What is Pesach and when do we celebrate it?
Passover or Pesach, as it is called in Hebrew, is the festival that reminds us of when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt about 3,500 years ago and how God freed them from the evil Egyptian king Pharaoh.
The Pesach story is written in the Torah, in Exodus, Chapters 1-15 and is one of the most important stories in Jewish history.
Pesach starts on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, at the full moon. It lasts for eight days (seven in Israel). The four days in the middle are called Chol Hamo’ed (weekdays of the festival). In the English calendar, Pesach will be during April or (sometimes) in late March. As the Jewish calendar is lunar, the English dates of Pesach will change from year to year even though the dates in the Jewish calendar remain the same.
Different Names for Pesach
This Hebrew word means ‘to pass over’. It reminds us of God’s promise to "pass over” the Jewish people when he sent the last plague onto Egypt. This last plague was the worst one that he sent to force Pharaoh to free the Jews.
He sent the Angel of Death to kill all the Egyptians’ firstborn sons, but He told the Jewish people to mark their doors so the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ their houses and not kill their firstborn sons. The Jews marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb and that way the Angel knew theirs were Jewish houses. (Today all Jewish houses have a mezuzah on their doorposts, also to show who they are.)
The name ‘Pesach’ is also used for the lamb which was sacrificed by the Jewish people when they left Egypt.
This means ‘the festival of matzot’ (unleavened bread).
When the Jewish people left Egypt they were in such a hurry that they did not have time to bake their bread dough in ovens. So they carried the unbaked dough on their backs, and as they were walking it cooked in the sun. It became hard and flat and was called ‘matzah’.
During Pesach it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat matzah. "Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread." (Exodus 12:15).
This means ‘time of our freedom’. In the Torah Egypt is called Mitzrayim or ‘a narrow place’. In a narrow place we feel very squashed and pressured, just like the Jewish people must have felt when they were slaves there. Pesach is the time they finally could feel free again, after leaving narrow Egypt. In the story of Pesach, we travel from the narrowness of forced servitude to the openness of freedom.
This means ‘festival of spring’. In the land of Israel Pesach falls in springtime. It is spring harvest time. Nearly the whole world is coming out from being closed up for winter and is opening up to the new life of spring. The story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt has the same kind of feeling.
Fast of the First Born
The Fast of the Firstborn (Ta’anit B’Chorim) reminds us of the last and most horrible plague that God sent to Pharoah and the Egyptian people.
After Pharoah had refused to let the Children of Israel go nine times, Moses warned that the next plague would be that every first-born son in the land would die. Moses then told the Children of Israel how to save their sons from being caught up in the plague.
The Jews had to sacrifice a lamb and put some of its blood on the doorposts of their homes. When the Angel of Death came to Egypt to kill all the first-born sons, the angel would recognise and ‘pass over’ the Jewish homes.
This is where our English name for Pesach, ‘Passover’, comes from. To say thank you for being saved, the first-born son in a Jewish family fasts from dawn on Erev Pesach until the Seder.