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Why Everyone Loves Passover

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 17:49

Of all Jewish holidays, Passover is perhaps the most celebrated among American Jews. More Jews attend a Passover Seder each year than fast on Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish calendar.

Passover is one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals on the calendar, the others being Shavuot (the festival of weeks) and Sukkot (the festival of booths). The latter festivals receive scant attention among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States, whereas Passover has become an iconic Jewish holiday.

Among American Jews, Passover has emerged as not just the most celebrated holiday, but I would argue that it also evokes the most spiritual meaning and stirs the identity of its participants. Jews love Passover because the holiday brings rituals and conversations that offer a perspective of seeing the world through a timeless narrative, and a never-ending conversation about freedom, exodus, oppression, and justice.

There is a joke that sums up most Jewish holidays with the aphorism “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Passover certainly fits this mold.

But a Passover Seder is only partly about eating, and the food that we do eat is generally less than appetizing. While Jews tolerate matzo, the unleavened staple bread of Passover, there is good reason why most Jews stop eating it after the seven-day celebration (some Jews celebrate it for eight days) is over. Matzo tastes like a bland cracker, lacking both flavor and a pleasing texture. Jews nonetheless eat this flat bread because its taste evokes a barren dry desert in the wilderness.

On Passover, Jews are supposed to see themselves as if they had left Egypt, and matzo certainly tastes like the oppression of journeying through the desert. Tasting the persecution of our ancestors, we discuss the question “How can we in our own day relieve the yoke upon the persecuted?” The questioning continues all throughout the night, eliciting novel answers to a traditional script of questions.

The Exodus isn’t just a narrative that happened once upon a time, it happens all the time. The rituals of Passover remind us of our past, but they also compel us to empathize with the suffering of the present. When, for example, we talk about the 10 plagues — blood, frogs, lice, beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born — stricken upon the Egyptians, the tradition is to spill out 10 drops of wine, acknowledging the blood of the Egyptians harmed during the deluge of destruction upon Egypt.

Many Jews also take note of the contemporary plagues people all over the world suffer, and converse about homelessness, hunger, inequality, racism, gender discrimination, environmental destruction, gun violence, addiction, and sexual assault.

The rituals and questions elicit the kind of extraordinary conversations that are rarely heard at the dinner table. One interpretation of the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach, is that it means peh-siach, the conversation of the mouth. It’s an apt description of a Passover Seder.

People relish talking through extended narratives, asking relentless questions, and performing rituals with highly symbolic items because these are the ingredients for a gripping conversation that captivates spiritual and intellectual experience. There are always some who complain that the ritual takes too long before the meal is served, but for most the conversation trumps the food.

Passover has become such a popular holiday that communities of other faiths sometimes adopt the tradition of a Seder. Barack Obama even initiated a private Seder at the White House during his presidency.

If you want to discover the power of Passover, join us at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons for our annual community second night Seder on Saturday. Information can be found and tickets purchased at JCOH.org/passover.


Josh Franklin serves as the rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton.


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