Passover 2015: Seven things you may not know about the Jewish festival

Celebrations last for eight days until 11 April

Sundown this evening marks the beginning of Passover, known as Pesach in Hebrew.

We answer some frequently asked questions on one of the most important Jewish festivals that this year coincides with Easter weekend.

What does the festival celebrate?

During Passover, Jewish people remember how Moses freed Israelites who were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaohs over 3,000 years ago.

According to the story relayed in the Book of Exodus, Moses called for the Pharoah to free the Israelites, and warned that if he failed to do so Egypt would be hit by terrible plagues of: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, blight of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of every first-born male in Egypt.

Eventually Pharaoh gave in and told Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt. This exodus is an important thread in many stories and prayers. They left in such a rush that their bread did not have time to rise. This is why Jewish people eat unleavened bread during Passover.


Why is it called Passover?

When the Pharoah refused to free the slaves and ignored the other plagues, God warned Moses that to protect their first-born sons, the Israelites should mark their doors with lamb’s blood. This is so God would know to ‘pass over’ their houses and spare them from the plague that blighted the Egyptians.

What do Jewish people eat and drink?

One of the main foods eaten during Passover is unleavened flat bread, similar to crackers, called matzah. It is traditionally viewed as the bread of the poor, and is symbolically consumed to remind followers of their ancestors' hardships.

To commence a week of complex dietary restrictions, family and friends gather for the Seder meal served on a special ceremonial dish. The dinner includes a lamb bone, a roasted hard-boiled egg, a green vegetable to dip in salt water, bitter herbs made from horseradish and a paste made of chopped apples, a wine called Charoset and walnuts.

At the start of the dinner, three pieces of matzah are laid on top of each other and the middle one is torn so the largest piece can be hidden. Adults then hide this piece for children to hunt down and the winner receives a prize.

Unleavened matzah being produced in a factory ahead of Passover

The meal is accompanied by four small glasses of wines symbolising joy, happiness and the freedom of the Israelites. One glass is left by an open door to welcome the prophet Elijah, who Jewish people believe will return to announce the coming of the Messiah at the end of Passover.

After dinner, friends and families lean on cushions – a reminder that they are no longer enslaved – and take turns to read and listen to the story of how the Israelites fled from Egypt from a book called the Haggadah, meaning narration.

How do Jewish people prepare for the festival?

As leavened goods like bread cooked with wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt and items made from yeast such as beer are banned during the holiday, the weeks leading up to Passover are spent cleaning to get rid of all crumbs and specks from the home.

What other rituals are involved?

From the first day today to the last, this year on 11 April, followers are not allowed to work. The week sees a number of other feasts, including the second Seder tomorrow.

A rabbi leads a community Passover Seder in Miami Beach, Florida

Jewish people also generally drink a glass of wine each day after the second day of passover.

Moshiach's Feast, beginning before sunset and continuing until after nightfall, concludes the festival. The meal anticipates the arrival of the Messiah, stared on the first day of Passover when a glass of wine is left out for Elijah.

Can you eat bread?

For eight days after the first Seder, Jewish people abstain from all forms of leavened foods including bread, cakes and muffins.

What about Passover ice cream?

Ice cream is not a traditional Passover dish, however Ben & Jerry's has launched a Charoset wine, fruit and nut compote-flavoured vanilla ice cream.

However, it is only available in Israel but could go global if demand is high enough. Its previous Passover ice cream – Matzah Crunch – did not do well, according to foodzine Grub Street.