“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt—now we are free.”
That’s the English translation of a popular Passover song, Avadim Chayinu, and it sums up the Jewish holiday. Passover is a festival commemorating the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, as per the eponymous book in the Old Testament. As the story goes, Jews were enslaved in Egypt for generations, to the extent that Pharaoh ordered the death of all Jewish baby boys in order to keep the slaves in check. One brave Jewish mom broke the law and hid her infant son from the authorities by sending him floating down the Nile in a water-safe basket. He was, ironically, discovered in the river by Pharaoh's daughter, and was raised in the palace. She named him Moses.
Let my people go!
When Moses grew up, he recognized the plight of the Hebrew slaves. One day Moses fought with an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave, and was forced to flee into the desert. There—as you might remember from movies like The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt—God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush and tasked him with freeing the Jewish people from bondage. Moses managed to convince the Egyptian ruler to emancipate the Hebrew slaves, but only after God sent ten plagues to reinforce the message. The last of the plagues, the killing of the firstborn, is where the name for the holiday comes from: according to Jewish tradition, the Angel of Death “passed over” Jewish homes that night, and only Egyptian families were affected.
Matzo, matzo man!
Hurrying to escape from Egypt before Pharaoh changed his mind, the Jews didn’t have time to let their bread rise.
Today, for all eight days of Passover, Jews eat only unleavened bread in order to remember how their ancestors fled to freedom. More specifically, most Jewish families clean their homes in order to remove any trace of chametz (that’s anything leavened, or any foods that contain a leavening agent), and rely on matzah (unleavened bread) for the duration of the holiday.
Plus: 7 Easy Passover Recipes
Why is this night different from all other nights?
In addition to refraining from bread, Jews recount the Exodus story by holding a seder on the first (and sometimes also on the second) night of Passover. Seder is Hebrew for order, alluding to the specific order in which the retelling should happen. A haggadah (literally, “telling,” but it’s a book) is used to guide Jewish families through the stages of the seder, including various blessings and the actual telling of the Exodus story. Getting through all 15 steps can take hours—but don’t worry, one of them is a lavish dinner!
Celebrate good times
Passover is ultimately a celebration of freedom, so many Jews use the holiday as a time not only to rejoice at the freedom of their ancestors, but also to recognize the plight of others still in need. The seder includes both a reminder that matzah is the bread of poverty, and an invitation to anyone who is hungry to join the table. Even if your family won’t be going to a seder this year, that’s a message we can all get behind.