Writing Jewish Characters: Passover

Updated: Feb 8


As Passover starts in just about an hour (at least, in New York it does), I think it makes a good start to my series about writing Jewish characters. It’s fitting that I’m starting with Passover; in biblical times, Nisan was the first month of the year and Passover was the first holiday of the year.

The Hebrew name for Passover is Pesach, and both the Hebrew and English names of the holiday refer to the 10th plague, when God “passed over” the houses of the Jews and spared their firstborn children, while killing the firstborn children of the Egyptians.

Get a cup of tea and a snack, because this is long.

Passover is a holiday which starts at sundown on the 15th of Nisan and ends at sundown on the 21st of Nisan if you’re in Israel and the 22nd of Nisan if you’re not in Israel. This means it lasts seven days in Israel and eight days everywhere else. Discussions of why Israel is different and why there is so much illogic in the way Jews living west of Israel add a day will be tabled for later.

If you want to know what date that happens to be in a specific year, look it up. The range will be beginning on March 25th (in a very early year) to ending on May 1st (in a very late year). This year, Passover falls from April 10th through April 17th/18th, placing us right about in the middle of its range.

Passover is one of two holidays (the other being Sukkot) which is divided into two types of days: Chag and Chol HaMoed. Chag literally means “holiday” and on those days you follow the no work rules (see this post for more detail). Chol HaMoed means “weekdays of the festival” and on those days you do not follow the no work rules, unless it also happens to be Shabbat. Confused yet?

Passover is the second of the Shalosh Regalim, which literally means the three major festivals. The other two are Sukkot and Shavuot. After Yom Kippur, these are the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar (yes, more important than Rosh Hashanah), though they are not necessarily treated that way by modern Jews. Shavuot in particular is observed less, as is Sukkot, while Hanukkah in particular is observed more, as is Purim. I’ll go into why when I cover those holidays, but the short answer is because those holidays are more “fun.”

Preparation

Passover is both a very fun holiday and the one that requires by far the most preparation.

Preparation for Passover starts right after Purim, which falls exactly one month earlier. This is when the spring cleaning and the clearing out of food begins. It is also when you are no longer allowed to eat matzah until it’s actually Passover. Grocery stores will start putting up displays of Passover food soon after Purim ends, and shoppers will start stocking up on non-perishable items.

As Passover has stricter food rules than any other Jewish holiday, you also have to clean and kasher (verb - make kosher) your entire house, especially the kitchen.

For Orthodox Jews and more observant Conservative Jews, this involves getting rid of all chametz (most bread products, which are not kosher for Passover - for more details, scroll down to the food section). If you cannot get rid of something, you sell it to a non-Jew and it is theirs even if it is in your house. At the end of the holiday, you buy it back. I do not follow this tradition myself, and I highly doubt anyone less religious than I am would bother.

Once the kitchen has been cleared out, it is cleaned and then kashered. Kashering involves pouring boiling water over pretty much every surface and then, if you’re still uncomfortable that there might possibly be a speck of chametz somewhere, covering those surfaces with tinfoil before using them.

Instead of kashering every single dish/piece of silverware/other kitchen equipment every year for Passover, Orthodox Jews will own special Passover dishes. These can range from a china service for fifty to a frying pan and a plate. During Passover, the normal dishes are put away and the Passover dishes are brought out. The usual rules of keeping kosher apply (for more detail, look at this post), so Orthodox Jews will have both meat and milk sets of dishes and cooking utensils, and sometimes pareve (neither meat or milk) ones as well. Just think of all of the dishes!

For Jews like me who only have so much storage space and so much energy to wash dishes, plus who also don’t host everyone during Passover, there’s an easy solution for eating supplies: disposable. When I’m home during Passover, I eat on paper plates. I do, however, own a shelf full of Passover cooking supplies, including cutting boards, frying pans, knives, etc. This is very different from my mother, who owns enough “Kosher for Passover” meat silverware to host 20-30 people for a meal, or my sister, who I doubt owns even one kosher for Passover dish. Depending on the level of observance, there’s a range.

