Earlier today, James Emmerling asked me to explain Passover to him, on his current Open Salon post, so I did. In case anyone else wants to know who doesn't read his blog, here's what I said (bracketed addition at the end was added here):
You want me to explain Passover to you?
Do you know the Biblical Exodus story? It centers around the story of leaving slavery in Egypt, through the ten plagues and crossing the Reed Sea. The last plague, involving killing the firstborn sons, there was a command to mark our doorposts with lambs' blood so God would know to Pass Over Hebrew households when administering that plague.
This is one of the few holidays old enough to be Biblically mandated. A lot of Jewish holidays came later. This one is seriously ancient.
The holiday lasts for seven to eight days (depending both on how observant your sect is and, believe it or not, on where you live), during which we don't eat leavened products and we avoid some grains altogether (which ones is somewhat disputed). So, we eat matzah, which is sort of like a cracker, and the reason given is that we had to leave Egypt in a hurry, so bread didn't have time to rise. So, for that period, no bread, no pizza, no pasta unless it's specially made, etc.
The first two nights (some people only do the first night), there is a long ceremony held at home around the table, with a huge meal in the middle, called a Seder. (Seder means "order," as in the order in which the ceremony is done.) For Jews, it's rather like Thanksgiving, with some of the same family resonances (but none of the football). There are a load of rituals attached to this. One is drinking four cups of wine. Growing up, that was my wine consumption. Another is that we say continuously "we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt," so that we treat this not like it happened to our ancestors but like it happened to us. That helps teach us empathy for the oppressed, which is drilled into us every year. (Other ways too, but this is a big one that almost everyone observes - it's the most observed Jewish holiday.) Another is that we spill ten drops of wine, one for each of the plagues, the lesson being that the suffering of your enemies is still suffering, so don't celebrate it. Yet another is the participation of children, both in the youngest child competent to do it chanting something called the Four Questions and in a piece of matzah functioning as dessert after the meal, called the Afikoman, being hidden, either for children or by children, and finding it entails a reward or a ransom, depending on who does the hiding and finding. The Afikoman is ritually necessary for continuing the Seder after the meal. There are a lot of other foods that are part of the ritual, mainly in the first half of the Seder. Oh, and the Seder follows a sort of manual, a book that includes prayers, readings, and instructions on what to do next. That manual is called a Haggadah (in Yiddishized Hebrew, usually pronounced "ha GUH duh").
There is a ritual where you open the front door and invite the hungry in to eat. (I've never seen the hungry there.)
There's a lot of singing, mainly at the end, but there's one song in the first half, called Dayeinu, possibly the most repetitive song on the planet when sung properly. Dayienu means "it would have been enough for us." It's a song about gratitude to God.
Passover, called Pesach (PAY sakh) in Hebrew, is my favorite Jewish holiday. Unlike all the other big ones, it's too important to leave to the rabbis and has to be done by everyone at home, to tell the story and to teach the kids. And the lessons are very basic to us. That each of us has been oppressed and has to empathize with others who are. That suffering is a bad thing, no matter who is suffering, and is not to be celebrated. That gratitude is important, in this case particularly to God. That freedom is a big deal. And again, that these are important enough to be taught with extended family and often friends in the home. That these lessons are important enough to be reviewed at least annually, and we are commanded to do so, even without the presence of kids.
We're supposed to loll around a lot, and Not sit up straight. Free people recline, and we're celebrating our freedom. (This probably dates from Roman mores, but I'm not completely sure.)
Forgot something. If you aren't in Israel, the Seder ends with the phrase L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim, which means Next Year in Jerusalem. Said at every seder for the nearly two thousand years we were gone.
[Except, of course, for the seders of those Jews who lived in Palestine during this period and I'm not sure about those in Palestine but outside Jerusalem.]