Pesach, or Passover, is a major Jewish holiday and one of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) and Shavuot (Pentecost). On these three holidays, the entire Jewish population made a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The holiday begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (usually in April), lasts for seven days and commemorates the exodus from Egypt. According to the Torah, the Israelites lived in Egypt, and were enslaved by the Egyptians. Moses became a leader of the Israelites and asked Pharaoh to let his people go. When Pharaoh refused, Moses led a campaign that culminated in their hurried departure from Egypt.
Pesach is also called the holiday of Freedom, and this aspect of the holiday is emphasized in the rituals and prayers: the exodus from slavery to freedom symbolizes physical and spiritual redemption and man’s aspiration to be free.
On the eve of the holiday, called Seder night, extended families gather for the ceremonial Seder meal. It is also an important Jewish precept to invite others who have no family with whom to celebrate the holiday.
Another name for Pesach is the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The story of the exodus from Egypt relates that the Israelites left Egypt hurriedly, and the dough they had prepared had no time to rise, so they baked it into matzah, unleavened bread. One of the important precepts of this holiday is the abstinence from eating leaven - any baked goods prepared with flour and allowed to rise, or prepared foods containing flour. Instead of bread, Jews eat matzah.
One more name for Pesach is the holiday of Spring, marking the season in which Pesach is celebrated.
The first and last days of the holiday are holy rest days, on which all productive work is forbidden. The intermediate days are called Chol ha-Mo’ed (intermediate days, when the prohibition on work is less strict).
Prohibition on eating leaven – During Passover it is forbidden to eat leaven - chametz - in commemoration of the matzah the Israelites ate on their hurried journey out of Egypt. The prohibition includes all types of bread and baked goods made of flour dough, and also all types of pasta.
Eating matzah - Matzah is flat unleavened bread. Apart from during the ceremonial Seder meal, eating matzah is not compulsory, but for most Jewish families matzah is the accepted alternative to bread throughout the holiday.
Biur chametz - the eradication of leaven - In the weeks prior to Pesach, Jews customarily clean their homes thoroughly to eliminate all traces of chametz. After nightfall on the evening before Pesach begins, observant Jews search all the corners of the house by candlelight, to make sure there are no crumbs anywhere. The State of Israel, as a representative of the Jewish people, customarily sells all the chametz in Israel to a non-Jew at a symbolic price (and buys it back immediately following the holiday).
The Seder - This is a lengthy ceremonial meal on first night of Passover. The family gathers around the holiday table for the Seder - the reading of the Haggadah and the holiday meal. The Haggadah contains relevant passages from the Bible, Mishna (the compilation of oral traditions in Jewish religious law), commentaries and songs. The Haggadah is read to hand down the Pesach tradition from one generation to the next. The rituals during the Seder are all symbolic, such as the eating of matzah and bitter herbs, the drinking of four goblets of wine, singing together, and of course, the big meal.
Afikoman - To encourage the children to stay awake throughout the Seder, it is customary to hide a special piece of matzah, called the Afikoman, somewhere in the house, and the children have to find it. Whoever finds it usually gets a prize.
Almost all Israeli businesses are closed are the first and last days of Pesach. On intermediate days (Chol ha-Mo’ed), many offices and businesses are only open in the mornings, and many Israeli families go on vacations or day-trips out of town.
Most Israeli restaurants observe the kosher food laws of Pesach, and many places will offer kosher-for-Pesach alternatives to regular foods. In recent years, particularly in the Tel Aviv area, Pesach has been less strictly observed in restaurants, and you will be able to find places that serve bread, cake and pasta dishes. Please note: beer is not kosher for Pesach.