After all that prep is done, you have Bedikat Chametz, which is performed the night before Passover (unless that night is Shabbat, in which case it’s performed two nights before). This is a ritual in which you search for unfound chametz so it can be removed before the holiday. As most Jews have very much gotten rid of their chametz by this point, some chametz (often something like crackers) is hidden by one member of the family and everyone else searches for it. This is more fun with kids, who enjoy the hunt. By the time you’re all adults, it’s more of “okay, how quickly can we get this over with?” You then renounce all chametz in your house and set this amount aside. This symbolic bit is burned the morning of the day Passover begins.

At this point, you’re good! Time to stop eating bread a bit before the holiday, but also time to not eat matzah until the holiday…have fun with a very limited diet for those few hours! Salad is your friend.

Ta’anit Bechorot (Fast of the Firstborn)

Falling on the 14th of Nisan, Ta’anit Bechorot is a minor fast day (for details look at this post), and the only one in the Jewish calendar that only some Jewish adults have to observe (children are exempt).

As you may recall from the bible, the tenth plague was the killing of the firstborn. As Jewish firstborns were spared, they are expected to fast in remembrance of this event. Younger siblings are not required to fast, though there are some complicated rules for parents of firstborn children who aren’t old enough to fast that no one but Orthodox Jews follow, and even then I wouldn’t guarantee it.

This is also the one fast that can be communally broken and considered observed anyway.

Seders

Congratulations! You’ve finally reached Passover itself!

The seder (which means “order”) is, for many Jews, literally the central ritual of Judaism. If a Jew grew up completely non-religious and did nothing for most holidays, chances are good that they still went to a seder at least once in their life.

This is also the most likely holiday for your characters to go to family or friends, rather than trying to do it by themselves or with only non-Jews, though non-Jews are often invited to their friends’ and families’ seders. If your Jewish character is seriously dating or engaged to or married to a non-Jewish character and goes home for Passover, they will likely bring their significant other (especially likely if married). They might also bring a few non-Jewish friends. I’ve occasionally seen seders where there’s a few Jews running it for their large group of friends, many of whom are not Jewish.

If you have two Jewish characters who are dating, deciding which family’s seder to go to might be a point of conflict. This is such a family-oriented holiday that both members of a couple may want to spend it with their own family. Think of it like a married couple deciding which set of parents to see on Christmas. While they might do Christmas Eve with one and Christmas Day with another, that only works if the families live close enough. Otherwise they have to choose or alternate. The same goes for Passover. My sister, whose in-laws live about 100 miles away from my parents, does one seder at their house and one at ours. My cousin, whose in-laws live closer to 2000 miles away, does one year with her parents and one year with his. My parents always did Passover with my dad’s family, choosing to do other holidays with my mother’s relatives. Your characters have options, unless of course you don’t want them to. *Evil Grin*

Seders are communal events. Group seders can be done with hundreds of people. More often, it’s a family gathering, but this can range from two people to, well, a hundred. My family is usually in the 10-20 range.

The seder is held on the first night of Passover in Israel, and on both the first and second nights of Passover in the diaspora, i.e. everywhere that’s not Israel.

A seder plate is put on the table with specific foods on it: a shank bone (or a roasted beet if you go vegetarian or can’t get a shank bone. Seriously, it can be an adventure trying to get a shank bone prior to Passover.), a hard-boiled or roasted egg, some maror (bitter herbs - usually horseradish, occasionally romaine lettuce), some karpas (green vegetables - most often parsley or celery), charoset (an apple/nut/wine mixture, for more details and a basic recipe, see the food section), and, in modern America, often some variation on an orange. The orange on the seder plate is a new tradition, meant to support marginalized Jews, though I like the (not true) story better - that a woman was told “women belong in the rabbinate the way oranges belong on seder plates” and, well, someone ran with it.

A pile of three unbroken pieces of matzah does not go on the seder plate, but next to it, with a cover on top. There are also bowls of salt water and lots and lots of wine and grape juice bottles, and one cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, who’s welcomed in for a number of reasons. Sometimes there is also a cup of water for Miriam, Moses’s sister, who provided the well that enabled the Jews to drink while they traveled through the desert. This is a more modern ritual, meant to bring more women into the story and the seder itself. Neither of these cups is drunk by anyone at the table; Elijah and Miriam are welcomed symbolically into the house and the cups are later emptied.

