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A Passover primer

Published On: Mar 30 2012 09:20:16 AM CDT

Passover commemorates a pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people: the transformation of a group of slaves into a community of free men and women with a common God and unified purpose. It is a holiday about freedom.

The rituals surrounding Passover are designed to pass the memory of that event from generation to generation. The primary ritual of the holiday revolves around the retelling of the exodus of the Jewish people from their enslavement in Egypt.

The Passover Seder is the holiday meal preceded by the telling of that story, following a script contained in a book called the Haggadah. But the Haggadah is not just a dry collection of prayers, it encourages participation by the whole family and strives to make the holiday center on the children who will be learning these lessons for the first time.

In fact, tradition holds that the youngest child at the table asks "the four questions," which are designed to elicit answers about the reasons for the special Passover foods and observances.

The History

About 3,000 years ago, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians under the rule of Pharaoh Ramses II. Their ancestors had migrated to Egypt during a famine in the time of Joseph. According to the biblical book of Exodus, God selected a man named Moses to approach pharaoh and demand the freedom of his people.

Moses' plea of "let my people go" was ignored. Moses warned Pharaoh that God would send severe punishments to the people of Egypt if the Israelites were not freed. Again, Pharaoh ignored Moses' request of freedom. In response, God unleashed a series of 10 terrible plagues on the people of Egypt.

  1. Blood
  2. Frogs
  3. Lice (vermin)
  4. Wild beasts (flies)
  5. Blight (cattle disease)
  6. Boils
  7. Hail
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness
  10. Slaying of the firstborn

Pharaoh was unconvinced and refused to free the Jewish slaves until the final plague, which killed Pharaoh's own firstborn son.

When Pharaoh finally did agree to allow the Israelites to leave, they had to do so in a great hurry, with no time to bake their breads. So they packed the raw dough to take with them on their journey.

As they fled through the desert they would quickly bake the dough in the hot sun into hard crackers called matzohs. Today to commemorate this event, Jews eat matzoh in place of bread during Passover.

After the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh again had a change of heart and ordered his army to pursue them.

It was then that a miracle occurred. The waves of the Red Sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross to the other side. As soon as they all reached the other side, the sea closed, trapping Pharaoh's army.

Then, as the Israelites watched the waters of the Red Sea sweep away Pharaoh's army, they realized they were finally free.