Pesach - The Festival of Freedom
Also known as the Festival of Freedom (Zeman Cherutenu), this eight day (seven in Israel and some Diaspora Communities) festival commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE, and their redemption from slavery. The name "Pesach" is derived from the Hebrew word "pasach" (lit. "he passed over"), referring to G-d's sparing of the Jews when He killed the firstborn Egyptians.
Pesach is also known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Chag Hamatzot), as matzah is eaten throughout the holiday in remembrance of the hastily prepared bread which the Jews took with them when they left Egypt. Jewish law prescribes that no chametz (leavened bread) be owned or consumed throughout Pesach.
Nissan and Spring
Pesach falls on the fifteenth day of the Jewish calendar month of Nissan, and is one of the Shalosh Regalim (the three major pilgrimage festivals) when during the times of the Temples in Israel, Jews flocked to Jerusalem to offer a tithe of their produce.
The month of Nissan is considered to symbolize freedom, life and rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, Nissan coincides with the beginning of spring and is the perfect time for spiritual and physical spring cleaning. Pesach is thus also known by the name, Chag Ha'aviv (Festival of the Spring).
The prohibition against chametz
The Jews were commanded by G-d, "[For] seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses. you shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread." (Exodus, 12: 19-20)
Chametz is defined as any one of five grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) after it has come in contact with water for longer than eighteen minutes, giving it time to ferment and thus rise. All these five grains are prohibited during the holiday, except when they have been strictly guarded since harvest and carefully and specifically prepared for Pesach.
Ashkenazi Jews observe an additional stringent custom not to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Kitniyot are legumes or other grains that resemble the 5 prohibited grains and can rise with the addition of water or any other liquid.
On Pesach, our embryonic national identity was formed. The formation of Israel had to be perfect - there was no room for an impurity like false pride, symbolized by chametz (which is what makes bread rise and is associated with pride and indulgence).
The pre-Pesach ceremonies of bedikat chametz (checking for leaven) and bi'ur chametz (burning the leaven) are performed in Jewish homes to ensure that all chametz has been removed or else nullified through a special declaration. (Check in any standard siddur, prayerbook, for the appropriate blessings. The Artscroll Siddur also includes a full explanation of these ceremonies.)
The Seder and the Hagaddah
The seder (lit. "order") is the ritual meal, during which the story of the Jews' enslavement in Egypt and subsequent liberation is told, with the central narrative and liturgy found in a text, known as the haggadah (recounting). The idea is for each participant in the seder to discuss the story of the exodus from Egypt as if he or she personally had been part of this great event. The seder, as its name implies, is a structured, "ordered" affair which guides its participants through the story of the Exodus and prompts questions, interpretations and explanations. It concludes with the expression of our hope and prayers for a final redemption when all Jews will be reunited in Jerusalem.
In the Diaspora, the seder is conducted on both of the first two nights of Pesach, whilst in Israel - it is only conducted on the first night.
The haggadah is a collection of narrative sources interspersed with ritual, legend, prayers, blessings and songs of thanksgiving collected throughout the ages, and finally compiled in 8CE by the Geonim. The haggadah conveys the message of freedom and liberation, and modern editions have been altered over time to reflect contemporary issues. The Kibbutz movement has produced haggadot with socialist/secular themes; Freedom haggadot from the cold war period strengthened solidarity with Soviet Jewry, and women's haggadot have incorporated feminist ideals.
In the synagogue
On the first day of Pesach, the special prayer for dew is recited to mark the end of the winter season and the beginning of spring. In Ashkenazi synagogues, the beautiful and poetic Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) is recited on the Shabbat which falls during Pesach. Shir Hashirim is commonly interpreted as an allegorical expression of the intimate relationship between G-d and the Jewish nation. Hallel (Psalms of Praise) are also read in the synagogue.
The motif of four during Pesach
The number "four" appears frequently within the haggadah and in the writings of the rabbis related to Pesach.
1. Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kappar said: By virtue of four things the Israelites were redeemed: they did not change their [Jewish] names, they did not change their [Hebrew] language, they did not reveal secrets, and they did not abolish the Brit Milah [circumcision].
2. Four cups of wine (arba kosot) are drunk at each seder. They are said to symbolize the following four notions related to Pesach:
"Therefore [Moshe should] say to the children of Israel, I am the L-rd, and  I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and  I will deliver you out of their bondage, and  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements: and  I will take you to me as a people…" (Exodus, 6:6-7, emphasis added).
According to another source, the drinking of the four cups was introduced during the Temple period to symbolize Israel's salvation from four different kingdoms which oppressed us: Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome.
3. Four questions are traditionally asked by the children at each seder. This is commonly known as the "Ma Nishtana" - "What distinguishes [this night from all other nights?]. These questions relate to the matzah, the maror (bitter herbs), and the practices of dipping vegetables into salt water and leaning to one side during the seder.
4. Four sons are alluded to in the haggadah to symbolize the four main types of Jews - the righteous, the wicked, the simple and those who do not know how to ask.
5. Pesach is known by many names but the following four are the most used and referred to:
Chag Ha Pesach - The Festival of Passover
Chag Hamatzot - The Festival of Unleavened Bread
Zeman Cherutenu - The Festival of Freedom
Chag Ha'aviv - The Festival of Spring
Also on the WUJS site:
Pesach Sources: Historical, traditional, and contemporary.
Pesach Recipes: Yum!
10 Haggadah Companions to Enrich and Inspire your Seder
This year's dates for Pesach can be found in our WUJS Year Mapper.