The Food Traditions of Passover
The holiday of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) begins this year Wednesday night, April 8, and continues through April 16. Passover is the festival of the Jewish calendar most focused on the home. This spring celebration re-enacts the Exodus in our kitchens and living rooms so that all participating in the ceremonial meal, or Seder (meaning Order), feel as if they, too, were taken out of slavery and are now free. Here’s a little Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Passover from an old friend of mine…
Preparations for Passover begin typically a month before the holiday commences, with traditional Jews emptying their homes of the five Biblical grains (rye, oats, wheat, barley, and spelt), as well as any foods derived from those grains. Additionally, Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European origin) remove a separate additional class of foods called kitniyot, including corn, peas, beans, and rice. The idea is to remove anything that rises, recalling that the Jews left Egypt in haste and their bread did not rise, leaving them with flat (and very difficult to digest!) Matzah. The grains used in Matzah are monitored very closely so that they do not bake long enough to rise fully.
The spring cleaning preceding Passover involves not only cleaning your living spaces, but also your mind, as you examine what “enslaves” you in your daily dealings emotionally as well as what can get filled with hot air and puffs up in your pantry.
The Seder itself begins after nightfall and often continue well into the early hours of morning, with children asleep on sofas and adults enjoying this very unique holiday where all you need to be close to something bigger than ourselves is food, drink, and friends and family.
The Seder consists of fourteen parts, performed in order, and each with blessings, songs, and very often, special food and drinks. The main elements of the Seder are: four cups of wine, the telling of the actual Exodus story (Maggid), ceremonial foods, and songs of praise (Hallel).
1) The Four cups of wine/grape juice. These cups are sort of Jewish punctuation marks in the Seder! They are spread out through the Seder, and some people say they represent four important women in the Pesach story. Some say they represent four different elements of freedom. Whatever they may represent, they are to be consumed slowly and while reclining, since we are free now and can drink with leisure. Sweet kosher wine is traditional, but any wine or grape juice is acceptable.
2) The Telling (Maggid). The story of Moses’ birth, him being sent down the river, saved by Pharoah’s daughter, raised as an Egyptian, then called upon by a vision of a burning bush to redeem his people; this is told in parable and narrative for every level of participant to understand. There are songs, the Four Questions, and open discussion around the dinner table. For all the praying Jews do in Temple throughout the year, this part of the Seder stands out as the true festival of the home, open to all forms of understanding and knowledge of the holiday.
3) The ceremonial foods. A Seder plate adorns the dinner table with room for 7 things: 1) an egg symbolizing spring and birth. 2) a roasted shankbone represents the blood of a lamb which was painted on the doorposts of Jewish homes before the Exodus to indicate that the angel of death ought pass over these homes as the firstborn Egyptian children were harmed. 3) Charoset is a little salad of apples, walnuts, and sweet wine, symbolizing the mortar used when the Jews were slaves. Jews of Spanish and Middle Eastern heritage also add cinnamon and dates. 4) Horseradish symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. 5) A bitter lettuce to represent slavery — lettuce being at first rather bland but with increasing chewing gets tedious and often bitter, so slavery began as a nuisance and soon became difficult and painful. 6) a green such as parsley for the first growth of spring. 7) salt water for the tears shed by those enslaved.
4) Songs of Praise. The holiday is not complete without songs and prayers at the dinner table, thanking each other for participating, thanking good fortune for bringing us this far in our history, and hoping for a day when all people will know of great peace and love.
Of all of the Jewish holidays, Passover is often the most beloved among children and adults alike. The flavors of every family’s home infuse each Seder with something unique and warm, and although the preparations can be tiring and tedious, the rewards are great, and freedom is indeed very sweet.
(Mayim Chaya Bialik is a vegan who cooks a mean prime rib for her Passover guests. She has a PhD in Neuroscience, and an undergraduate degree in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She makes a foot-long chart of all the cooking and cleaning to be done for Pesach every year and has never missed checking something off. She lives in LA with her husband and two sons and makes her own challah every Friday for Shabbat.)