Passover: Some fun facts, figures for the holiday - primer

Here are some facts and figures – use them to test your Passover IQ, and feel free to share them at your Seder!

 ALL-IMPORTANT: Children take part in a practice Seder.  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
ALL-IMPORTANT: Children take part in a practice Seder.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

The rabbis recommend that we review our holidays 30 days prior to their commencement, and this is certainly appropriate for Passover, which arguably requires more advanced prep than any other chag. And so, since we have already entered Nisan, this is a good time to roll up our spiritual sleeves and begin the glide into Passover.

Here are some facts and figures – use them to test your Passover IQ, and feel free to share them at your Seder!

Is Nisan the first month of the Hebrew calendar?

The answer is yes, and no. Virtually all the commentators agree that the world was created in the month of Tishrei. Indeed, if you unscramble the Hebrew letters of Alef B’Tishrei, the first of Tishrei, you come out with Bereisheit – In the Beginning! And so, for centuries, Tishrei was first, and Nisan was the seventh month of the year. 

But then, in commemoration of our becoming the nation of Israel, God reordered the calendar to begin anew in Nisan, the month of miracles, nes. This was literally our new “lease on life.”

What are the names of Passover?

While chag ha’aviv designates Passover as a spring festival (we “sprang” out of slavery) and z’man cherutenu celebrates our liberation, the two most popular names are Passover/Pessah and chag hamatzot. The former connects to God’s devotion to us, as He “passed over” and spared us from the killing of the firstborn; the latter connects to our devotion to God. In our passionate haste to follow His directive to leave Egypt for Israel, we could not even wait for our bread to rise.

 Departure of the Israelites 'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts, 1829. (credit: DAVID ROBERTS/WIKIPEDIA) Departure of the Israelites 'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts, 1829. (credit: DAVID ROBERTS/WIKIPEDIA)

How long were we in Egypt, and how many years in bondage?

While the Torah officially says we spent 400 years in Egypt, most authorities say we were there for 210 years. Half of that time we enjoyed a rather comfortable stay in the suburb of Goshen (Jews have always loved the suburbs!), and only then did the slavery begin. 

One opinion holds that our slavery was a measure-for-measure punishment for having sold Joseph into slavery; since nine brothers participated in the crime, and Joseph was in jail for 13 years, the duration of our enslavement was 9x13, or 117 years. 

What is the difference between matzah and hametz?

While both bread and matzah are made of flour and water, the crucial ingredient in defining them is time. Baking the matzah must conclude within 18 minutes (there’s that 18 again!) before it rises and becomes leavened. The primary message here is the imperative to watch our time carefully and use it to the fullest.

When and where did the Haggadah originate?

Arguments ensue as to the origin of the text, based on a short discussion in the Talmud in Pessahim 116a. The year 135 CE is the birth year of the compiler of the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, and some attribute the Haggadah’s creation to him. 

Later, 360 CE is said to be the era of Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzhak, who is cited as one of two possible Nachmans who may have compiled the Haggadah text; the other is Nachman bar Ya’acov, 280 CE. Over the next several hundred years, various parts were added and modified, until it was finally solidified around 700 to 800 CE.

Among the earliest and most famous Haggadot are the following: The Birds’ Head Haggadah was made in Germany in 1300 and designed for Ashkenazi Jews. It is part of the Israel Museum’s collection, and its birds’ head depiction remains a curiosity to this day. The Golden Haggadah, circa 1320, was created in or around Spain for Sephardi Jews and today is housed in the British Library. The illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350, is entirely in Hebrew. The original is in the National Museum of Bosnia in Sarajevo.

When and where was the first Seder held?

That Seder, of course, was in Egypt, on the 14th of Nisan, the night the Israelites brought the lamb as a sacrifice just prior to departing for the Land of Israel in the morning. This one Seder is referred to as Seder Mitzrayim and differed somewhat from future Sedars, celebrated on the 15th of Nisan. 

The first-ever mention of a Seder service is in the Mishna, by Rabbi Gamaliel, circa 90 CE. He declares before the legislative body of the Sanhedrin: “One who does not explain these three things – Passover, matzah and maror – has not fulfilled his obligation.” This statement is recorded and immortalized in our Haggadah. In 70 CE the Second Temple was destroyed, marking the last time an authorized Passover sacrifice was offered.

Does the Seder constitute a biblical commandment?

Since the destruction of the Temple, only two of Passover’s rituals are biblical mitzvot: the eating of the matzah, and the retelling of the Exodus story (as put forth in the Haggadah). The other rituals, including the eating of maror and the drinking of four cups of wine, are today rabbinic laws. Many, many other Seder customs abound, subject to the practices of different Jewish communities around the world.

Is matzah a symbol of freedom or slavery?

While the bitter maror clearly connects to slavery, and the four cups (not a singing group!) toast freedom, matzah has a dual identity. It symbolizes the meager fare given to slaves, yet at the same time is a kind of “freedom flag” that proclaimed our haste to leave Egypt as free people. Bowing to the preeminence of freedom, we customarily lean to the side as we eat the matzah, in the manner of nobility, who often reclined as they dined.

What is the connection of Passover to Israel?

The Haggadah begins telling the Exodus story by declaring, “Now we are here, next year may we all be in Israel;” and concluding the technical text with, “Le’shana haba’a B’Yerushalayim,” next year in Jerusalem. By tradition, the Messiah will appear in the month of Nisan and usher in the redemption, which includes the reunification of the Jewish people in Israel.

Who are the “virtual” guests at the Seder?

Every Seder hosts Elijah the Prophet, who will announce the Messiah. His virtual entrance comes at the point when we call for a just reckoning among the nations for their mistreatment of the Jewish people throughout the ages (indeed, Passover night itself was often an occasion for blood libels and pogroms).

At many Seders, an empty chair is also left either in memory of loved ones from Seders past or beleaguered Jewish brothers and sisters who cannot attend a Seder for one reason or another. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge and include those Israeli soldiers who must serve in our defense and so cannot be home for the Seder.

How important are children at the Seder?

Children are all-important at the Seder! This entire enterprise is designed to “pass the torch” of the Jewish experience to the generations to come, a nod to the tradition of the Oral Law, which once was transmitted by word of mouth within the extended family, and only later committed to writing. 

The Seder essentially begins with children reciting the Mah Nishtana, encouraging them to ask questions; and it concludes with a popular segment filled with uplifting songs (e.g., “Who Knows One?” and “Chad Gadya”) that captivate the kids. We focus on keeping the children interested as we adults, at the same time, seek to capture that childlike fascination with the ongoing wonder of Jewish life. 

Chag kasher v’sameach to all! 

The writer is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.