjoy today and remember that their ancestors did not share all of the essential human rights they take for granted. Pesach is also important because it strengthens a family’s relationship through helping them to spend more time together, as well as strengthening their faith in G-d by reminding them of Moses’ and his people’s trust in Him and the rewards their trust reaped. Despite all of the hardships and obstacles they faced, the Hebrews in Egypt remembered G-d telling them of the promised land waiting and the sweetness of the freedom they would eventually taste – driven by this, they were willing to stand up to the intimidating figure Pharaoh, who had ultimate power over them, and oppose his views unaware of how he would react. They sacrificed their precious lamb for the passing of the Angel of Death, even though they couldn’t guarantee that the tenth plague would secure Pharaoh’s permission to leave. This demonstrated true faith in G-d, and reassures Jews today that their faith will be recognised. It is also reassuring because it shows Jews today that in their hour of need G-d dedicated himself to ensuring his people’s safety, and that he answered their calls for help.