What Is Passover and Its Meaning? All About the Jewish Holiday, the Passover Story in the Bible and More

Passover and its meaning

Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays and it falls each spring, though not on the same date, similar to Christians' Easter. Find out the Passover meaning, when it begins and ends in 2024, the Passover story in the Bible and more.

What is Passover?

Passover is a Jewish holiday that honors the Hebrews' escape from slavery in Egypt leading up to the Exodus. Aside from Yom Kippur, it is one of the holiest holidays in the Hebrew year.

Related: Celebrate Passover With the 13 Best Books of All Time About the Holiday

What is the meaning of Passover?

The Passover meaning is to honor the Israelites escaping the smite of God in ancient Egypt. When Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, God unleashed 10 plagues on Egypt as a punishment and to aid the Hebrews in their escape. The 10th plague was the death of every firstborn son. God told Moses to instruct Israelites to mark their doorposts with lambs’ blood so God would "pass over" their homes and let their firstborn sons live.

Related: Looking for a Haggadah That Fits Your Family? These Are the Best, Most Versatile Passover Haggadahs Available Online

What is Passover food?

During Passover, certain foods aren't prohibited, most notably leavened bread (sometimes called "chametz"). Matzo (also spelled "matzoh") is permitted, as it is unleavened. This is to pay tribute to the enslaved Israelites who had to rush to escape Egypt and didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise. (Passover is sometimes also called the Festival of Unleavened Bread for this reason.) Some traditions also prohibit foods including beans, lentils, corn, wheat, barley, spelt, rye and rice. Depending on an individual's beliefs, foods like pasta, crackers, pastries and breadcrumbs may also be forbidden during Passover because they're created with leavened or chametz ingredients.

Traditional Passover foods vary by location and background of those celebrating, but often include gefilte fish, borscht, matzoh brie, chicken soup (depending on one's beliefs, it may be made with or without matzoh balls), macaroons and dishes made from potatoes, which are one of the only permitted starches during Passover.

What is a Passover seder?

A Passover seder is a special feast held on the first night of Passover (though some have one on the second evening as well). While individual and cultural seder celebrations vary, a typical seder includes special prayers and a reading of the Haggadah, symbols and blessings specific for Passover and features a seder plate. The seder plate typically houses matzoh, maror (bitter herbs), chazeret (bitter lettuce, often romaine), charoset (a paste made from nuts and fruit), karpas (a vegetable dipped in saltwater, vinegar or charoset), saltwater, zeroa (a roasted goat or lamb bone) and beitzah (a roasted or hard-boiled egg).

Vinos, rejoice at this: You're required to gulp four glasses of wine during the seder.

Related: What Should I Bring to a Passover Seder?

What is a Passover symbol?

Symbols of Passover are largely featured on the seder plate:

  • Matzoh represents the haste with which the Israelites had to flee Egypt without giving time for their bread to leaven.

  • Maror is a symbol of the bitterness of life under slavery in Egypt.

  • Saltwater is a representation of the tears of slaves.

  • Charoset is a symbol of the mortar Hebrews were forced to use to build the pyramids in Egypt.

  • Beitzah symbolizes new life and springtime.

  • Karpas represents redemption and hope.

Another common symbol during a Passover seder is to shake some wine out of one's glass to honor the deaths of the innocent Egyptian children who were killed during the 10th plague (the slaying of every Egyptian firstborn son).

When is Passover?

Passover falls during springtime each year in the northern hemisphere, though the date itself varies since it's dictated by the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar. In the Hebrew calendar, it falls on the 15th of the month of Nisan (also spelled Nissan) and continues for eight days in most cultures (though it's typically celebrated for seven in Israel). This year, Passover begins before sundown on Monday, April 22, 2024, and ends after nightfall on April 30, 2024.

Related: 59 Happy Passover Greetings and Wishes to Send to Friends & Family Celebrating Pesach

What is the Passover story?

The Passover story tells of God helping free Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to arrive in Israel, with Moses leading the charge. A brief version of the story is as follows:

The Egyptian Pharoah ordered all newborn Jewish males to be drowned in the Nile River. Jochebed gives birth to Moses and places him in a cradle in the river, with his sister Miriam watching over him from the brush nearby. When the Pharaoh's daughter bathes in the Nile and finds Moses, she takes him in and Miriam offers Jochebed to serve as Moses' wet nurse. The pharaoh's daughter raises Moses like her own son.

As Moses grows into adulthood, he is horrified by the enslavement of the Hebrews and leaves Egypt to become a shepherd. God appears to Moses as a burning bush appears and instructs him (with the aid of Aaron) to free His people to serve not the pharaoh, but God.

Moses asks the pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves, but he refuses—and so God inflicts 10 plagues upon Egypt. They are as follows:

  1. Aaron strikes the Nile with his staff, turning the river's water into blood.

  2. Frogs overrun all of Egypt.

  3. A mass lice infestation afflicts all of the men, women and livestock.

  4. Wild animals overrun the cities.

  5. All the domestic animals fall ill and die.

  6. Egyptians suffer from painful boils and sores.

  7. A massive hailstorm impacts Egypt.

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After the seventh plague, Moses once more tries to appeal to the pharaoh for freedom. The Pharaoh says he will let the Hebrew men go free if the women and children stay behind—which, of course, means there's no actual deal, and the eighth plague arrives: locusts overrun Egypt and ruin crops.

The ninth plague follows, a deep, penetrating darkness over the entire land.

The 10th plague is the slaying of the firstborn son of every Egyptian. Before the 10th plague takes effect, God warns the Jews to sacrifice a lamb or baby goat and use its blood to mark their doors to save them so He will "pass over" their homes. At midnight on the 15th of Nisan, all firstborn Egyptian sons are killed, while the Jews' firstborn sons are spared.

The 10th plague was the charm, and the Pharoah finally frees the Jews—but then changes his mind and chases them down, forcing them to hurry (and, as such, not wait for their bread to rise). God, through Moses, parts the Red Sea to allow them to walk across to Israel and escape Egypt and slavery once and for all.

What is written about Passover in the Bible?

Passover is covered extensively in the Old Testament book of Exodus in the Bible. Exodus covers the Jews' arrival in Egypt with Jacob and Joseph as well as their eventual enslavement and escape, and everything in between—including the plagues. There are several other references to Passover in the Bible, including Jesus' celebrations of the holiday.

Next, check out 50 Passover trivia questions to quiz your friends and family this Pesach!