There are fourteen distinct steps in a seder. They are, in order:

  • Kadesh - first cup of wine, opening the seder

  • Urchatz - handwashing with no blessing

  • Karpas - green vegetables dipped in salt water

  • Yachatz - breaking of the middle matzah (of three) to be hidden for the afikomen (”dessert”, the last thing you eat in the meal other than wine)

  • Magid - telling the story (includes second cup of wine)

  • Rachtza - handwashing with a blessing

  • Motzi Matzah - blessing and eating the matzah (sometimes broken up into two steps)

  • Maror - bitter herbs

  • Korech - the Hillel sandwich (which consists of matzah, maror, and charoset - see the food section for details)

  • Shulchan Orech - the meal

  • Tzafun - eating the afikomen (This can be a very fun tradition if you’ve got children at your seder - less so if everyone is over 20 and just wants the seder to be done with already. Basically, right after Yachatz, the seder leader tucks the broken half of the matzah into a special pouch and hides it somewhere in the house under pre-agreed-upon limits. When the kids are finished eating, they then go and search for the afikomen. This can be a simple search for little kids, or a more elaborate one for older kids. My family used to do poems and clues. Once the kids find it, they bring it back to the table. As everyone needs to eat the afikomen to properly end the seder, the leader must bargain with the kids to get it back. Usually this means presents and/or money depending on age. Since everyone knows this will happen, the presents are often bought ahead of time. It’s a lot of fun with actual kids, less so with adults.)

  • Barech - grace after the meal (includes third cup of wine and Elijah’s cup and possibly Miriam’s cup)

  • Hallel - songs of praise for God (includes fourth cup of wine)

  • Nirtzah - conclusion

Notice how I bolded two steps and italicized three? Anything that’s in normal type takes less than two minutes, if that. The italicized steps can vary in length, but they generally total to less than half an hour (much shorter if you’re all exhausted and don’t care about the songs, on the longer side if someone insists on singing every single freaking verse of Chad Gadya and both the English and Hebrew versions of Who Knows One).

So why does a seder take so long?

Well, obviously the meal takes time to eat. Never discount the food, especially when it’s taken you anywhere from half an hour to four hours to get to it.

But more importantly, there’s Magid. Magid takes as long as you want it to. in some families that means ten minutes of discussion, and in a tale that’s often told in the Haggadah (the book we use for the seder), the rabbis spent so long discussing that they talked through the entire night until dawn and still weren’t finished.

There is a traditional text to a Haggadah, but the truth is, aside from the blessings themselves, a lot of it is flexible. Do we have to tell the story of the four sons every year? No, but most families do. And then they debate over it. Or, at least, mine does. :) The main thing is that we discuss the exodus from Egypt and from slavery. It is a commandment to retell that story every year, and this is when it’s done.

The pre-written important parts of Magid include the four questions, in which the youngest person who’s old enough to ask the questions, asks them. Traditionally this is a child, but not always. If your character is the youngest in their family at the age of 27, they may still be singing the four questions every year.

Another important part is Ha Lachma, which is the invitation for anyone who doesn’t have somewhere to go to join the family for the seder. This is done with the door open, though admittedly these days strangers don’t really walk in off the street. But if you’re hosting a seder and you find out a friend or even a friend of a friend doesn’t have somewhere to go, it’s generally accepted that you’ll invite them to yours.

The Ten Plagues are also important. We specifically remember the plagues. I, honestly, can admit that I know the ten plagues in Hebrew but can never remember them all in English. I find it kind of hilarious.


For reference, the ten plagues are:

  • Dam - blood

  • Tzfardeyah - frogs

  • Kinim - lice

  • Arov - wild animals

  • Dever - cattle disease

  • Shechin - boils

  • Barad - hail

  • Arbeh - locusts

  • Chosesh - darkness

  • Makat Bechorot - death of the firstborn


We dip a finger in wine and drip it onto a plate for each plague. This removes wine from our cups in recognition of the Egyptians’ suffering in our quest for freedom.

