Holiday Traditions, History & Celebrations

4 Things to Know About Passover

1. What is Passover?

Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jews’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. During Passover, Jews celebrate the resiliency of their ancient ancestors and their perseverance and survival despite the hardships they faced for several centuries. 

A seder table
Photo credit: Patsy via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

2. When is Passover?

Passover in 2024  begins at sundown on Monday, April 22 and ends at sundown on Tuesday, April 30.  Passover’s dates are based on the Jewish calendar and change every year. Passover is celebrated from the 15th to the 22nd day of the Jewish calendar’s month, Nisan. For Israelis and reform Jews, Passover ends on the 21st day of Nisan. Passover can occur during March or April of the Gregorian calendar, but this year Passover falls in April.

3. History of Passover

The story of Passover is chronicled in the Book of Exodus. Passover’s story begins with Jacob and his family when they immigrated into Egypt from Ancient Israel in order to flee a famine. Initially, Jacob and his family were welcomed into Egypt and the Jewish population there flourished until a new pharaoh came into rule and, threatened by the Jews’ growing population and power, enslaved them. This enslavement went on until the Jewish exodus over 200 years later when Moses was born and survived despite a royal decree to execute all Jewish newborn males. Moses is chosen by God to free the Jews from the pharaoh’s tyranny, and he goes before the pharaoh to plead his people’s case and beg the pharaoh to grant the Jews their freedom. The Pharaoh repeatedly refuses, and in response, God inflicts 10 plagues upon the people living in Egypt. Before the final plague, the Jews were instructed by God to make a sacrifice and sprinkle the blood across the doorsteps of every Israelite’s home so that God would pass over them when rendering his final plague: the killing of every first born in Egypt. With the final plague occurring on the 15th day of Nisan, the Jews were officially liberated from Egypt and the exodus began. Since the Jews are in a haste to leave, they had no time to wait for their bread to rise. Thus, this is the reason why the matzah–an unleavened flatbread–is Passover’s most recognizable symbol, and why Jews are not allowed to eat leavened grains during the week of Passover.

Smearing blood on Israelis doorposts in Egypt
Photo credit: Pixy (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

4. Celebrating Passover

Passover commences with the Seder, a religious feast which occurs on the first night of Passover. The Seder is begun by reading from the Haggadah, the book in which the narrative of the exodus is told and the steps of the Seder’s ritual are outlined for people to follow. The Seder is a 15 step process which begins with a blessing over the wine, then continues with the eating of symbolic foods such as the matzah, bitter herbs and leafy vegetables. Passover has some of the strictest dietary restrictions for Jews during the holiday. For eight days, the only grain Jews are permitted to eat is the matzah because it is forbidden to eat leavened grain that has been cooking for over 18 minutes. This means Jews are not allowed to have most breads, pastas and alcohols for Passover’s duration.