Things you might not know about Passover

As the sun sets on 19 April, Jewish people around the world will begin celebrations for the festival of Passover.

Passover marks the exit of the Jewish people from Egypt, where they were enslaved, as told in the Old Testament. This is known as the Exodus. You might remember this crucial biblical story, or its Hollywood renditions – but do fruit paste, oranges and cleaning scream ‘Passover’ to you? No? Then read on!

Passing over

The word Passover is a direct translation of the Hebrew Pesach. The name is linked to the last of the 10 plagues sent by God to free the Jewish people from slavery: an angel killing the first-born of each Egyptian family.

To protect their children, God told the Jewish people to mark their doors with lamb's blood, so that the angel would know to – you guessed it – pass over them. And so the term Passover came to be.

Matzo bread is similar to a water cracker and is kosher food for Passover.

Pesach also left its mark on other languages. In Spanish, Italian and French the word for Easter (respectively Pascua, Pasqua and Pâque) comes from the Hebrew word. The two holidays are linked on the calendar as well.

Flat, flat bread

After the angels had completed God’s mission, the Israelites had to leave in a rush, which explains one of the most deep-rooted Passover traditions.

Essentially, there was no time to make bread. Having to leave in a hurry meant the dough wouldn’t have time to rise.

As a result, during Passover Jewish people do not eat the sort of sliced loaf we see on supermarket shelves. Instead, they eat a flat, unleavened bread called matzo. Matzo has to be made under strict conditions to be considered suitable (or ‘kosher’) for the holiday.

Once the mixture of water and flour is ready, no more than 18 minutes can pass between the start of the kneading process and baking, as it is around this time that dough begins to rise. Hundreds of holes are pricked into the dough before it goes into the oven to stop it from rising. The end result is a thin, crispy bread, not too dissimilar from a water cracker.

Like Passover itself, matzo represents freedom from slavery. And it did so at a very critical time in world history: at the end of the Second World War, V-shaped slices were produced in America so that they could be sent out to Jewish members of the armed forces to celebrate victory against the Nazis.

If you’re curious, check out BBC Food for some matzo-based recipes.

Passover is one of the biggest celebrations in the Jewish calendar.
Chametz food is also burnt prior to Passover to ensure homes are kosher for the festival.

Clean, clean, clean

Any food product that isn’t kosher for Passover is known as chametz and must be removed from the home.

To make sure there is no chametz anywhere, every room of the house has to have a thorough, top-to-bottom, deep scrub in the run up to the festival.

With everything from pots, pans and crockery needing a clean, it’s not unusual for some families to keep sets of cooking and dining ware that are specifically for Passover.

More than a plate

Passover starts with a long meal called seder, whose centrepiece (quite literally, as it’s placed right in the middle of the table) is the seder plate. This is often a china plate separated into different sections, full of symbolic foods, such as a lamb shank, hard-boiled eggs and bitter herbs.

One of the most symbolic of them is what’s known as charoset, a sweet paste of apples, pears, wine and nuts. This represents the mortar and building blocks the Israelites had to make while they were slaves.

The tradtional Seder plate which sits at the centre of the Passover feast.
This Seder plate contains an orange and an olive to represent inclusivity and promote peace between Israel and Palestine.

From pharaohs to the 21st Century

In recent years, some groups have included more contemporary symbols in their seder plates.

Some will use an orange to show solidarity with female empowerment and the LGBT community. In some cases, the spitting out of pips after those at the feast have eaten an orange segment, is an allusion to ejecting homophobia from within.

Olives are also appearing to promote peace between Israel and Palestine, and artichokes are making an appearance where families are a blend of faiths. Pinecones have also been used to show sympathy towards prisoners as the pine nut within, seen here as the human soul, is treasured but difficult to reach beyond the protective spokes of the cone.

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What is Passover?