Pesach – “Passover”
Passover was originally designated as “the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag haMatzot) the term “Passover” designating the sacrificial lamb offered and eaten at the feast. The central theme of Pesach is liberation and freedom from slavery, and thus the entire festival is termed zeman cheir-u-teinu, “the time of our freedom” or “season of our liberation.”
The festival is marked by a special meal, called a seder meaning “order,” and also by abstaining from eating any leaven for the seven days of the festival. Originally there was only one festival meal (seder), but since the diaspora (the dispersion of the Jewish people from the Land), many communities conduct a seder on both the first and second nights of Pesach.
The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, “the great Sabbath,” because the special haftarah portion read refers to the great and awesome day of the Lord in His final redemption (cf. Mal. 3:23 [English 4:4]). Thus, even before Pesach is entered into, our attention is toward a future redemption.
1. Preparation: cleaning the house of all leaven
Leaven is chameitz, and traditionally, the evening before the first day of Pesach (i.e., the evening of the 13th of Nisan, or the beginning of the 14th as Jews reckon the day), the family searches the house for any remaining leaven after the thorough cleaning of the previous weeks has finished. Often, some leavened bread is hidden so that the smaller children can find it. It is traditional to search with a candle and feather, sweeping even the smallest crumbs into plain sight so they can be disposed of.
Searching for the leaven the weeks before Pesach makes a great time to do a thorough sweeping and cleaning of the house, including under the cushions, etc., where crumbs might hide. It’s also a good time to do a thorough cleaning of your refrigerator (as you go through the food to take out what has leaven in it). Some have suggested that the cleaning of the house from leaven among the Jewish communities is what started the ritual commonly known as “spring cleaning.” Such a thorough cleaning stems from the Torah commandment not only prohibiting the eating of leaven during the seven days of the feast, but also prohibiting leaven even to be seen inside the community (Ex 13:7).
Leaven is sometimes a symbol of sin (1 Cor 5:7), and cleaning the house of leaven affords a great time to consider seriously, both individually and as a family, what sins have been harbored which need to be “cast out.” Leaven, especially in the exodus story, however, has a particular symbolism. In order to let bread rise during the baking process, one needs to have time—leaven takes time to rise. But God took Israel out of Egypt with such haste that they did not have time to let the bread rise. Therefore, they ate unleavened bread (cf. Ex 12:34). This being the case, leaven symbolizes remaining in Egypt, while unleavened bread signifies participating in the redemption which God gave. It is most likely for this reason that leaven is prohibited during the festival.
2. Fast of the Firstborn (the day before Pesach)
It is important in celebrating Pesach that each person views himself or herself as actually being taken out of Egypt. The Sages have taught this based upon Ex 13:14, “And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ Then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Since this was to be what each parent said throughout the subsequent generations of Israel, it was reasoned that it taught each generation to view itself as actually having been redeemed.
Thus, the fast of the firstborn gives a sense of personal involvement to each one who stands in that position. Had the blood not been put on the door, his life would have been taken.
Being a minor fast, it begins at sunrise rather than the traditional custom of beginning full fasts at sunset, and is for the firstborn son. Some communities extend this to the firstborn, regardless of gender.
3. First Seder
The order of the Seder is carefully preserved in the Pesach Haggadah. “Haggadah” means “story” or “legend” and captures the sense of “relating the story to each generation” (cf. Ex. 12:42). The seder includes both ritual and a full meal. The first seder is customarily in the home, and for the family and guests. It is a special honor to invite people to share Pesach in your home, especially the poor who might otherwise not be able to participate in Pesach. It is always the goal of the Jewish community that every Jew who wants to celebrate Pesach be given the opportunity.
4. Second Seder
The second seder is much like the first, with the exceptions that (1) the second seder is often a community seder and therefore outside of the home, and (2) the beginning of counting the omer (Lev 23:15-21) begins at the second seder. During the time of the 1st and 2nd Temple, the Israelites were commanded to bring an offering of an omer of grain to the Temple, one omer for each day between Pesach and Shavuot. Thus, the Festival of Freedom (Pesach) is directly linked to the Festival of Ingathering and the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot) which occurs 50 days after Pesach.
(The counting of the omer was a controversy in the 1st Century and still is today. See the article “Counting the Omer: An Inquiry into the Divergent Methods of the 1st Century Judaisms”)
5. The Seventh Day of Pesach
From the standpoint of the rabbis, the first two days are both Yom Tov (or holiday), and the last day of Pesach is also considered a Yom Tov. According to the Torah, only the first and last days are Sabbaths on which normal work is prohibited. It is common for the rabbis to extend the first day of a festival into the second day in order to assure that the festival as celebrated in the diaspora coincides with the celebration in Jerusalem. Additionally, the second day of Pesach (or Feast of Unleavened Bread) traditionally marks the day on which the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Some (especially the Hasiddic Jews), to commemorate this day, pour water on the floor and sing and dance around it.
The meaning of Pesach is very deep and significant. The redemption of Israel from the slavery of the Egyptians becomes the primary paradigm for the whole idea of redemption in the Scriptures. God, with His outstretched arm and might redeemed the people He called His own. The whole story, from beginning to end, demonstrates God’s divine initiative in choosing, purchasing, redeeming, and blessing His people. The spiritual applications of the exodus became the message of the prophets and the apostles. Ultimately, the Pesach Lamb foreshadowed the Messiah Who, being the “Lamb of God” shed His blood for the redemption of His people.
The fact that leaven is not allowed during Pesach reminds us of at least two important things: (1) the redemption that God affects is ultimately the answer to the sin question, for leaven is sometimes symbolic of sin. Thus, God redeems us finally and perfectly from our sins through the blood of the lamb (Passover sacrifice). The blood, when applied to our door posts (symbolic of our lives, for we pass through the doorway many times each day), covers and protects us from the wrath of a just and holy God Who cannot merely sweep sin away, but must exact punishment upon the sinner. The substitutionary aspects of the Pesach Lamb give clear and unmistakeable teaching on God’s provision for a substitute in order to effect redemption. (2) Secondly, the absence of leaven reminds us that we were in a hurry to get out of Egypt (we couldn’t wait for the bread to rise). In this way we must flee from wickedness and refuse to stay among the unrighteous. We must make haste to leave “Egypt” and be content only when we settle in the promised land.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Pesach is the lesson which was taught through the substitutionary sacrifice of the Lamb, whose blood upon the doorpost guarded the houses of the Israelites. Being the perfect foreshadowing of Yeshua, Israel was fully educated by this yearly festival to understand John’s words when he cried, “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.” (Jn 1:29)
An excerpt from book Introduction to Torah Living, by Tim Hegg, p. 138-141