Passover is a time for practicing Jews to commemorate their release from slavery in ancient Egypt. It’s one of the most important Jewish holidays, and families begin making preparations in the days leading up to the first night’s seder, such as cleaning the house of chametz and arranging for a week of significant dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn’t know if you watched The Ten Commandments every year.
1. For Passover, Firstborn Sons Must Fast.
Passover (or Pesach) is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The Passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were “passed over” as Egypt’s first-born children were killed (although, confusingly, the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover in the Torah, while the week-long celebration is referred to as the Festival of Matzot). They’ve subsequently been merged into a single holiday known as Passover).
It is customary for the firstborns to fast on 14 Nisan to commemorate their salvation. If there are no children, the household’s oldest member fasts. What if the firstborn is a girl? That is determined by the community’s tradition.
2. Passover Is Seven or Eight Days Long.
The Torah instructs that Passover be observed for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the Red Sea parting), however many Jews outside of Israel observe it for eight. Each month of the Jewish calendar was traditionally defined by astronomical observation and might last 29 or 30 days.
Messengers disseminated the information when a new month was established. It was safer for Jews who lived too far away for messengers to convey the timely word of a new month to celebrate for an extra day, therefore the holiday was observed regardless of how long the previous month had been.
The calendar was eventually standardized, and the eight-day tradition became obsolete. Outside of Israel, some Jewish denominations (such as Reform Judaism) observe the required seven days, while many others choose eight days. It’s usually seven in Israel.
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3. Leavened Grains Are Forbidden During Passover.
Cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food is a crucial component of Passover preparations. Even the tiniest sliver must be removed. It’s reported that because the Jews left Egypt so quickly, they didn’t have time to leave their bread. Five grains (wheat, barley, rye, spelled, and oats) are traditionally banished from the house to commemorate this.
Jews can spend weeks making sure the house is spotless—and there are even chametz cleaning firms that promise to boil toys, dismantle and reassemble kitchen chairs… and still leave the house filthy. In Jewish households, there is a saying that “dust is not chametz.” Above all, the purpose is to eliminate chametz.
4. One of the Most Significant Ingredients of a Passover Meal Is Matzo, Which Is Produced From Wheat.
While leavened products are forbidden, matzo, a wheat-based product, is one of the most important components of a Passover meal. The difference between matzo and conventional bread is that matzo wheat cannot be exposed to water until it is ready to be cooked.
And it has to be cooked for 18 minutes after the water and wheat have been combined (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, the chametz begins to ferment.
But why is it taking 18 minutes? It’s said to be because it takes that long to walk between the Israeli cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias. Scholars have debated how long it would take to walk between the cities over the years, with some claiming that copying errors reduced the distance from four miles to one, reducing the time from 72 minutes to 18. Even if there is a transcribing error nowadays, it is thought that there is enough tradition to use 18 minutes.
5. During Passover, Grains Become More Complicated.
As Jews spread throughout the world, they were frequently confronted with foods that were not specifically mentioned as being suitable for Passover. Sephardic Jews believe that only the five explicitly listed grains are forbidden, whereas Ashkenazi Jews are concerned that foods created from other plants that appear similar and are farmed in similar conditions to the forbidden grains will cause contamination.
As a result, if these ingredients (known as kitniyot, or “legumes”) are avoided, actual chametz can be avoided more easily (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).
However, some authorities have recently claimed that advances in technology and storage methods have rendered older methods obsolete. Some communities are currently debating the issue.
6. Arizona Produces Some of the Greatest Matzo Flour.
One of the most difficult aspects of making matzo is keeping the flour dry until it’s time to convert it into matzo; any moisture can turn the flour into chametz. According to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has discovered the ideal farming conditions for producing their wheat in southwestern Arizona’s parched lands.
A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, collaborate with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that the crop is not harmed by moisture, and the kosher wheat produced is brought back east to manufacture up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.
7. During Passover, Pets Are Given Special Food.
Houses must be free of chametz for Passover, and no benefit can be derived from it. This also applies to pet food. There are Passover-friendly pet meals available, and some Rabbinical authorities recommend modifying your pet’s diet for a few days—for example, giving dogs only meat or herbivores a selection of permitted vegetables.
If a pet requires a special sort of food or you can’t find Passover-friendly pet food, some observant Jews follow the advice of rabbinical authorities and sell the animal to a gentile for a few days before returning it when Passover is done.
8. There Are Six Foods Associated With Passover.
The Seder plate is the center point of Passover’s beginning, and it contains six ceremonial items:
Beitzah: A cooked egg, symbolizing sacrifice (it’s also been stated that while most foods soften when cooked, eggs become firmer, symbolizing the Jewish people’s resolve).
Haroset: A delectable concoction of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that represents the Jewish slavery mortar.
Karpas: A green vegetable that symbolizes rebirth.
Bitter herbs (usual horseradish for maror and something like romaine for Nazaret) are used to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
To commemorate the Paschal sacrifice, Zero: a shank bone (or a chicken neck).
9. Occasionally, an Orange Is Placed on the Seder Dish.
Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth professor, spoke on a panel at Oberlin College in the 1980s. She met some students there who told her about a rabbi who stated, “In Judaism, there’s as much room for a lesbian as there is for a piece of bread on the seder plate.” As a result, they began to put a crust on their plates.
Heschel was moved, but felt that using bread communicated the incorrect message, stating, “it transforms everything chametz… [implying] that being a lesbian is deviant, violating Judaism.” As a result, she suggested that an orange (originally a tangerine) be placed on the Seder plate to represent Jewish LGBT persons.
A rumor circulated that it was meant to represent women in general, but Heschel clarified: “The affirmation of lesbians and gay men is obliterated when a woman’s remarks are attributed to a guy. Isn’t it exactly what has occurred to women’s thoughts over the centuries?”
Pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to honor interfaith families), tomatoes, and Fair Trade chocolate (to recall that slavery still exists around the world) are among the more recent additions.
10. A Number of Large Corporations Produce Kosher-for-Passover Foods and Beverages.
From chocolate syrup to cake mixes, many companies manufacture kosher-for-Passover items. Coca-Cola, however, is one of the most essential. Rabbi Tobias Geffen was an Orthodox rabbi in Atlanta in the early twentieth century. He was regularly asked if Coca-Cola was kosher because of his location (Coca-Cola was founded and is based in Atlanta). He discovered two problematic substances after examining the product: alcohol and glycerin.
Because the alcohol was grain-derived, it was forbidden for Passover, a problem that was remedied by switching to fermented molasses. Glycerin, on the other hand, was a concern. Animals were used to make the glycerin, and there was no cost-effective way to assure the animals were kosher.
According to Roger Horowitz’s book Kosher USA, the standards allow for a small quantity of an inappropriate component to be allowed—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-glycerin Cola’s content was well below that level. Rabbi Geffen, on the other hand, argued that because the glycerin was put on purpose, it didn’t fall under this requirement. Coca-Cola was soon permitted for Passover after a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil was discovered.
However, when Coca-Cola converted to high-fructose corn syrup, Ashkenazi Jews had a problem. As a result, there is now a unique yellow-capped Coca-Cola that is HFCS-free and kosher.