What Is Passover, Anyway? A Guide for the Clueless

In simplest terms, this holiday is basically the original drinking game.

Eating and drinking in the name of religion? Best holiday ever!
Eating and drinking in the name of religion? Best holiday ever! –The Boston Globe

If you’re not a Jew, Passover is a real head-scratcher. What is this holiday where people sit around and drink wine, eat specific things at specific times, sing songs, and tell dirty jokes that have been passed down for generations?

OK, that last part is probably just my family.

But that’s not the point. The point is that if you’re a goy (the Yiddish word for a non-Jew) who’s been invited to celebrate Passover for the first time, you’ll probably have no idea what’s going on once you get there on Friday evening. Which is where this handy guide comes in.


We’re going to do this in the form of “The Four Questions,’’ a passage from the Haggadah that begins the evening. Except this article has six questions.

Unlike most Jewish holidays, the main Passover celebration takes place at home over dinner, and the meal/religious-service hybrid is called a Seder (pronounced say-der). Instead of a prayer book, Jews read from a book called the Haggadah, which translates roughly as “telling,’’ as in a story.

1. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In short, we celebrate Passover to remember that time God and Moses led our ancestors out of Egypt and freed them from slavery under the Pharaoh. Jews are instructed to remember the event as if we were actually there. The haggadah reads: “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt.’’’

You also say, “Next year in Jerusalem,’’ because celebrating Passover in Israel is a thing every Jew is supposed to want to do.

More realistically, you can say, “Next year in Maryland,’’ if that’s where your aunt and uncle live and you alternate hosting duties.

2. Why is it called Passover?


This is where it gets a little gruesome, but let’s be honest, the whole Old Testament isn’t exactly for the faint of heart (fathers almost killing sons, lots of tribal warfare, people running out of fuel for their lamps, you get the idea).

To punish the Egyptians and force them to free the Israelites, God unleashes a series of 10 nasty plagues on them. I’m just telling you what’s in the book.

First, God turns the Nile from water into Blood, then he fills it with Frogs. Next, he turns all of the dust into Lice, and then brings in a bunch of Wild Animals to wreak havoc. He then gives Diseases to all of the Egyptian’s cattle, and gives all of the Egyptians really bad diseases, too (Boils, specifically). Then he makes fiery Hail rain down from the sky, sends swarms of Locusts to eat anything the Hail hasn’t destroyed, and then makes Egypt Dark for three days straight. Finally, he Kills all of the Egyptian’s First-Born Sons.

It’s this last plague where the holiday gets its name: God told all of the Jews to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that he didn’t accidentally kill their kids.

Also, it’s worth noting that in my family, at this point in the service, we say that next year we’re all going to come dressed as one of the plagues. I always call being the Frog. Boils is probably the least popular costume.


3. Why can’t Jews eat bread for eight days after the seder?

When God was finished absolutely wrecking the Egyptians, he’s like, “OK, Jews, it’s time to split.’’ They had to leave so quickly that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise, so they just baked it as it was and it turned into Matzo, which is basically a cracker and will appear in your work or school cafeteria starting on Monday.

In homage to our ancestors, Jews are supposed to abstain from leavened foods for eight days after the seder. Which means we can’t touch any of the birthday cake that people bring to work seemingly every day of the week we’re not allowed to eat leavened foods. Which is all you want to eat. Forbidden fruit, am I right, Eve?

4. What are the Four Questions?

The youngest child reads The Four Questions in Hebrew. Or she sings them—and has to keep on singing them for more than 20 years because none of her cousins have gotten their acts together and had a kid old enough to read yet.

Calling them The Four Questions is actually misleading, because the passage is really one question and four sub-questions that set up the whole ceremony: Why is this night different from all other nights? The answers spell out the rituals Jews perform on Passover that they don’t perform on other nights, and describe the special foods they eat, too (which we’ll get to in a minute).

5. What’s with all of the wine?

Over the course of the evening, you’re supposed to drink four cups of wine. There are specific times when the haggadah says, “drink,’’ and, like an obedient fraternity pledge, you drink.

There are several different theories about what the four cups signify. But it’s probably mostly about celebrating and having a good time. That, and tradition.

6. And all of the weird foods?

There’s a platter in the center of the table called the Seder Plate, which holds a bunch of different foods that all symbolize an element of the Passover story. Bitter herbs commemorate the bitterness (get it?) and suffering the Jews had to endure at the hands of the Phaoroh. Charoset (a mixture of apples, wine, and nuts) symbolizes the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build the pyramids. A green vegetable (usually parsley, probably kale if you’re in L.A.) that you dip into salt water symbolizes the tears of the Israelites, but in my family we use radishes because red is the new green. A lamb shank bone (or a symbolic chicken neck, because let’s be honest, lamb shank bones are difficult to come by) represents the smearing of lamb’s blood on the door, and a hard-boiled egg stands for springtime and renewal.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that goes into this holiday, but these six are a good place to start. Print this out and bring it to the seder, or—if you live in the 21st century, just bookmark it to pull up on your phone when you get super confused.

Good luck out there. Next year in Boston.

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June 18, 2019 | 8:55 AM