The Beginner’s Guide to Passover

published Apr 9, 2017
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

The supermarket shelves are lined with matzo, and butchers are stocking up on brisket, which can only mean one thing: Passover is right around the corner.

This year, the holiday of Passover — Pesach in Hebrew — begins Friday night, March 30. The celebration of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt lasts a week (some Jews celebrate for eight days, while others celebrate for seven), and is notable for the things you aren’t allowed to eat (including leavened bread). In fact, there are a lot of rules around this holiday and, if you just started dating a new Jewish boy or find yourself hosting one of the nights, the holiday can seem intimidating and daunting.

But it’s also celebratory and fun! (And you can even drink good wine.) Here’s everything you need to know to have a chag sameach (happy festival).

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

If you already know what Passover is all about, scroll down. If not, here are the basics of this weeklong Jewish holiday.

What Is Passover?

In a Kosher nutshell: Passover commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from ancient Egypt, and their transition from a life of slavery to one of freedom.

The longer story is this: After decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, God noticed the Jews’ suffering and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” When Pharaoh refused, God sent 10 devastating plagues (think: fiery hail, locusts, and darkness) to Egypt.

The final plague was the worst: the death of all firstborn sons. On the last night, God came to deliver the plague to any home that did not have lamb’s blood smeared on the doorposts. The homes with the blood were passed over, thus the name of the holiday: Passover.

Passover is a ritualistic way of enabling all Jews to see themselves as slaves, reminding them to know the pain of those who are still oppressed in the world, and to work toward perfecting the world in the year to come.

How Is Passover Celebrated?

On the first two nights of Passover there is a Seder. A full-length Seder consists of 14 parts, performed in order and each with blessings, songs, and, very often, special food and drinks.

The main elements of the Seder are as follows:

  • Four cups of wine, which remind the Jews of the four promises of redemption.
  • The telling of the actual Exodus story, or Maggid.
  • Ceremonial foods.
  • Songs of praise, or Hallel.

The Seder plate is used during these portions to symbolize various parts of the Exodus.

Although there are only official Seders on the first two nights, Jews must continue to eat only foods that are Kosher for Passover for the remainder of the holiday.

What’s a Haggadah?

Think of it as the playbook or script for the night; it’s a book that sets the order of the Seder. It tells the story of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt and the miracles God performed to free them. In Hebrew the word Haggadah means “telling.” Fun fact: More versions of the Haggadah have been published than any other Jewish book.

There is a Haggadah for everyone, ranging from the traditional Maxwell House Haggadah (which was distributed for free by the coffee company) and a Bob Marley Haggadah (our Rabbi says it’s actually pretty awesome), to Haggadah the Card game and self-published versions.

What Does It Mean to Be Kosher for Passover?

Kosher foods meet strict Jewish dietary laws. These laws forbid the eating of certain items like pork and shellfish and consuming meat and dairy products together. Some foods, like meats and poultry, also need to be slaughtered using specific rules. All of these items are labeled and supervised by a specially trained Rabbinical authority.

During Passover, these law still hold true, but additional laws are added to them for the entirety of the week-long holiday. “Food rules get a lot stricter on Passover because for a whole week, grains like wheat, oats, spelt, barley, and rye are not allowed,” says Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking. Collectively these items are called chametz.

Some Jews, particularly Ashkenazi, who hail from Eastern Europe, have historically also avoided legumes, beans, rice, corn, quinoa, and other grain-like foods, collectively know as kitniyot. However, the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of conservative rabbis, recently passed a ruling to permit the eating of kitniyot on Passover (something the Sephardic Jews have always done). Still, some people tend to adopt more stringent feelings towards koshrut laws for Pesach than they do the rest of the year.

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How Can You Tell If Something Is Kosher for Passover?

There are a whole slew of certifying agents that label food as such, but two of the most common symbols feature either a K or a U in a circle with the letter P to the right of the circle. The P can also refer to Parve, a food that’s prepared without meat or dairy or its products. Seeing that on the label of a particular food or wine often signifies that it’s OK to consume over Passover, but the words “Kosher for Passover” are obviously the clearest.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

What’s with All the Matzo?

When the Jews fled Egypt, they were in such a hurry, there was no time to wait for the dough to rise. They ate the unleavened bread, known as matzo (also sometimes spelled matza or matzah) and so that’s what the Jews eat during Passover.

Matzo is eaten three times throughout the Seder.

  • After telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Maggid).
  • As a sandwich with the charoset and the maror (bitter herb).
  • For the Afikoman at the end of the meal.

Learn More

What’s This Afikoman?

