15th Nisan 5774
Pesach/Passover is the Jewish spring festival, which begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year. This corresponds to March or April, and to the tradition of celebrating the re-birth of nature, common to many peoples in the ancient world. In addition, Judaism gave the festival an historical significance, as it commemorates the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the start of their/our journey to freedom. It is the first of the 3 Pilgrim festivals, the shalosh regalim, of the Jewish year, a time when traditionally the journey was made to Jerusalem.
Pesach lasts a week, and in Israel and for Diaspora Progressive communities, the first day and the seventh day are Yomtov, festival days when traditionally no work is done. The intervening days of the festival are known as ‘Chol HaMoed’, when there are special additions to the liturgy and the Passover food laws are observed, but work may be done, other than, of course, on Shabbat.
Pesach starts with the Seder, observed on the first night, and sometimes on the first two nights. Traditionally this is a home ceremony, and is said to be the most widely observed celebration of the Jewish year. Many Reform synagogues hold a ‘communal Seder’, on either the first or second night, both for those who might not be able to spend the evening with family, and as a community event. The word ‘Seder’ means order, and using our text of the evening, the Haggadah, its readings and songs, and various tangible symbols, we retell the story of the exodus of our ancestors from Egypt. However it is also usual to think about different journeys throughout Jewish history, different times when Jews have been required to leave their homes, and, in addition, to think about what freedom means to different groups, both historically and in our own time.
We are taught in the book of Exodus that the Israelites left so quickly there was not time for the dough to rise. To commemorate this, we eat nothing ‘leaven’ during the week of Pesach, and have matzah, unleavened bread. There are various ways of interpreting the laws relating to food for the festival. Some will just have no bread. Others will be much more strict in their observance and, in addition to restraining from certain foods, will also use different cutlery, crockery, cooking utensils, kept just for this week, so it has not had any contact with leaven, and there are a range of observances in between these two extremes.
The ritual is very important, but is ideally an accompaniment to thinking about what freedom means, collectively and individually, and trying to make changes to incorporate more freedom, for ourselves, for others.
The readings are taken from the official luach prepared by the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK. Please note that the English text of these Torah portions is taken from the 1917 JPS translation and may differ from translations used in our communities. Occasionally alternative portions may be read, please contact your synagogue or rabbi to confirm the exact readings.