Pesach (Passover in English) is our yearly commemoration of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, following our slavery there.  Pesach marks the start of the consolidation of our nation status as the Jewish people.  The prelude to the Exodus was the famous ten plagues.

Pesach is a moving, inspiring festival, whose messages of liberty and responsibility, ensconced in the way we celebrate the festival, have resonated with both Jews and non Jews throughout the ages.  It is but one of the revolutionary ideas that Judaism has given the world for freedom of individuals and nations.  One of the best known aspects of Pesach is the eating of Matzah (unleavened bread) and the avoidance of any bread or other Chametz (leavened food).

Traditionally, Pesach is a time when families and friends get together, particularly for the Seder nights which are the highlights of Pesach (see below).  Even if you celebrate Pesach by yourself, you are part of the whole Jewish people who as a collective group are celebrating Pesach with you.

In the words of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, “Pesach is the festival of hope, and Jews are the people of hope.  For we are the people who outlived every empire that sought to destroy us, survived adversities that would have defeated any other nation, that emerged from the Holocaust still affirming life, and built the land and State of Israel against unceasing opposition.[1]

Lest we forget these lessons, the Haggadah, the text we use for the Seder, codifies that we must view ourselves as if we too left Egypt, not just our ancestors.

[1] Pesach message 2010/5770.

Pesach starts on 15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of the very day that we left Egypt.  Nisan itself is the first month in the Jewish calendar, fittingly since the end of our slavery gave us control over our schedule.

Pesach lasts for 8 days outside of Israel (7 days in Israel).  In the Diaspora outside of Israel, the first and last two days are “Yom Tov”, holy days,  including the Seder nights, whilst the days in between are semi festive days called “Chol Hamoed”.  In Israel, the Yom Tov days are the first and last days of Pesach.

The festive Yom Tov days are similar in atmosphere and in Halacha (Jewish law) to Shabbat, whilst Chol Hamoed is a time when we can perform necessary weekday tasks whilst retaining the atmosphere of Pesach.

In its purest form, Chametz is a mixture of water with either barley, oats, wheat, rye, spelt or any derivative of these grains which has risen or fermented and has not been baked within 18 minutes from the time that the mixture was made.

In practical terms, given the complexity of food production, all food that we own or eat on Pesach must be approved as “Kosher for Pesach” by a kosher certifier such as the Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din.

Contrastingly, Matzah is a mixture of flour and water which has been baked within 18 minutes from the time the mixture was made.  Matzah must also be certified as “Kosher for Pesach” by a kosher certifier.  Before you buy, check the packet to make sure.

Pesach is a festival which requires preparation.  Before Pesach, we either eat or remove Chametz that is in our possession by cleaning our homes.   The Torah commands that we may neither eat, nor own, nor benefit from any Chametz on Pesach.  Cleaning is required in any places where Chametz may have been during the rest of the year.

On Pesach, we do not use utensils that have been used with Chametz. Instead,  we use utensils reserved for Pesach or utensils that have been “kashered” for Pesach under rabbinic supervision.  Ask your local United Synagogue rabbi for guidance about “kashering” should you wish to do this.

Valuable items of Chametz, such as bottles of whisky, that you are unable to finish before Pesach and would suffer significant loss by abandoning, should be sold to a non-Jew through the offices of your local United Synagogue rabbi who uses a pro forma sale procedure.  These items are securely put away before Pesach and not consumed until after Pesach when the rabbi has reacquired them on your behalf.

If you are not able to contact a rabbi in person or through a synagogue to sell Chametz, please go to the United Synagogue website and follow the links to a sale of Chametz form posted there.

On the night before Pesach, having prepared our homes for the festival, we conduct one final search for Chametz after nightfall.  This search, which can be done in a cursory way, is a last check and an opportunity to make sure that any Chametz we sell before Pesach is securely put away.

Traditionally, it is conducted by candle light with a feather and spoon which adds to the excitement of the moment, especially for children.  Set aside any Chametz you find, or some you put aside before the search for the following morning when that Chametz is disposed of, finalising the removal of Chametz from our possession and preparing for us to enter Pesach in a spiritual sense by internalising the meaning of removing  and stopping to eat Chametz.

Look for instructions and the necessary declarations either in your Haggadah on page 642 of the Singer’s.

There are deadlines for the final time to eat Chametz on the morning before Pesach and the final time to dispose of Chametz.  Check your synagogue calendars for these times each year or look at the United Synagogue website.

Erev Pesach  is also the Fast of the Firstborn (“Ta’anit Bechorot”), for male first borns over Barmitzvah age.  One reason for this fast is for firstborns to show gratitude that their ancestors were spared during the plague of the firstborn preceding the Exodus from Egypt.

This fast though is the most minor of fasts and attendance at a “Siyum” to celebrate the important occasion of completing of a significant section of Jewish study, which triggers a Siyum, overrides the fast.  Speak to your local United Synagogue rabbi for more details about attending a Siyum or email the US Education department at  if you are unable to contact your rabbi.

If Erev Pesach is on Shabbat, there are changes to the procedure and timings from a weekday Erev Pesach.  The Fast of the Firstborn is held on the preceding Thursday and the search for Chametz takes place on Thursday night after dark.  Friday is treated as if it was Erev Pesach, although Chametz can still be eaten as that Friday is not actually Erev Pesach.  For the Shabbat meals, the most practicable solution is to use Egg Matza instead of Challah.  Preparations for the Seder cannot begin before the end of Shabbat, so do as much as you can on Friday.  See the article on the You & Us website providing further information for this situation.

The Seder table needs to be laid.  The Seder plate and the special Seder foods, need to be prepared.  The Seder plate itself should have a zeroa (shankbone), beitzah (a boiled egg), maror (bitter herb – usually romaine lettuce or horseradish), chazeret (a second type of bitter herb), charoset (a paste made of apples, pears, nuts and wine) and karpas (a vegetable – often parsley or celery). You will need three matzot for the Seder (plus some extra for eating more!)

On the table you will also need salt water and enough wine/grape juice for all participants to have four cups each. Ashkenazi practice is to avoid eating lamb at the Seder or any dry roasted meat.

The Seder starts from nightfall.  See the United Synagogue website or your local synagogue calendar for precise times. Candles are lit before each Yom Tov and Shabbat day of Pesach start, as they are before a regular Shabbat, but a special beracha (blessing) is said for Yom Tov candles.  See page 644 in the Singer’s for the beracha and the United Synagogue website for the latest candle lighting times, which correspond to when Pesach begins

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