Passover: A Gentile’s Guide

by Samantha Plotner

Secretly (or not-so-secretly), everyone’s
favorite part of Passover

For you goyim (Yiddish for “gentiles”), starting tonight at sundown is the week-long celebration of Passover. Here’s a little introduction of the customs and the theology behind Passover, just in case you happen to be feeling a little disconnected from the third of Barnard’s campus that might be celebrating. For those more familiar with Passover, skip ahead for a break down on the symbols and meanings behind various parts of the Passover Seder. Also, check out our compilation of Passover-related parodies.

So… Passover. What’s that?
Pesach is a week that commemorates the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. The most noticeable aspect of the holiday is not eating anything with “ leaven” in it (in other words, anything that rises). It also includes a ritual meal known as a Seder for the first two nights. For many Jews the celebration of Passover is a family and home-oriented affair that happens entirely without the presence of a rabbi or entering a synagogue. Like Thanksgiving, families will often travel to be together for at the least one of the Seders (for example, yours truly is writing this on my train home).

What do you not eat?
What is and is not kosher for Passover varies depending on your observance. For most Jews that observe the dietary rules things like bread, cereal, and pasta are off the menu. Other details vary. For example, Orthodox Jews will not use any food item that came in contact with leavened foods, and often have an entirely different set of dishes, cookware, and cutlery reserved for Passover. Many Orthodox households also traditionally clean their house of any levened product prior to Passover. Ashkenazi Jews (who trace their roots to Eastern Europe) won’t eat legumes, while Sephardic Jews (who trace their roots to Spain and North Africa) will.

So what do you eat instead of bread?
Bread gets replaced with a flat cracker called matzo. Regular matzo is a fairly bland item of food, though especially in New York City you can often find seasoned ones. In the past during Passover, some of my non-Jewish friends have seen me eating matzo and expressed how much they loved it. Try eating it three meals a day for a week, and you might not have the same opinion anymore!

What’s a Seder?
The Passover Seder is a ritual meal that you have with family and friends on the first two nights of the holiday, which originates from a biblical commandment to teach one’s children the story of our exodus from Egypt. However, a traditional Seder now has many other religious conventions (the term Seder actually means order in Hebrew). At the center of the table are two things, the Seder plate and a glass of wine. The Seder plate holds an egg, haroset, parsley, salt water and bitter herbs. All are used at different points in the meal to symbolize different things. Also, it is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) to invite those who have nowhere to go for the holiday to your family’s table.

What happens at a Seder?

We weren’t kidding.

Well, there is variation of course, but there is a special book called a Haggadah to help you out with the order. Some families will go through the whole thing, while others will skip parts. The short way to explain it is that it tells the story of the exodus from Egypt with visual aids and songs. The items on the Seder plate all come into play to describe different things. The egg is a symbol of new life. You dip the parsley into to salt water and eat it to symbolize the tears the slaves cried in captivity. Haroset (typically a mixture of nuts and apples but the recipe varies widely from one family to another) symbolizes the mortar used to build the pyramids. You eat bitter herbs (often horseradish) to remind you of the bitterness of slavery. The glass of wine is for the prophet Elijah, who’s return is said to precede that of the Messiah. During the Seder someone will open a door to allow Elijah to enter your home, while everyone sings one of the slowest prayers of the evening. The meal’s other solemn moment comes during the recitation of the ten plagues.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Exodus tale, when Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Jewish slaves go free and Pharaoh refused, God inflicted ten plagues (locusts, hail, frogs, etc., culminating with the death of each first born child) on the Egyptians. The recitation of the plagues is intended to be recognition of the fact that innocent Egyptians had to suffer for the Jews to gain their freedom. As each plague is recited, it is custom to dip your finger into your glass of wine, removing a drop for each plague onto your plate. The idea is that you symbolically deprive yourself of some of the pleasure of the wine. The two most upbeat moments (in my opinion anyway) are the four questions and Diayneu. The four questions are traditional recited by the youngest child present (though some families will have all the children sing). The questions ask variations on “why is this night different from all other nights of the year.” Diayneu is a prayer that translates to “it would have been enough,” basically in thanks to God for everything he has given to the Jews. It’s one of my favorites, not so much because of it’s religious message but because the tune is upbeat and fun to sing. There is also the Afikomen, the middle piece of matzo in the stack on the table, which is blessed and then hidden. Afterwards, the children will all try to find it, and whomever does wins a prize. Then, you get to eat!

How long does that take?
That really depends on if you do all of the prayers in the Haggadah, and how much commentary the leader decides to insert.

Samantha is a junior at Barnard and Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing. Her dad once made her and her sisters get up and open the door for Elijah while they had a Seder in a restaurant in Puerto Rico.


Images courtesy of Towson University and Reform Judaism Magazine.

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