For many who celebrate Passover, Passover brings back memories of family Seder meals and reading the Haggadah, the script for the Seder ritual, which commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt.
It’s a party, in other words, with remembrance and tradition at its heart.
But that does not mean that it is immutable. As these scholars explain, Passover has evolved from the beginning, reflecting the experiences of Jewish communities around the world, until recent years with Zoom Seders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is about honoring the freedom not only of yesterday, but of today and tomorrow.
Here are three essential things to know about the Jewish holiday, celebrated from the evening of April 5 to the evening of April 13 this year.
1. RELEASE HISTORY
The central story of Passover and the name of the holiday itself come from the biblical book of Exodus, where Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Before they fled, God punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues, including the death of the firstborn sons, but told the Israelites to put the blood of a sacrificed lamb above their gates so that they would be ignored and savings.
Even before they have actually left Egypt, God instructs Moses that the Israelites commemorate this event. The narrative of persecution and liberation “merges the present moment with the past, encouraging each participant to imagine themselves as part of the first generation to leave Egypt,” writes Bible and Judaism scholar Samuel Boyd alumnus at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The Haggadah is a guide to the central ritual of Passover, the Seder meal traditionally celebrated on the first and sometimes second night. Some of the Haggadah rituals may be nearly two millennia old, Boyd notes. Yet, “almost like a time machine”, the traditions “encourage participants to reflect, in different ways, on the importance of liberation and how to communicate it to future generations”.
2. OLD, BUT CONSTANTLY EVOLVING
In recent years, Zoom Seders have become the norm for many Jewish families unable to celebrate in person with loved ones.
That in itself might be a whole new experience, but Passover and Judaism are no strangers to innovation, Boyd says. And few things illustrate this story like the temple in Jerusalem.
According to the Bible, the temple was the dwelling place of God and was central to ancient Israelite worship. After it was destroyed not once, but twice, Jewish leaders found themselves “with deep questions” about how to connect with God and offer sacrifice.
Gradually, Jews came to see prayer as a form of sacrifice, which could be performed anywhere in the world. It was an idea rooted in biblical passages drawing comparisons between the two, Psalm 141:2, for example, which says, “Take my prayer as an offering of incense, my uplifted hands as an evening sacrifice.”
“After the destruction,” Boyd writes, “the way Jewish communities worshiped God changed forever” — and continues to change today.
3. BREW A NEW TRADITION
One of the most famous examples of Passover? The Maxwell House Haggadah, yes, like the coffee company.
Thousands of different Haggadahs exist, each supplementing Exodus’ base store with different readings. But in the United States, one of the most popular for decades was a simple version “imagined in 1932 by the coffee company and a Jewish publicist” who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, says Kerri Steinberg, professor at Otis. College of Art and Design which studies the impact of advertising on religion.
During the Great Depression, Maxwell House followed his company’s advice to give out a free Haggadah with every can of coffee in an effort to boost sales.
The Maxwell House Haggadah has become a classic, even the White House uses it. But that has also changed over time, removing words like “you” and “yours,” for example. There’s even a special edition themed after the hit TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“In a sea of thousands of Haggadahs, it was Maxwell House that became the de facto representative of American Jewish life,” Steinberg wrote.