As a sidenote, let’s talk family traditions! My family has a tradition that all children receive something related to frogs (the second plague) at this point in the seder. When I actually was a child, this generally meant stuffed animals, bookmarks, pens, little toys, that sort of thing. In the past decade or so, the items have gotten more varied, including boxers, soap, a jump rope, a tea cup, a tea strainer, a tote bag, a kitchen timer, a luggage tag, an ice pack, napkin rings, chip clips, and almost certainly some items I’m forgetting. If it’s frog themed, someone will find it and buy it for everyone for Passover.

This is part of my frog collection: the part that’s things I don’t actually use so I keep them at Mom’s house.

Yup. We now have a frog thing. And I’m pretty sure it’s never going to go away.

Basically, to some degree you can do what you want in Magid, but generally most Jews are going to discuss the same things every year.

The seder is a blast but requires a ton of preparation and, sometimes, dealing with difficult personalities - the person who wants to do everything, the person who’s argumentative, the person who just wants to get to the food already, the exhausted child, the person who gets drunk easily, etc. You have to figure out which steps are important to you personally and skip some of the parts of Magid that aren’t if you want to enjoy yourself.

Other Observance

Orthodox Jews go to synagogue on all Chag days during Passover, which are the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 8th if you’re not in Israel, and the 1st and 7th if you are.

On the last day of Passover (7th in Israel, 8th if not), synagogues add a service to the morning worship called Yizkor, in which the dead are remembered. This service is for Jews who have lost a close relative (parent/spouse/sibling/child) and often includes communal prayers for those who have no mourners (especially Holocaust victims) as well. Yizkor is a very short service - it consists of a psalm, specific silent prayers that each individual says for their dead, a blessing for all the dead, another psalm, and the mourners’ kaddish - a prayer praising God that is said by close relatives three times a day for a period of time after their relative dies. I’ll discuss the time periods when I get to mourning rituals, which will be another post entirely.

As Passover is such a home-oriented holiday, non-Orthodox Jews are not necessarily likely to go to synagogue on these days. I, personally, always go to Yizkor (in memory of my father), but I don’t bother any other days. I didn’t bother on the 8th day before my father died.

Starting on the second night of Passover, the omer is counted. This is the period that runs from Passover to Shavuot, a period which in biblical times involved a specific measure (an omer) of barley which was offered in the Temple every day. Nowadays, we don’t count the barley itself, just the days.

The omer lasts 49 days (Shavuot being the 50th) and is the same length of time as the period in the bible between when the Jews left Egypt and when God gave Moses the Torah, specifically the Ten Commandments. This is very much echoed by the holidays - Passover is about leaving Egypt, while Shavuot is about receiving the Torah.

My mother is the only non-Orthodox non-rabbinic Jew I know who actually bothers/remembers to count the omer. If you’re writing a non-religious Jew, they will definitely not do this ritual.

Food Rules and Customary Foods

So let’s talk food. In addition to the everyday rules of keeping kosher (go to this page for details), Passover has extra rules.

Not all Jews keep kosher for Passover, but even Jews who don’t wouldn’t dream of having chametz at a seder. I have a friend who doesn’t keep kosher in general and her family has been known to serve shrimp at the seder. However, they will never serve bread.

The main rule to keeping kosher for Passover is that you can’t eat chametz, which is any food made of wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye that has had time to rise - which is defined as “having contact with water for more than 18 minutes before being fully cooked.” Yeast and sourdough are a flat out no.

Matzah, which is mostly made from wheat (and occasionally spelt since it’s gluten-free), is carefully watched during its entire cycle from wheat to matzah to make sure it doesn’t break that rule. If it does, it can still be sold, but not at Passover - this is part of why you’ll sometimes see matzah on sale at other times of the year that is marked “not kosher for Passover.” Matzah can also be turned into matzah meal, which Jews will then use for cooking on Passover as opposed to regular flour.

