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Home > Holidays > Passover's Guide to Passover
Cast of Characters
Cleaning for Passover
The Haggadah
Passover Foods
The Seder
The Seder Plate
The Story

Passover: FAQ

What foods are prohibited during Passover?
Bread, for starters. Any food that includes grains that rise when combined with water. Cookies, cereal, pretzels, and pasta are all prohibited, although Passover versions made without flour are OK. Ashkenazic Jews also don't eat rice, corn, or any legumes on Passover.

Why can't you eat these foods on Passover?
In Exodus 12:15, the Torah states no unleavened bread-chametz-should be eaten during Passover. Four verses later, it adds that no chametz should be found in the home. Any foods that have chametz in them, therefore, are forbidden.

What foods must be certified "Kosher for Passover"?

Canned foods, candies, shortenings; coffees and teas; jams and jellies; mixes; tuna fish; vegetable oils and shortening; wines and liqueurs; milk, orange juice, and other beverages.

What foods don't have to be certified "Kosher for Passover"?
Raw meat, chicken, and fish; fruits and vegetables; eggs; whole, unground spices.

What is the Seder?
The Seder is the ceremonial meal that commemorates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. Food is only a part of the process; the most important component is the maggid, or "telling," during which the actual details of the exodus from Egypt are recalled. The recital of "The four questions" by the youngest child present sets the stage for the ensuing discussions.

Each participant at the seder drinks four cups of wine, corresponding to the four words used by the Torah to describe God's redemption of the Jews in taking them out of Egypt: "I will bring you out," "I will save you," "I will redeem you," and "I will take you" (Exodus, 6:6-7).

Matzah and maror are eaten at the seder to commemorate God's commanding the Jews to eat their roasted lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Additionally, when drinking the wine and eating, everyone at the table reclines, symbolizing freedom.

What are the four questions?
The four questions, known as the Mah Nishtanah, are recited during the seder. They ask why this night is different from all other nights. The questions are:
a) On all other nights, we eat chametz and matzah. On this night why only matzah?
b) On all other nights we eat all vegetables; on this night why only maror?
c) On all other nights we don't dip our food even once; why on this night twice?
d) On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining; why on this night do we all recline?

What is the haggadah?
The haggadah is the book used at the seder. It contains blessings, prayers, and songs, and is read from beginning to end. "Haggadah" means telling; the book guides the effort to fulfill the commandment on the night of Passover of reciting the story of the exodus from Egypt.

What's the significance of matzah?
Matzah, the signature food of Passover, is the unleavened bread which Jews eat on Passover. The matzah recalls the rush in which the Jews fled Egypt, when they did not have time to fully bake their bread, and were forced to eat unleavened bread.

Some people have the custom to use shmurah matzah, which has been supervised from the time the wheat was harvested to make certain it did not come into contact with water.

What's on the seder plate?
The Seder plate sits at the center of the Seder table and has six items:
1) Zroah - a roasted shankbone with a little meat on it. Not eaten.
2) Beitzah - a roasted egg. Together with the shankbone, this symbolizes the sacrifices offered at the Holy temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. The egg is also thought to be used as a symbol of mourning for the destroyed temple.
3) Karpas - a vegetable, usually celery or parsley, that will be dipped in salt water and eaten.
4) Maror in the form of horseradish root, usually used for the first time maror is eaten.
5) Maror in the form of romaine lettuce, usually used for the korech sandwich.
6) Charoset - a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon, spices, and wine, grated to have the appearance of mortar, symbolizing the bricks the Jews used as slaves in Egypt.

What are the bitter herbs used for?
The bitter herbs, or maror, serve as a reminder to the bitter times the Jews had as slaves in Egypt. Two forms of maror are used, horseradish root and romaine lettuce.

What is the shankbone?
The shankbone sits on the seder plate. Along with the roasted egg, it symbolizes the sacrifices offered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. Neither is eaten.

What is the roasted egg?
The roasted egg sits on the seder plate, and together with the shankbone, symbolizes the sacrifices offered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. The egg is also thought to be used as a symbol of mourning for the destroyed temple. Neither the egg nor the shankbone are eaten.

What is the karpas?
The karpas is a green vegetable, usually celery or parsley, that sits on the seder plate. Unlike the shankbone or egg, it is eaten, after first being dipped in salt water.

Why is a piece of matzah hidden during the seder?
The middle of the three matzahs is broken and put away for dessert. This matzah is known as the afikoman. The custom developed that children try to steal the afikoman and barter it later for a gift. In some families, the parents hide it and children search for it. Since the seder is long and goes late into the night, this custom apparently developed in order to keep children's interest.

If only four cups of wine are drunk at the seder, why is there a fifth cup?
The fifth cup is for Elijah the Prophet. Several explanations have been offered for this custom. Some say that the cup, like Elijah's chair at a circumcision, is for the prophet to come and testify that Israel have faithfully fulfilled the requirements of Passover.

Others say that the cup is a resolution to the argument among the sages regarding how many cups should be drunk at the seder, four or five. The placement of the cup for Elijah signifies that he will resolve it, since, according to tradition, he will resolve all undecided matters of Jewish law.

Why is the door opened for Elijah?
At the end of the seder, the door is opened for Elijah the Prophet, who is believed to visit every seder taking place across the world. According to the Book of Prophets, the arrival of the Messiah will be preceded by Elijah; his visit to the seder, therefore, hopefully marks the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption for the children of Israel.

Also significant is the opening of the door, which refers to the phrase "night of watching" used in the Torah to describe the night the Jews left Egypt (Exodus 12:42). The open door signifies that a watching or guarding is taking place.

Why are candles lit before Passover starts?

Jewish women light two candles to begin every Shabbat and Jewish festival. The candles are functional lights, ensuring that a family will have light by which to eat, talk, and study. Many women light one candle for every member of their family. Candles are also lit again on the second night.

What are the differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic customs on Passover?
The primary difference is that Ashkenazim don't eat rice, corn, peanuts, or any type of legume, while most Sephardim do. Sephardim also tend to have a bigger seder plate, since they include the matzah on it.

Why is Passover eight days long in America but only seven days in Israel?
The Jewish calendar is lunar-based. During the time of the Holy Temple, starting dates for holidays were based on Rosh Chodesh, the new month, which was determined by watching the moon. Witnesses who saw the new moon would report it to the sanhedrin, the high Jewish court. Holidays would then start at the prescribed number of days after the new moon dictated in the Torah (Passover on the 15th day of Nisan, for example).

After the new moon was announced in Jerusalem, messengers were dispatched to spread the word to outlying countries where Jews lived, so that everyone would know when the holidays were supposed to begin. The messengers weren't able to reach communities far away, however; those communities therefore had to set the dates of holidays based upon the end of the previous month. Since Rosh Chodesh can be either one or two days, they observed the first day of the holiday for two days in order to avoid any chance of transgressing restrictions on the actual date of the holiday.

With the advent of the modern calendar, the exact starting date of all Jewish holidays is predetermined far in advance, but the rabbis maintained the practice of observing a second day of holiday observance, since that's what our ancestors practiced. In Israel, however, only one day is observed, since there was never a two-day observance there.

What's the difference between Passover and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are High Holidays, the days on which Jews believe God judges them for the new year. Passover is a festival and has Shabbat-like restrictions against work during the first two and last two days. The restrictions are relaxed during Chol Hamoed.

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