Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu’ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. The primary observances of Passover are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery as told in the biblical Book of Exodus from chapters 1 to 15.
Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) are days on which no work is permitted. Work is permitted on the intermediate days, referred to as Chol Ha-Mo’ed.
The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach which is based on the root “pass over” and refers to the fact that G-d “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt during the last of the ten plagues. Passover is also widely referred to as Chag he-Aviv (the “Spring Festival”), Chag ha-Matzoth (the “Festival of Matzahs”), and Zeman Herutenu (the “Time of Our Freedom”).
Many of the Passover observances still held were instituted in chapters 12 to 15 of the Exodus story in the Torah. Probably the most significant observance involves the removal of chametz (leavened bread) from homes and property. Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water (Ashkenazic Jews also consider rice, corn, peanuts, and legumes as chametz). The removal of chametz commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the “puffiness” (arrogance, pride) from our souls.
In fact, Jews are not only prohibited from eating chametz during Passover, but they may not own or derive any sort of benefit from it either, including using it to feed pets. This important stipulation requires Jews to sell all remaining leavened products before Passover begins, including utensils used to cook chametz.
The grain product we eat during Passover in place of chametz is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is traditionally viewed as the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt. Matzah is also referred to as Lechem Oni (“Bread of Affliction”).