Passover I – Pesach – Overview

Passover is, as it were, the “firstborn” of the biblical festivals. God set it in place when He proclaimed at the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt: “You shall therefore keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year” (Exodus 13:10). As the first, Passover also sets a precedent for the purpose of the mo’edim, the set times of the Festival Cycle. Arnold Eisen describes this basic purpose in saying that they are a remembrance that we are between redemptions.

“We are commanded to recall the past, in order to remember the present – to see it clearly, to know it fully, in all its possibilities – in the light of our future [full] redemption.” [1]

These appointments with God offer unique opportunities that enable us to look back on God’s mighty deeds, to live in His light in the present, and to look forward in faith.

Together with remembrance; rebirth and hope  also are key elements of Passover. The week-long festival is always celebrated in the Spring, when fresh new life is bursting forth after the gray confines of the winter. (Southern hemisphere readers please see footnote) [2] As we prepare for and participate in this rich and redemptive appointed time, we discover its gifts of the possibility and hope of renewal, of spiritual growth and positive change.

The festival of Passover is in fact a composite of four significant appointed times, namely: the Time of our Freedom (Z’man Cheruteinu), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag HaMatzot), the Feast of First Fruits (Chag HaBikkurim), and the start of the Counting of the Omer (Shemirat HaOmer).

TIME OF OUR FREEDOM – Zman Cheruteinu

Z’man Cheruteinu focuses on God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. Passover Eve, when the special Seder meal is enjoyed, commemorates the momentous events of the Exodus. The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzraim, which is derived from the Hebrew words tzar – narrow and confined, tza’ar – pain, and meitzar, meaning constriction of vision, all of which are aspects of slavery. This season of freedom reminds us that, no matter the constraints or challenges we face, our God who delivers from evil always offers the hope of redemption.

The transition of the redeemed Israelites, from slaves bound in Egypt to a people following God in the wilderness en route to their Promised Land, required movement; a movement away from and a movement towards. To gain freedom we need to be ready to move with God in the direction He leads and in the way He opens up before us, which always will be closer to Himself. At this season, let us press forward with renewed dedication to move further away from the limitations of our own ‘Egypt’ and closer towards the Beloved of our souls.

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This movement from bondage towards freedom, from exile to redemption, is recounted at the Seder meal in the form of a haggadah, a special retelling of the Exodus story. We re-enact the meal the Israelites ate in anticipation of their liberation, as directed by God, with matzah, green and bitter herbs, and a reminder of the lamb that was sacrificed. We remember that on the eve of deliverance, a Passover lamb was slaughtered by each family and its blood applied to the doorposts of the home. At this sign of the blood, the plague of death would pass by their door but would enter the houses of those spiritually bound to Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, and the first born sons in those homes would die.

The Seder night  also is known by its biblical reference, Leil Shimurim, a ‘night of vigil, or watching’ for God.

And at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching (leil shimurim) by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. (Exodus 12:41-42)

World history was critically impacted on Leil Shimurim. It was a night of great anticipation. The Israelites had seen the power of their God unleashed upon the great nation of Egypt with its gods that represented the forces of nature. He had demonstrated that all nature was in the hands of the one God and Creator of all. Now His people would be delivered and brought to Himself. The birth of His nation would prove that He also was the Master of all mankind’s history.

“We have been set free from slavery in Egypt.
Behold our God, who is majestic in holiness, doing wonders!
Our Father is God and we will exalt Him!
The Lord will reign forever and ever!” (Exodus 15:1-18)


Matzah is a central symbol of Passover. The first matzah is eaten at the Seder and is the staple ‘bread’ during the next seven days, when no leavened products are eaten, in accord with Exodus 13:3-8′

“Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place; no leavened bread shall be eaten. This day you are to go forth, in the month of Aviv. And when the Lord brings you into the land …which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; …and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory.”


