While Passover is celebrating the world over as among the most important holidays of Judaism and in Jewish culture at large, it is particularly significant to celebrate it in Israel, “the Land of Promise,” to which the Jews were eventually led after their miraculous redemption from slavery in Egypt.
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Three quarters of Israel’s 8.5 million people are of Jewish ancestry, and a majority of them consider themselves “traditional Jews.” But even the 20 percent or so who openly identify as “secular Jews” often still observe Passover, due to its being so deeply ingrained in Jewish culture.
Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt after God sent a series of 10 plagues on that nation, the final and most severe of which involved the death of the firstborn son in each house. Those Jews who obeyed God’s command to paint the doorposts of their house with lamb’s blood were spared, as the death angel “passed over” them during the night of the plague.
In Israel, Passover occupies a full seven days, the first and last days of the festival being most important. Many observe the non-working requirements of the Sabbath on all seven of these days. Additionally, all leaven (yeast) must be cleaned out of the home, which becomes an occasion for “spring cleaning” in the days leading up to Passover Week, since Passover occurs in the spring.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, the first and main event being the “seder,” which means the Passover dinner. In traditional Judaism, days begin at sunset, around 6pm, and end at the same time the “next day.” Thus, expect celebrations to begin in the evening if visiting Israel during Passover.
The Passover dinner will be a time of family togetherness but also of great symbolism and ceremony. The finest dishes and silverware are used, and the table is highly decorative. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold, and four cups of wine are drunk at prescribed moments during a 15-stage ritual.
Near the end, the “Hallel,” which are Psalms 113 through 118 in the Old Testament, are recited. Matzah, a kind of unleavened bread, and “maror,” bitter foods such as horseradish and romaine lettuce, are consumed during the meal. A prayer ends the meal, traditionally with “Next year in Jerusalem” being the prayer’s final words.
Children may win a prize if they find the “afikoman,” a special piece of matzah that parents often hide somewhere in their home during Passover seder.
Should you travel in Israel for Passover, things to do include:
- Try special Jewish foods. Many restaurants will be closed, but some will be open, especially in Tel Aviv. Look for “matzah brei,” which is similar to French toast made out of matzah; chicken soup with matzah dumplings; “gefilte fish,” which is a fish ball or patty; “charoset,” a spiced, sweetened fruit salad; and roast lamb, which is intimately connected with the Passover story.
- Read the Hallel Psalms, 113 through 118; the Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120 through 134, which relate to the 15 steps piglrims to Solomon’s Temple once ascended; and Psalm 119, between the other two groups of Psalms, which is devoted to the excellencies of God’s Word. All of these Psalms are connected to Passover in important ways.
- Visit the Temple Mount, where you can see the remains of the Western Wall of Solomon’s Temple. Also in the vicinity, look for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, the old city wall and its gates, the Tower of David, the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
There are nearly endless things to do and see in Israel, which is why 3.5 million tourists travel there every year. But there is no more solemn and festive time of year to visit the Land of Promise than during Passover.