The Meaning and History of Pesach

The Jewish holiday Passover, or Pesach as it is called in Hebrew, is a reliving of the great defining moment of the Jewish people. This event which occurred circa 2500 BC is the very foundation of their faith, and is the heart of their identity as a people.

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So what happened back then? The entire story is found in the second book of the Jewish Scriptures, Shemot, or Exodus, as it is more popularly known. We read there how G-d called Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians. Since Pharaoh did not want to let the people go, G-d sent ten plagues to the land of Egypt to convince him–frogs, locusts, darkness, rivers turning to blood. The last and most devastating of these plagues is the death of all the first-born sons. The Israelite first-born were miraculously unaffected by this one because, as per G-d’s instruction, they marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood, so that the He passed over their homes, sparing their sons, hence the name of the holiday — Passover.

After the last plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to release Israel. And off they went. Later on in the story he would change his mind and chase after them, which led to even more wondrous deeds from Israel’s Redeemer.

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All these events of millennia past are recounted and remembered during the days of Passover. In these 7 days, Jewish people avoid leavening in their bread, and only eat Matzah, unleavened bread, as they did in Egypt, as people in flight. This symbolizes that they were all in a hurry to leave that they did not have time to let their dough rise.

Passover is not just an “independence day” celebration for the Jewish people. The most profound meaning of this festival is that this was when Israel first encountered G-d, and their first experience of him is that of salvation. And just like old lovers celebrating their anniversary and telling their grandchildren how they first met, Passover is a recounting and a celebration of G-d’s loving revelation to his people.

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In 2011, Passover begins on April 19 and ends on April 25. Note that Jewish holidays begin at sunset the night before, so technically, Passover starts on the evening of April 18.