Matzah is called both “bread of our affliction” and “bread of our freedom”. It is prepared with flour and water, with no chametz (yeast or leaven). On the eve of departure from Egypt, in their haste to be packed and ready to leave immediately they heard the call, the Israelites needed to bake bread that did not require time to rise. Thus it is connected with the affliction of those who were still slaves.


The first celebration of the bikkurim, the first fruits of the harvest, occurred on 16 Nissan, the day after the first day of the very first Passover (Leviticus 23:10-11). This was the time of the barley harvest, and on the evening of 15 Nissan the first barley sheaves would be cut, put into baskets and stored until the next day, when they were brought, in lively procession singing praises to God, to the Temple to be ceremonially waved by the priests. Together with the priest, the participants would proclaim:

“A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt …and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.”
(Deuteronomy 26:5, 8-10)

The first barley sheaf was called the Omer, the waving of which indicated the consecration of all the harvest to God and marked the start of the counting of fifty days until the final wheat harvest, which occurred at Shavuot, Pentecost. As the ‘first fruit’ sheaves were being lifted to God, the Bread of Life that had come from Heaven was already raised from the earth as the first fruit of a completely new harvest. Interestingly, as recorded in Joshua 5:11-12, the manna from heaven that God had provided throughout the forty years of the Israelite’s journey in the wilderness ceased on that same day. From then on they would eat of the grain from the earth.

And on the morrow after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. And the manna ceased…and the people of Israel had manna no more, but ate of the fruit of the land…


The days of redemption and revelation ushering in new life establish a connection between Passover and Shavuot. The two Feasts, in conjunction with Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, were holy convocations when all males, as representatives of the whole community, went up to the House of God in Jerusalem. These three pilgrimage festivals physically enacted the great sweeping plan of God to bring His people from the exile of bondage to full and universal redemption.

And you shall count from the morrow after the Sabbath [of Passover], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven full weeks shall they be, counting fifty days to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath…
(Leviticus 23:15)

The festival of First Fruits is celebrated the day after the first day of Passover. The Omer sheaf is waved and, in expectation of the joyful festival of Pentecost – Shavuot, the counting of the interim seven weeks begins. This ‘counting’ links physical liberation with spiritual redemption; the bread of the earth with the bread of the spirit – the Word of God. The latter is revealed by God to His newly formed people at the first Pentecost at Sinai. 


Preparation is a significant and integral part of every biblical holiday. The planning during the week prior to each Sabbath usually culminates on Friday in a bustle of cleaning, last minute shopping, food preparation and welcoming guests. Then the candles are lit and the peace of Shabbat is ushered in like a radiant, beautiful Queen. Without some advance planning and preparation this would not be possible. The same principle applies to the Shabbatot, the set-apart days, of the annual Festival Cycle.

Preparations for the annual festival of Pesach, or Passover, begin at least a month before the holiday, with a planned schedule of thorough housecleaning – the model for “spring-cleaning”! Invitations are given or received for the Seder meal, which is prepared for in fine detail.

Immediately after Passover one spiritually prepares oneself through the forty-nine days of the Omer for the powerful fiftieth day of the Festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost.

Why this emphasis on preparation in the annual round of festivals? One answer is that the core of each festival is spiritual. If you’ve been to New York and haven’t seen the Statue of Liberty, you haven’t been to New York. If you participate in a biblical Feast and you haven’t grown as a person, and matured a little more spiritually, then you miss the point of the Feast. In the same way that a holiday or trip will be as successful as the preparation made beforehand, so the enormous God-given opportunities afforded in the participation of every Feast of the Lord will only be fully taken advantage of if the appropriate preparations have been made, with conscious, eager anticipation.

Even with preparation one may sometimes feel that one is simply “scratching the surface.” But, take heart; even the surface of each Feast is fertile and rich with possibilities for growing in understanding of our God and His ways. As one enters in and participates in the annual cycle of the Biblical Feasts, one realizes that it is not merely an endless repetition of “same-old, same-old.” Each time around is a new and fresh encounter, because you are not the same. Each year you “scratch” a little deeper and discover riches not imagined and come to appreciate that, with the necessary preparation, the journey on the “highway to Zion” is exceedingly joyful and rewarding.


