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What Does Passover Celebrate?

Each spring, people all over the world take part in one of the most sacred and widely observed Jewish holidays: Passover. For eight days, Jewish families commemorate the ancient exodus of Israelites from Egyptian slavery by reading the Passover story, eating matzah, and taking part in other rituals. So, what is the story of Passover, and why is it cause for celebration?

Slavery in Egypt

Camels in Egyptian desert sitting adjacent to large, distant pyramids
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The beginning of the Passover story isn’t a pleasant one. According to the Hebrew Bible, the early Jews experienced a severe famine in their homeland, Canaan, and were forced to relocate to Egypt. Originally, the Jews lived in harmony with the Egyptians, but over the course of a few generations, that relationship changed.

As their population grew, the Egyptians began to see them as a threat. To subdue any possibility that they may endanger his rule, the Egyptian pharaoh ordered all Israelites to be enslaved. He even took it so far as to drown all of their firstborn sons in the Nile as both an oppressive tactic and to curb their population.

Rise of Moses

Moses was the firstborn son of a Hebrew couple. To save his life, his mother set the newborn adrift on the Nile in a basket. He floated down the river until he was discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter, who took him in and raised him as royalty in the palace.

When he got older, Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He stepped in to stop the beating and ended up killing the Egyptian guard. To avoid being found out, he buried the body in the sand. Later, after realizing his crime was discovered, Moses fled Egypt for the nearby lands of Midian.

In Midian, Moses renounced his royalty and took on a peaceful life as a shepherd, married, and had two sons. One day, he discovered a mysterious bush that seemed to be on fire but wasn’t burning. Through the bush, Moses heard a message from God telling him to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew people. Moses reluctantly accepted the divine mission.

Return to Egypt

The Nile River with boats sailing
Credit: Calin Stan/ iStock

Moses did as he was instructed. He returned to Egypt and met with the pharaoh, demanding he “let my people go!” The pharaoh refused, and Moses warned that there would be severe consequences if the pharaoh did not do as the Hebrew God demanded.

Soon, 10 plagues were released upon Egypt, each one harsher than the last. First, the water of the Nile turned to blood. Then, there were plagues of frogs, lice, and flies, followed by a pestilence that killed all Egyptian livestock. Next came plagues of boils, hail, locusts, and then three days of darkness. The tenth plague was one that had been used by the pharaoh against the enslaved Israelites: the death of all firstborns.

In preparation for this plague, God told Moses that all families who wished to be spared should mark their door with the blood of a lamb, and the plague would “pass over” them. The pharaoh, still not believing, did not heed Moses’s warning. At midnight, the pharaoh’s firstborn son died, and he finally agreed to free the Israelites and let them leave Egypt.

Exodus From Egypt

Soon, the pharaoh’s grief was replaced with rage. He began amassing his army to chase the Jews and bring them back to his lands. Hundreds of thousands fled in a matter of hours; the Israelites left in such a hurry that they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise — hence the Passover tradition of eating unleavened bread, matzah. The pharaoh chased them all the way to the Red Sea, where Moses performed a miracle and parted the waters so His People could have safe passage across.

The Israelites evaded their Egyptian pursuers and were able to begin a new life as a free people.

Celebrating Passover

People sit around table for traditional Passover seder, surrounded by plates and glassware
Credit: JodiJacobson/ iStock

Such an incredible story certainly deserves celebration. The first two nights of Passover are celebrated with a family feast called a seder. Traditionally, families sacrificed and ate a lamb in remembrance of the final plague “passing over” the Jewish families. Today, many Jewish families still enjoy lamb in their seder dinner. There are also many traditional, symbolic dishes, such as eggs, bitter herbs, and a fruit-and-nut paste called haroset, that are found during a seder.

The final two days of Passover are used to commemorate Moses’s parting of the Red Sea and the finale of the exodus. During the first two and the last two days of Passover, observant Jews do not work, drive, write, or use any electronic devices. The days in the middle are less strict.

Because the Jews leaving Egypt didn’t have time for their bread to rise, for the entire eight days of Passover, Jewish families don’t eat any food that contains yeast or certain grains that could ferment if mixed with water, like wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Some families even rid their entire house of products that contain chametz, or leavened grain. The exception, though, is matzah, the beloved hard cracker-like bread that uses grain but is cooked before it's allowed to rise.