In addition, Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews (but not Sephardi (Spanish) Jews or other sects) traditionally do not eat kitniyot during Passover, though they’re not strictly not kosher for Passover. This is a custom, not a law. Kitniyot include rice, corn, beans, peas, peanuts, soy - all legumes. There are a ton of arguments about why these are forbidden with no definite answer. I’ve seen everything from “you can turn them into something like bread” to “these are grains that expand when touched with water” to “in the middle ages they weren’t always so careful about sorting and sometimes you’d have wheat grains in your beans so you had to make sure to avoid that too.”

The truth is, we don’t know why the rabbis forbid it. We just know that they did. Nowadays, this rule is not always followed - in fact, in Israel, it’s rarely followed. It’s becoming less common to avoid kitniyot even in more Orthodox areas within the US. For instance, in the last couple of years, my kosher grocery store has started selling kitniyot on Passover, though the items are clearly labeled.

While there are restaurants that go kosher for Passover, they’re uncommon in places other than Israel and they’re very expensive. Most people just eat at home. Passover also has a ton of traditional foods, as well as foods that are included in the seder itself. Some of these are:

Matzah: a thin cracker-like bread made purely of wheat and water, this is what Jews use instead of bread. It’s not bad, especially with cream cheese on it, but it gets boring after eight days.

Maror: bitter herbs, usually grated horseradish but occasionally romaine lettuce. This is eaten to remind us of the bitterness of being enslaved.

Charoset: a fruit/nut/wine mixture which is meant to represent bricks. The most basic way to make charoset is to chop apples (preferably something like mackintosh or one of the other multicolored varieties, red delicious is okay, avoid granny smith unless you want super sharp), mix in crushed walnuts, and flavor with sweet red wine (preferably Manischewitz) or grape juice (for people who can’t have wine). Basically, mix those three things until you get a good proportion. Some people add other things - I’ve seen pear charoset as well as others, but the listing above is what’s traditional.

Hillel sandwich: matzah, maror, and charoset eaten together. This is named for the great rabbi Hillel, who is one of the major authorities in Jewish tradition - in how you interpret the Torah and its rules for actually living. Hillel made a sandwich and now it’s tradition that we do too. *shrugs* Putting maror and charoset on a piece of matzah actually tastes really good, especially if it’s the fancy handmade shmura matzah instead of the regular box matzah.

Karpas: green vegetables (parsley is traditional, celery is common, others are used). These represent spring and are dipped in salt water for tears. As this is the only food you get for possibly the first three hours of the seder, my family (and many others) add other options as well - we serve various dips (vegetarian chopped liver, Moroccan matbucha, etc.) and various vegetables (carrots, celery, peppers, cucumber, etc.) so people can snack a bit during Magid.

Eggs: again in honor of spring but also to commemorate temple sacrifices. We hard boil them and eat them as the first stage of the meal, even before the soup.

Wine/grape juice: you’re supposed to have four glasses of wine during your seder, to symbolize freedom. As for why four, it’s a big number at the seder - there are four questions, four cups of wine, four sons, etc. Obviously, not everyone drinks alcohol so some people will go for grape juice and others will alternate glasses.

Lamb: the original Passover meal, lambs were sacrificed and then eaten. Nowadays this isn’t so common, and each family will have its own traditional dishes. In mine, for instance, we do a turkey one night, while at my brother-in-law’s they always do brisket.

Matzah ball soup: definitely not required, but often served.

Gefilte fish: again, not required, but this is a common Jewish holiday food for pretty much any holiday.

Matzah brei: definitely not served at the seder, this is a common breakfast/lunch food during the holiday. It’s basically somewhere between scrambled eggs and french toast, with matzah broken up and softened in hot water taking the place of bread. Best eaten (in my opinion) with cinnamon and sugar, but I know people who like it with jam, honey, maple syrup, sugar and pepper, and even ketchup.

So that’s Passover 101! If you have questions or are confused about anything I said, please please please ask - our askbox is always open.

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***Obligatory Disclaimer: These post is meant to constitute writing advice and is not the final rabbinical law on these subjects.***


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