As Passover preparation is time to consider, in a practical hands-on way as we “spring-clean” our homes, that we who were once slaves to the world are now willing servants of God. The extra physical effort involved of thoroughly cleaning the refrigerator and oven, sorting our cabinets and shelves, checking everything for chametz, removing all breadcrumbs, etc., etc. can enable us to empathize more with the hardworking slaves!

As one cleans out the crumbs, which seem to multiply and hide in the most unexpected places, one comes to more deeply appreciate the nature of “sin that so easily besets” and the watchful eye needed in order to conquer it and keep it at bay. The cleaning and preparation also imparts the valuable lesson that true freedom requires our effort and participation. God wants us to partner with Him on our journey through life. As we persevere in faith we trust that our hearts, as well as our homes at Passover, are becoming chametz-free zones.

A few Passover cleaning and preparation tips from Blu Greenberg! [3]

1. Start with the bedrooms and bathrooms first. Clean out dressers and closets; check all pockets for left over snacks etc.! Once a bedroom is declared chametz-free, no food should be allowed in. Stock up with new toothbrushes and throw out old ones before the Seder. Make sure toothbrush holders are cleaned well.

2. Begin checking pantry shelves and start using up or packing away grain products you won’t be using (such as flour, barley, grain cereals, pastas etc.) Any unopened products can be packed away and stored out of sight until after Passover. Mark the boxes/bags Chametz! so you don’t open them inadvertently. Seal off an area in a closet if necessary and also a section of the freezer for any frozen goods. Remember that whiskey and beer are grain products.

3. The kitchen is the biggest challenge. Storage cabinets and drawers should be cleaned out and wiped with a damp cloth. The week before Passover, refrigerators, freezers, ovens, dishwashers should be carefully cleaned, checking all linings, folds etc. Once cleaned, label e.g., Chametz-free zone! and they should not be used for leavened products until after Passover.

4. The transition to chametz-free products is quite a juggling act and quite an adventure. As well as “Kosher for Passover” matzah, most supermarkets today have a wide variety of products that are so marked, including delicious macaroon cookies, frozen goods and desserts. There certainly is no need to feel deprived. (A few simple and tasty Passover recipes, as well as more details on the Seder meal, will be included in Passover II.)

5. The night before Passover Eve, a final thorough search for chametz is undertaken throughout the house. To make this an adventure for children, as well as to clearly imprint the fact that Passover week is beginning, families often turn off the lights and with a candle and/or flashlight search to find any chametz. A few pieces can be hidden beforehand, in small, sealed plastic bags, in strategic places. Once found and disposed of a declaration is made:

“All leaven and all chametz which is in my possession, which I have not seen or destroyed, nor have knowledge of shall be null, void, ownerless, and as dust of the earth.”

Now all that is possible has been done and one is eager and ready for Passover!

The Passover activities may seem rather daunting and intimidating to those who are not yet familiar with them. Please rest assured that all that one does, if done in faith, even – and maybe specially – taking ‘baby steps’, is pleasing to the Lord. To whatever degree one chooses to, or is able to, observe the week of Unleavened Bread, it always proves to be a very rewarding and worthwhile spiritual experience. Whenever we accept His invitation to meet with Him, the Lord is faithful to be there.

 ~  Keren Hannah


1. Arnold Eisen, quoted in Michael Strassfeld’s, The Festival Cycle, p6
2. For those in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, the seasonal applications present a challenge! However, the Festivals offer opportunities to keep the land of Israel in active remembrance while you appreciate the physical season wherever you may be. As you participate in the Festival Cycle you truly can say, “Wherever I stand, I stand with Israel!” in accordance with His Word.
3. Blu Greenberg, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY, 1983; 404ff.

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