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6 Facts About Passover

Every spring, Jews celebrate when God led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. The commemoration begins with a seder (Hebrew for “order”), a ceremony full of symbolic foods and rituals. Over the following week, Jews may eat matzo, a flat cracker that doesn’t have leavening (yeast, baking powder, or baking soda), and strictly avoid leavened flour products like bread and cookies. (Other dietary restrictions during Passover also apply for some Jews, depending on their culture.) The restriction against leavened foods honors the fleeing slaves who didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise, and ate it flat instead.

The seder story comes from the second book of the Old Testament, Exodus, a Latin word that means “exit” or “departure.” It is a story of miracles, acts of bravery, and deliverance from oppression that has inspired people for centuries.

Its Story Features Some Strong Women

In the first chapter of Exodus, the king of Egypt, probably Pharaoh Ramses II, commands two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all newborn boys they deliver for Hebrew women. At the time, the Hebrews in Egypt were enslaved.

Risking his anger, the midwives let the boys live. When the pharaoh asks why, they give him an excuse: Hebrew women are “vigorous.” That is, “Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” Pharaoh does not punish the midwives, but orders the Hebrews to drown all newborn boys in the Nile.

The defiance continues, with women at the center. First the mother of Moses defies the law, placing the newborn Moses in a basket to float on the river, followed by his sister, Miriam. When the pharaoh's daughter comes to bathe in the Nile and sees the basket and that it holds an infant, Miriam steps in and offers to find a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child. Pharaoh's daughter agrees, later adopting Moses as her son.

Its Name May Mean ‘Compassion’

Turning the tables on the pharaoh, God orders the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Jews are instructed to put blood from a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts as a sign to God to “pass over” their houses and allow their children to live. Jews learn that this is the origin of the holiday’s name, which is Pesach in Hebrew and Passover in English.

However, the Hebrew term translated in that passage of Exodus as “pass over” has also been translated as meaning “having mercy” or “I will have compassion.”

The Last Supper May Have Been A Seder

Religious paintings, most famously one by Leonardo da Vinci, show Jesus, who was Jewish, eating his last meal with his disciples gathered around him. The meal is described as a seder in the Gospel of Mark and in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  

Although scholars have found evidence that suggests the meal was a seder, there are arguments against this idea. The Gospel of John places the crucifixion as being on “the day of preparation of the Passover,” at noon, which suggests the last supper was the evening before. Whatever actually happened, some American Christians celebrate their own seders or join with Jews in interfaith services.

It Inspired A Negro Spiritual

“Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old pharaoh to
Let my people go
Now, when Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand

The lyrics from this spiritual, immortalized byPaul Robeson and Louis Armstrong, quote directly from Exodus 5:1. When enslaved Africans sang it while working in pre-Civil War America, their enslavers may have heard only a biblical reference, and not understood the song as rebellious against their enslavement.

Abraham Lincoln Was Assassinated During Passover

Americans learned on April 10, 1865 that the South had surrendered and the bloody Civil War was finally over. It was the morning before Passover; Jews held their seder, their own celebration of freedom from slavery, that very night.

When President Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, and died the next morning, Jews would hear the news as they were on their way to synagogue or already worshipping on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, with the specific service for Passover. In Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York, the oldest Jewish congregation in the nation, the rabbi recited the prayer for the dead for Lincoln, although it was not the custom to recite it for non-Jews.

Following the prayer for Lincoln, the service most likely moved to the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones from the Book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet sees a field of bones fill with life and become a “great army.” There is a moving connection here to Lincoln’s own words: in his famous “House Divided” speech, Lincoln uses language referring to that passage. Around the country, the first eulogiesfor Lincoln were delivered by rabbis.

Israeli Backpackers Flock To Seders Abroad

Young Israelis who have just completed their military service often go backpacking for months before they return to Israel for their education. Many go to Nepal, sometimes between visits to Thailand and India, traveling in groups. Most Israelis go to seders, even if they aren’t religious, so the international Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad holds ahuge dinner every year in Kathmandu for some thousand guests. There are also seders for thousands in Gondar, Ethiopia, and on the Thai Island of Ko Samui.

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