Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

Not Your Grandparents' Shtel: Exploring Jewish Culture in Western Mass by Amy Meltzer

Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

The Passover seder is part holiday dinner, part ceremony, part experiential activity. At the meal, foods that symbolize bondage are served: salt water to represent tears; horseradish to represent bitterness’ a paste of fruit and nuts called haroset to represent the mortar slaves used to build bricks; and matzoh, representing the flat bread baked during the escape to freedom.

The central story of the Torah, the Hebrew bible, is the the long and sometimes arduous journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Moses, an Israelite raised in the palace by Pharoah’s daughter is called by God to lead the slaves out of bondage. He and his brother Aharon plead with Pharoah to release their people. When Pharoah refuses, God sends a series of plagues against the Egyptians; finally, Pharoah relents. The Israelites hurry to pack their belongings and flee before Pharoah changes his mind, which he invariably does, his army chasing the Israelites to the banks of the Red Sea. The Torah explains that in their haste the Israelites did not have even enough time to let their bread rise. Instead, they packed up the dough and let it bake on their backs under the hot desert sun. For a more detailed version of the story, try the picture books Why We Celebrate Passover for very young children or A Picture Book of Passover by David Adler for older children.

Jewish tradition mandates that we never forget that our ancestors were once strangers in a foreign land. The holiday of Passover is devoted to not only learning about the experience of slavery, but actually reenacting it. We are enjoined to relive the story – to consider that we ourselves were once slaves, and more importantly, to have our children do this same.

How do we teach our children this important lesson? We begin with the Passover seder – a holiday dinner/ceremony/experiential activity. At the meal, we eat foods that symbolize bondage – salt water to represent tears, horseradish to represent the bitterness, a paste of fruit and nuts called haroset to represent the mortar slaves used to build bricks, and matzoh, representing the flat bread baked during the escape to freedom. Throughout the seder, we tell stories, sing songs, and give thanks for our freedom. Children play a central role, launching the service by reciting the Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, and ending the meal by finding a piece of hidden matzah known as the afikoman which is eaten as part of the dessert (Here’s a video of my kindergarten students practicing the Four Questions.). The holiday continues for eight days, when traditional Jews do not eat any “leavened” products – just lots, and lots, and lots, of matzah.

There are few community seders taking place in Western Massachusetts as well as a few other Passover activities. Passover is typically a home-based holiday, so your best bet to experiencing a seder is to wrangle and invitation to a friend’s house!


Amy Meltzer

Amy is a Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, and the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door, and The Shabbat Princess. She writes the blog Homeshuling for Beliefnet, and a monthly column for the Jewish parenting site Amy lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two daughters.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Matt DeTurck]

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