Earlier this year, we released our new book Israel 201: Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery, and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land. In one of our favorite chapters, we describe the phenomenon of living in a country where Jewish holidays are also national holidays. In light of the positive feedback we’ve received, we decided to dig deeper and offer a comedic guide to the upcoming holiday. Without further ado, enjoy this Idiot’s Guide to Passover.
Passover: the holiday that recounts the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery. Sounds like a reason to party, right? Maybe not. Known in English as Passover, this holiday is so beloved that the world’s one Jewish state said, “Thanks but we’ll keep it one day less.”
So what’s this holiday all about? Grab your Seder plate and burn your sourdough, it’s time to talk about Passover.
What's Passover all about?
Along with Shavuot and Sukkot, Passover is one of the shalosh regalim, the three festivals which carry both agricultural and historical significance. Agriculturally, we celebrate the start of harvest season and historically, we remember when God redeemed us from slavery, only for us to wander in the desert for forty years because nobody downloaded Waze first.
The name “Passover” refers to the last of the 10 plagues cast upon Egypt, when God smote the firstborn in every Egyptian family while passing over the Israelites’ houses. (Apparently when choosing the holiday’s name, our forefathers passed over Chag Swarming Locusts.)
When Pharaoh then agreed to release the Israelites from slavery, they fled Egypt as quickly as possible before their bread had time to rise, which is why during Passover, Jews refrain from eating hametz (leavened bread, foods made from most grains, anything that tastes remotely good). If only the Israelites had been making fish at the time, today we’d be enjoying sushi for a week. In place of hametz, Jews traditionally eat an unleavened flatbread called matzah, a bland cracker which your non-Jewish friends will claim to enjoy, either because they’re trolling you, or because they’re not eating large enough quantities to achieve constipation.
Not only are Jews prohibited from eating hametz, they may not own it either. So unless you practice the tradition of selling it to a non-Jew before chag (holiday), you’ll need to rent it. Deriving any benefit from hametz is also prohibited, although if you find yourself deriving any benefit from hametz, it’s probably time to develop some new hobbies.
TRADITIONALLY, MOST Ashkenazi Jews have considered rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes (kitniyot) as hametz due to their custom of inflicting as much guilt and torture on themselves as possible. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, do eat kitniyot which isn’t surprising, considering their food is also better the other 51 weeks of the year.
To prepare for Passover, many people spend weeks cleaning their homes of every last crumb of hametz, turning over their kitchen and covering all surfaces with aluminum foil, thus taking an amount of time so great, that it is matched only by the time spent publicly complaining. This process culminates the night before the holiday with bedikat hametz (checking of hametz), during which ceremonial pieces of hametz are placed throughout the home to be “searched for” and “found” by candlelight and collected with a feather. Sort of a cross between Christmas Eve, an Easter egg hunt, and archaeology.
And what to do with these newly found pieces? Burn them, of course. The practice of biyur (burning) hametz is a great way to get rid of your last bits of leaven. Plus, making a small campfire outside your house while reciting words in an unfamiliar language will ensure that your non-Jewish neighbors will leave you alone for the foreseeable future.
Like Shavuot and Sukkot, Passover lasts one day longer in the Diaspora, a total of eight days. This dates back to ancient times when communities outside of Jerusalem lacked the accurate start and end times of holidays, adding an extra day to be safe. On the first and last days, like on Shabbat, no work is permitted. Of course, after cleaning your house for a month, who wants to work?
The highlight of the Passover holiday is the traditional Seder feast, if you can use that word to describe a meal that includes a course of parsley and salt water. Seder is the Hebrew word for order and the meal doubles as a prayer service, “ordered” into 14 parts of songs, blessings, stories, and more.
And if the upcoming week of unleavened bread wasn’t already enough, the meal culminates with the traditional dessert, the afikoman, a piece of matzah wrapped in a napkin and hidden somewhere in the house for the children to find. Note to parents: dessert always tastes better when hidden under a couch cushion in a clump of puppy hair.
But wait, there’s more! The Seder concludes with joyous singing. Well, singing anyway. No uplifting carols of partridges in a pear tree here. If you do however draw inspiration from an Angel of Death killing a butcher, do we have a song for you! Chad gadyaaaa, chad gadya…
As you’re reading this, your Seder will be behind you. (“Seders” if you live abroad.) Did you enjoy? We hope so. Because, before you know it, it will be time to start cooking for Rosh Hashanah.
Joel Chasnoff and Benji Lovitt are the co-authors of ‘Israel 201: Your Next-Level Guide to the Magic, Mystery, and Chaos of Life in the Holy Land.’ This year, they’re touring the world with Israel 75 Live, in which they bring text study, discussion, debate, and comedy about all things Israel to communities around the globe. Learn more about Israel 201 and their tour at www.Israel201.com.■