No, it’s not a superhero character or the Jewish version of the Easter bunny. A piece of matzo gets broken and hidden before the seder beings. It’s known as the Afikoman and the kids are often sent to look for it. (Sometimes, the finder gets a prize or money!) Finding the Afikoman symbolizes a move from brokenness toward healing.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Maybe a large group from your synagogue is coming? Or maybe it’s just your immediate family? Either way, hosting your first Seder is a big deal! Not to freak you out or anything. Don’t stress. As long as you know the general rules, you will do great.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

1. You’re going to need a Seder plate.

Perhaps the most important part of the Seder, the Seder plate holds most of the symbolic elements that will be discussed throughout the meal. The Seder plate is rich with tradition, and many communities or even families have their own way of setting up the plate. In other words, there’s no single right way to set up a seder plate. Here are a few ideas.

4 Ways to Set Up a Seder Plate

2. Brisket is tradition.

A lot of families traditionally make a brisket. We love this recipe because it’s done in a slow cooker, which means you, as the host, can focus on other things.

Note: The recipe includes soy sauce, which contains soy and wheat, neither of which are allowed during Passover. Either omit it entirely or use a Kosher-for-Passover alternative (like coconut aminos).

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

3. But you have options.

There’s a ton of stuff you can make for the main Seder meal. A lot of people make lamb, which is also a symbolic nod to the Paschal Lamb the Jews sacrificed on the eve of the first Passover. As a mark of respect for the memory of the sacrifices some Jews won’t eat lamb at Passover, and some will but not if it’s roasted. It’s a matter of tradition. In general, Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat lamb, while Sephardic Jews not only permit it, but also make it a staple dish.

(Image credit: Molly Yeh)

4. The sides can be simple.

There will already be hard-boiled eggs and charoset, a mixture of chopped apples and walnuts in red wine sauce. Admittedly, these aren’t necessarily your usual go-to sides, but they’re sides nonetheless. The point is, you don’t need to make a ton of other sides. Just pick a few from the list below. Hint: Matzo ball soup is considered by many to be a holiday essential.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

5. Everyone loves dessert.

Dessert is a crowd-pleaser. Everyone loves it (basically). And just because you can’t eat regular cake doesn’t mean you can’t have cake at all! There are plenty of recipes for Kosher-for-Passover desserts.

In a traditionally Kosher home, dairy will not be served after a meat dish. Desserts should therefore be made (or bought) Pareve, which means that they don’t contain either dairy or meat. Again, if you’re buying something, look for the P on the label. And don’t forget the iconic store-bought jelly fruit slices and chocolate-covered marshmallows!

Build Your Passover Menu




(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

As a guest, the truth is that not that much is expected of you. For the most part, you just have to show up hungry and willing to participate. Your host will guide you through the Seder and you don’t really have to worry about messing up or ruining the meal — as long as you follow her lead.

Of course, if you’re an overachiever, you can always do some reading ahead of time. Here are a few other tips for newbies and repeat guests.

1. You should bring a store-bought treat.

Even if you make a treat that’s technically Kosher for Passover, your host might not be able to eat food made in a non-Kosher kitchen. If you don’t want to show up empty-handed, bring a store-bought Passover treat. Or ask your host if they prefer wines that have a Kosher-for-Passover certification. If they do, some hosts might prefer a mevushal label over a non-mevushal wine. (Mevushal wine can be handled and served by non-Jews and is just heated up very quickly in a process called flash pasteurization.)

Some Ideas

2. Learn these two phrases.

There are two phrases you will probably hear a lot as you meet people: chag sameach (translating to happy festival) and gut yontif (which means good holy day). Smile and say it back. Simple!

3. You might be asked to wash your hands.

Not all Seders include the ritual hand washings. If it’s happening at your Seder, follow everyone’s lead. There will be a pitcher and a bowl. Pour water over your right hand, and then your left.

(Image credit: Galil Mountain)

4. There will be wine.

Four cups of wine are traditionally drunk throughout the Seder. (The cups remind the Jews of the four promises of redemption.) Make sure you eat earlier in the day and hydrate with water.

Note: There will be a cup of wine in the middle of the table. Do not drink that. It is not for you. It is for Elijah the prophet, who visits every Jewish home on Passover to witness the celebration. (The front door will also be left slightly open for him. You might think you’re being a good guest by closing it, but just leave it be.)

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

5. You might be served some weird looking fish.

Many Ashkenazi Seders aren’t complete without a gefilte fish appetizer course. Of course, there is no fish species known as gefilte. Rather, gefilte fish is an appetizer made by grinding together several types of fish, like carp, whitefish, or pike. It is an acquired taste (and smell). Try it but do not feel obligated to finish it.

6. It’s going to take a while.

A full-out Seder — with all the bells and whistles — can take up to three hours. Of course, less traditional ones can only take 30 minutes! Your host will probably give you a heads up ahead of time, but be prepared just in case. Also note that some Seders don’t start until sundown.

Editorial consultant: Rabbi Josh Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in New York.