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Chaplain's Corner: Passover: 4,000 years of Jewish spring-cleaning tradition

By Chris McCann | JBER Public Affairs | March 26, 2015

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — "And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for the Lord, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes ... you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree." - Exodus 12:14-17
Passover, or Pesach, is one of the most commonly-observed Jewish holidays, even by those who aren't very active in their Judaism.

The holiday, which begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, celebrates the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. However, it has a much deeper meaning.

When the Jews were slaves in Egypt and preparing to leave, Moses passed along instructions from God that they should roast a whole lamb or kid goat, and eat it with herbs.

There were to be no leftovers. Bread dough would be carried out before it had time to bake, so the people would eat unleavened bread, called matzah.

For the eight days of the Feast of Matzah, commonly called Passover, Jews are to eat nothing that could be leavened.

Anything made of wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt that hasn't been completely cooked within 18 minutes of coming in contact with water is considered leavened.

Ashkenazi Jews (from eastern Europe) also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, beans and legumes, because those items can be used to make bread also. All of these items are referred to as chometz (leavened).

All dishes and utensils used with chometz throughout the year are locked up; pets get chometz-free food since we cannot derive benefit from the chometz at all.

Jewish families spend weeks cleaning and scrubbing all food preparation surfaces, replacing cabinet liners, and covering countertops with foil.

The morning before the holiday, a final check is made, and any remaining chometz is burned.
The firstborn in any family often fast the day before Passover, in memory of the fact that firstborns among the Egyptians were struck down in the final plague before Pharaoh agreed to let the Jews leave the country.

Symbolically, leavening represents pride - being arrogant or puffed up.

We are to carefully examine ourselves for any "chometz," and take stock of our lives, then remove the pride and destroy it.

Passover can be a difficult holiday - even if you don't normally like cake, a cake in the store is suddenly tempting.

But it's a very real and physical reminder to stay humble and remember who we are as a people.
During the holiday, we eat matzah, which has been prepared carefully to make sure it isn't leavened.

Matzah meal (finely ground matzah) is used to make delicious pastries that use egg whites to get a bit of loft. Crumbled matzah stands in for noodles, and matzah is soaked in egg and fried like French toast.

On the first and second nights, Jews have a seder, a symbolic meal in which each item is eaten while we recite stories of the Passover and departure from Egypt, and sing songs.

It's a highly interactive way to pass on the story of the Jewish people becoming free thanks to God's redemption, and children are encouraged to participate in singing and games.

A seder can easily last two or three hours, and it's followed with a traditional feast that includes soup, salads, fish, meat, matzah and wine.

As we conduct the seder, we start with the usual cup of wine with which we sanctify a holiday. We eat a vegetable - usually parsley - dipped in salt water which symbolizes the tears of the slaves.

Then we break the matzah and re-tell the story of the Passover.

We wash our hands and eat the first of the matzah, then eat bitter herbs, usually raw horseradish or romaine lettuce.

Since there is no Temple standing in which to actually sacrifice a lamb or kid, Jews don't consume lamb or goat during the festive meal.

Usually, chicken, turkey or beef are the main course, along with more matzah, and finish with another cup of wine and the singing of psalms of praise. The prophet Elijah is symbolically invited into the home.

At the end, we close with a wish that next year we can celebrate Passover in Jerusalem - that the Messiah will come this year.