What do Jewish people do over Easter?

By Judy Jak-Klein

Spring is on its way and for many that means school vacation, Easter eggs, flowers blooming, and the end of Eid al-Fitr.

For others, this period means remembering the ten plagues, Moses, and slavery in Egypt. During April, the Jewish religion celebrates their form of Easter called Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew.

Every year on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan (April/May), Jewish families gather for a feast to remember the Israelite’s Exodus from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, more than 3000 years ago. According to the story, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptian pharaoh and forced to work under harsh conditions. God sent Moses to demand the pharaoh’s release of the Israelites, but he refused. So, God sent ten plagues to Egypt, including locusts, hail, and the death of the firstborn son. After the tenth plague killed the Pharaoh’s son, he let the jews leave Egypt and they left in a hurry.  

This story is remembered through a ritual called Seder, which is performed on the first night of the seven-day-long holiday. According to reform Judaism’s website, Seder is typically held in the home, and it involves a reading of the Haggadah, a special book that tells the story of the Israelites’ Exodus story mentioned earlier. The Haggadah includes prayers, songs, and instructions for the Seder rituals.

During the Seder, participants eat symbolic foods that represent different aspects of the Passover story, such as matzah (unleavened bread), bitter herbs (to represent the bitterness of slavery), and charoset (a mixture of fruit and nuts that symbolizes the mortar used by the Israelites to make bricks in Egypt).

The Seder also includes the drinking of four cups of wine, which symbolize the four promises of redemption that God made to the Israelites. In addition, the Seder includes the recitation of blessings, the washing of hands, and the hiding and searching for the afikomen, a piece of matzah that is hidden during the meal and later found and eaten.

Everything that happens during the holiday has some connection to remembering the story of the enslavement of the Jews and their journey from Egypt. For example, the name of the holiday, Passover, derives from the tenth plague where the death angel passed over the Jewish people’s homes when it was looking for its victims.

The unleavened bread matza and the lack of yeast during the holiday are other ways of remembering the story. One is not supposed to eat any heaving corn products, which are referred to as chametz. According to Reform Judaism, the most common reason why this rule applies is to remember the hurry the Jews were in when they had to leave Egypt. Letting bread rise takes some time, so therefore, they just made whatever bread they could and ended up with matza.  

These different rituals tend to vary from household to household. According to the Chabbad’s website, Ashkenazi jews (European Jews) do not eat any form of food that expands, such as rice, beans, or oats. These types of foods are called kitniyot and refer to all food that can expand and be mistaken for chametz (rising pastries).

In Sephardic households (South American and North African jews) rice and beans are a central dish in their Passover celebration. The difference in rituals comes from the Rabbis wanting to avoid confusion between kitniyot and chametz when preparing for Passover. The Ashkenazi Jews decided to follow those Rabbis’ rules, while most Sephardic Jews did not.

Yet, Passover is still a big holiday for all the different Jewish nationalities and is celebrated at the same time all over the world.

Hopefully, you learned a little more about the Jewish Easter traditions and why some of your Jewish friends might avoid bread like it is the plague. Next time you encounter someone Jewish, take the time to wish them a happy Passover.