Most Jewish holidays are famously summed up in the following way: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.
Passover is hardly an exception.
As the story goes, Pharoh, the king of Egypt, declared that all sons born to Jews must be killed. But when Moses was born, his mother couldn’t bear to see him die so she hid him for months and eventually put him in a cradle-like basket and into the river with the hope that someone would find him. He was discovered by Pharoh’s daughter, who helped raise him as a prince. Moses couldn’t stand to see the way the Jewish people were treated, however, and stood up for them, which led to him being banished from Egypt. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and told him to rescue the Jewish people. So Moses returned to Egypt and demanded the release of the Jewish slaves. When Pharoh refused, God sent 10 plagues to Egypt, the last one of which declared the Angel of Death would kill all the first-born sons in the land, but that he shall pass over the Jewish homes. The Pharoh ultimately relented, but the Jewish people had no time to pack up before escaping Egypt, so they baked bread for their journey without waiting for the dough to rise (what we now know as matzoh). Pharoh sent soldiers after them to kill them, but when the latter arrived at the Red Sea, the waters parted, allowing them to cross to safety and search for the Promised Land.
The story is generally the same everywhere, but the traditions of celebrating across the world are not. Here are some of the more unusual customs:
Passover Traditions 1 of 12Passover is famous for matzoh and gefilte fish (even though the latter doesn't actually have an actual connection to the holiday) — but in non-Western Jewish communities, there are customs that go beyond afikoman and Elijah's cup of wine.
Seder Plate 2 of 12A typical Western seder plate includes:
- A roasted boiled egg to symbolize the hagigah sacrifice when the Temple stood. It's roundness also represents "the cycle of life — even in the most painful of times, there is always hope for a new beginning," according to MyJewishLearning.com.
- A green vegetable, usually parsley, which is dipped in salt water to contrast "new birth" and the tears shed by the Jewish slaves.
- Haroset, which is made of sweet fruit and wine and honey to symbolize the mortar the Jewish slaves used to construct buildings for Pharaoh.
- Bitter herbs, such as horseradish, to represent the hard work of slavery.
- A roasted lamb shank bone to stand in for the lamb sacrificed by the Jews as a Passover offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Four Questions 3 of 12The youngest guest at the Passover table asks four questions during the seder:
- Why is this night different from all other nights?
- Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzoh?
- Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
- Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?
- Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?
Specially Covered Matzah 4 of 12Western Jews usually wrap their matzoh in a cloth or satin cover, but some Syrian Jews bundle it in knapsack-like containers, according to Religion News Service. Males in the family will take the package, hold it over his left shoulder and answer: What are you carrying? (Matzo). Where are you coming from? (Egypt). Where are you going? (Israel).
Scallion Whipping 5 of 12Slavedrivers in Egypt used to use whips to force the Jews to keep working, and Afghanistan Jews — who now mostly live in Queens, New York — have a tradition of using scallions to lightly strike each others' backs, according to BeliefNet.com.
Red Sea Reenactment 6 of 12BeliefNet.com reports that on the seventh day of Passover, Hasidic Jews from the Polish town of GÃ³ra Kalwaria pretend they are the Jews crossing the Red Sea by spilling water on the floor, lifting up their coats and naming the towns they'd encounter in their area of the country — raising a glass as they reach each destination as a hat tip to God for his help.
Defective Rice 7 of 12Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala, has been home to a Jewish population for 2,000 years. Their Passover preparations begin after Hanukkah, according to BeliefNet.com. In addition to ridding their homes of any traces of bread, they inspect each grain of rice for "defects" that might let any fermented grain inside.
Getting Tapped on the Head 8 of 12Sometimes the person leading the seder at the Passover tables of Moroccan, Turkish and Tunisian Jews will walk around the table three times with a seder plate in hand and tap it on the head of each person, according to BeliefNet.com. It's a custom that dates back to 14th-century Spain and is possibly related to a Talmudic tradition of "â€˜uprooting' the seder plate so that guests might ask questions about the Jews in Egypt."
Gold and Silver Jewelry Display 9 of 12BeliefNet.com writes that Hungarian Jews have a tradition of displaying gold and silver jewelry on their seder tables because three passages in Exodus mention the Israelites receiving gold and silver from the Egyptians.
Brick Dust 10 of 12Charoset, a traditional Passover food made apples, walnuts and wine, among other variations, is meant to symbolize the mortar in the bricks that the Jewish slaves were forced to create. BeliefNet.com reports that the British terriroty of Gibraltar uses a special ingredient in its charoset: "the dust of real bricks, ground up and mixed in."
Mimouna 11 of 12Mimouna is celebrated the day after Passover by Moroccan Jews and includes tons of baked goods, items symbolizing fertility and luck, and according to BeliefNet.com, some in the Moroccan Jewish community will enter the ocean and toss pebbles behind their backs to ward off evil spirits.
Flour Blessing 12 of 12Also as part of Mimouna, Religion News Service writes that Moroccans sometimes put flour on their hands and touch guests on their foreheads to wish them success for the following year.
Photo credits: iStockphoto
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