What is Passover? Part III - Meanings and symbolisms
Every spring, Jews the world over observe Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. For seven or eight days, certain practices must be carried or not carried out. The celebration is replete with much meaning and symbolism connected to the story of the Passover itself.
Central to all of this are the types of food that can or cannot be eaten during this, one of the holiest festivals on the Jewish calendar. Each item in the Seder meal is symbolic and is eaten in a ritualistic order in which meanings and symbolisms are discussed.
Unleavened bread is eaten three times. A lamb's bone represents the Paschal sacrifice. A lamb or goat was sacrificed in ancient times during pilgrim festivals at the Temple of Jerusalem. An egg depicts the Israelites' determination not to abandon their beliefs under oppression.
Greens, usually lettuce, stand for rebirth, while salt water represents tears. Charoset, a paste made of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine, is about the mortar used by the Israelites to build the palaces in Egypt.
It is said that God promised the Israelites freedom four times, and to show freedom and joy, four cups of wine are drunk. An extra cup is placed on the table, and the door is left open for Elijah to enter. The Jews believe that the prophet Elijah will come back to herald the coming of the Messiah at Passover.
Children are included in the activities and proceedings as they represent the continuity of the Jewish people. So there are certain customs designed to hold their attention. One such is the hunt for the afikoman, half of a matzo (unleavened bread). Whoever finds it keeps it until a reward is given.
FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN
On the day before Passover begins, all male firstborns go on a fast in what is called the Fast of the Firstborn. This is coming from the element of the Passover story when the avenging angel spared the lives of the firstborn sons of the Israelites while they were in captivity in Egypt. The doorframe of their home was painted with lamb's blood so that the avenging angel could pass over it during the plague of the firstborn.
The reading of the Haggadah, a book that tells the story of the Jewish captivity in Egypt, is also focused on the children. In 14 stages, the Haggadah narrates the Jewish experience in Egypt. As the story of each of the 10 plagues that were unleashed upon Egypt is read, a drop of wine is spilled to remind the Jews that their freedom was mixed with sadness at the suffering of the Egyptians.
Yet, the celebrations cannot go on unless the children ask four questions. Usually the youngest child present asks the question, and the father answers. The four questions are: Why do we eat unleavened bread? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip our food in liquid? Why do we eat in a reclining position?
Unleavened bread (matzo) represents the yeastless dough that the Jews fled with in their escape from Egypt. They are reminded of the pain of slavery by eating bitter herbs, usually horseradish. The tears the Jews shed under captivity are symbolised at the beginning of the meal by the dipping of a piece of potato into salt water.
Meals are eaten in a reclining position to represent comfort and freedom as opposed to the hardship of slavery. In addition to the four questions, there is singing, blessings, and the reading of psalms.