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Pesach

"In the first month on the fourteenth of the month in the afternoon is the time of the Pesach offering to G-d. And on the fifteenth day of this month is the Festival of Matzot to G-d; you shall eat Matzot for a seven day period. The first day shall be a sacred holiday to you when you may not do any work. You shall then bring sacrifices to G-d for seven days, the seventh day is a sacred holiday when you may not do any work."
VaYikra (Leviticus) 23:5-8

Pesach commemorates when G-d freed us from slavery in Egypt. The first and last days are Yom Tov, which means we are not permitted to do most forms of work. The middle days are called Chol HaMoed, on these days we are permitted to do most forms of work under the proper conditions.

Outside of Israel, Pesach is eight days long, the first two and last two days are Yom Tov. Pesach begins on the fifteenth of Nisan. Even though the year begins on Rosh HaShana, which is in the month of Tishrei, Nisan is considered the first month.

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, The Great Shabbat, because it was on this Shabbat that the Jews in Egypt took the lamb which they were going to eat into their homes.

The day before Pesach (Erev Pesach) is also a fast day for every Bechor (first-born man). This applies to the first-born sons from both the father and the mother, and includes a son born after an earlier child miscarried.

Chometz

"Eat matzah for seven days. By the first day you must have your home cleared of all leaven. Whoever eats chometz from the first day till the seventh day will have his soul cut off from Israel."
Shemot (Exodus) 12:15

"During these seven days no leaven may be found in your homes. If someone eats anything of chometz his soul shall be cut off from the community of Israel. This is true whether he is a convert or a person born into the nation. You must not eat anything leavened."
Shemot (Exodus) 12:19-20

The word "chometz" means fermented or leavened. The grains which can become chometz are wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye. Chometz includes products such as beer and whiskey. Many medications and cosmetics contain chometz and would therefore be prohibited on Pesach.

The prohibitions against chometz on Pesach are extensive. We are forbidden to eat (and drink), possess, or even derive benefit from chometz during Pesach. Even mixtures containing chometz are generally prohibited. We are also prohibited from eating food cooked in utensils which were used to cook chometz. The prohibition against chometz begins about half a day before the actual beginning of Pesach.

Jewish law requires us to thoroughly clean the house in the days before Pesach to eliminate any chometz. We then search any place that chometz might have been brought into during the year. This search is called Bedikat Chometz and it takes place after nightfall on the night before Pesach. The following morning one must destroy all chometz that remains in ones possession. The preferred manner of destroying the chometz is burning.

Because destroying all the chometz in one's possession can be a serious financial blow (particularly to store owners and other businessmen who deal in chometz) a procedure has been established in which a Jew can transfer ownership of his chometz to a non-Jew. Our Sages established an additional prohibition on deriving benefit from chometz which was in Jewish possession during Pesach. This prohibition is called Chometz SheAvar Alav HaPesach - chometz which went through Pesach.

In addition to the prohibition against chometz, some Jews do not eat kitniyos. Kitniyos refers to grains and grain like products such as rice, millet, beans, lentils, and others. Even though these items cannot become chometz, they are easily confused with grains that can become chometz and may even be mixed together with them. Possession of kitniyos is permitted according to all customs.

Matzah

"From the fourteenth day of the first month in the evening , until the night of the twenty-first day of the month, you must eat Matzot." Shemot (Exodus) 12:18

Matzah is the only form of bread which is permitted on Pesach. It is baked under very rigorous conditions that insure that it will not become chometz. Matzah can only be made from the five grains which have the potential to become chometz, wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. The dough for matzah can only be made from flour and water, nothing else may be added.

The Seder

"And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, 'It is because of this that G-d acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.'"
Shemot (Exodus) 13:8

On the first night of Pesach (or, outside of Israel, the first two) we are required to perform the Seder. The Seder is an orderly process by which we fulfill the special mitzvot of the Pesach night.

The Seder is written down in a book called the Hagadah, and includes telling over the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During the Seder we also drink four cups of wine, eat maror (a bitter vegetable such as horseradish), and recite the Hallel.

Before the Seder begins we have to arrange the Seder plate and other necessities for the Seder. We will need three Matzot for the blessings, and the Seder plate will include

  1. Zeroa, a piece of roasted meat.
  2. Beitza, a roasted egg.
  3. Maror, bitter herbs (usually horseradish).
  4. Charoses, a special mixture of ground apples, and cinammon.
  5. Karpas, which can be any vegetable except those used for maror.
  6. Chazeres, another piece of maror.

To demonstrate our status as free men we are required to lean or recline while eating during several parts of the Seder. The Hagadah breaks the Seder into the following steps.

  1. Kadesh - We recite the kiddush for Pesach and drink the first cup of wine while leaning.

  2. Ur'chatz - We wash our hands the same way we wash for bread but we do not make the blessing.

  3. Karpas - We dip a vegetable into saltwater or vinegar and make the blessing for vegetables.

  4. Yachatz - We break the middle matzah and set aside the larger half for use later in the Seder, this piece is called the Afikomen. The smaller half is returned to the middle of the stack of Matzot.

  5. Maggid - We recite the story of the Exodus. It is important to read the entire section and understand it. At the completion of Maggid we drink the second cup of wine while leaning.

  6. Rachtza - We wash our hands in the manner required for bread and make the blessing.

  7. Motzi Matzah - Lifting all three Matzot, we make the blessing for bread, then release the bottom matzah and recite the blessing for the mitzvah of matzah. We then eat a portion of matzah from the top two Matzot while leaning.

  8. Maror - We take a portion of maror and dip it into the charoses, shake off the excess charoses and make the blessing for the mitzvah of eating maror.

  9. Korech - We take a second portion of maror and sandwich it between a portion from the third matzah. We then eat the korech (sandwich) while leaning.

  10. Shulchan Orech - We eat the meal.

  11. Tzafun - We take the second half of the middle matzah which we set aside earlier and eat a portion while leaning. This portion is called the Afikomen.

  12. Barech - We recite the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals). At the conclusion of the blessings we drink the third cup of wine while leaning.

  13. Hallel - We then recite the Hallel and other prayers. At the completion of this section we drink the fourth and final cup of wine while leaning.

  14. Nirtza - We are to spend as much of the night as we can discussing the Exodus and the laws of Pesach. We sing a number of ancient songs such as "Ehad Mi Yodea?" (Who Knows One?) and "Chad Gadya" (One Lamb). Many Jews also recite Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs) during this night.

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