Matzo cover made by May Szyster for her father, Ya‘akov Yisroel, Luboml, Poland (now Lyubomil, Ukr.), 1930. Embroidered: “Observe the Holiday of Matzos, Y. Y. Shuster, [in the year] 569.” (Collection of May Shuster Goodman, courtesy of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.)

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(Yid., Peysekh; Heb., Pesaḥ), the eight-day holiday commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The special dietary requirements of the holiday—the ban on leavened products and the need for matzo and other special foods—necessitated early planning. Sometimes goose fat was rendered on Hanukkah to be used for Passover; serious preparations for the holiday begin a month before, on Purim, with the collection of moes khitim (Heb., ma‘ot ḥitim;money for wheat), intended to help the poor pay for the special foods needed for Passover. Other preparations for Passover included whitewashing houses, painting walls, washing floors, and airing out clothes. Books, too, were aired out in the open. It was the season when new clothes and shoes were bought, to be worn during the festival.

Ḥad gadya’ (Aramaic and Yiddish), from a Haggadah produced by Mosheh Leib ben Volf, Trebitsch, Moravia, 1716–1717. Ink, oil on parchment. The illustrations are based on the engravings found in the printed Amsterdam Haggadah of 1712. (HUC Ms. 444.1, Second Cincinnati Haggadah. Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

During times of great hardship, it was sometimes difficult to raise needed funds. There is a tradition that Yisra’el Salanter (1810–1883) was once informed that there were insufficient funds available for the poor, who would therefore have to eat kitniyes (Heb., kitniyot; rice, corn, and other legumes) during Passover, though kitniyes had been forbidden by custom to Ashkenazic (but not Sephardic) Jews on the festival since the Middle Ages. Salanter ruled that if the poor would have to eat kitniyes, then the whole community, starting with the rabbi and elders, would also eat them.

The Sabbath before Passover is called Shabat ha-Gadol. Beginning in medieval Europe, the tradition developed that rabbis were obligated to preach twice a year, on this Sabbath and on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Shabat Shuvah). A humorous explanation for the name “Great Sabbath” was that the length of the rabbi’s sermon made it appear that the day went on forever.

Matzo is the most important food associated with Passover. In Eastern Europe until the mid-nineteenth century, all matzo was made by hand, sometimes by women. A machine for making matzo was invented in France by Isaac Singer in 1838, and its use spread quickly. Machines were introduced in Leszno in 1847 and in Poznań by 1852. In the 1850s, communities in Hungary and Moravia adopted it; Avraham Sofer (Ketav Sofer) permitted its use in Pressburg in 1858. Still, the use of the new technology was controversial. The most intense debate arose with the introduction of the machines in Galicia in the late 1850s. In Lwów, Mordekhai Ze’ev Ettinger forbade the use of the matzo machine, while Yosef Sha’ul Natanson permitted it.

The primary advantage of machine-made matzo was its significantly cheaper cost. However, more-conservative rabbis raised questions about whether the machines could be adequately cleaned so that no leavened products (khomets; Heb., ḥamets) remained in them, in accordance with the religious requirements for Passover. Some of the opposition was based upon the displacement of poor and sometimes female workers. A subtext of this controversy was the growing opposition to the perceived encroachment of modernity, and hence to anything that was seen as an innovation in Jewish life. The broader Jewish community, however, accepted machine-made matzo as kosher for Passover.

Lubok (folk print) illustrating the Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah, at a Seder, Ukraine, second half of the nineteenth century. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Pietists and Hasidim clung to handmade matzo and also insisted on so-called shemurah matzo—that is, matzo made from flour that was “guarded” against wetness from the time the wheat was cut until the final baking. Some scholars, along with their students, would harvest the wheat themselves and participate in the whole process, culminating in the baking of the matzo.

The matzo used at the Seder itself (as opposed to that consumed during the rest of the holiday) had a special significance, and famous scholars and Hasidic rebbes would go with their disciples to the bakery after noon on the eve of Passover, dressed in their holiday finery, to bake these matzot personally. The baking was accompanied by the singing of psalms praising God (Hallel) and other Passover songs.

Children have a prominent place in Passover traditions, and their participation was always actively encouraged. They played games with nuts and plotted “stealing” the afikoman (the piece taken from the middle of the three matzot and customarily hidden) at the Seder service. On the night before the first Seder, when the house is searched for leaven, children helped their parents in the hunt.

The idea of the Seder was so ingrained in East European life that even hardened atheists insisted on having a Seder (sometimes taking the form of a dinner on another evening, called the Third Seder), with appropriate readings celebrating universal liberation. Secular Zionists emphasized the agricultural aspects of the holiday along with its messianic motifs, betokening the liberation from exile and the return to the Land of Israel. They also emphasized and recited secularized blessings over the newly blossoming fruit trees associated with the Passover season.

Passover plate. Teichfeld & Asterblum. Włocławek, ca. 1910. Ceramic, colored glazes. Inscribed in Hebrew: “Seven days shall you eat matzot.” (Gross Family Collection)

The prophet Elijah—who, according to certain Jewish folk legends protected and saved some Jewish communities—is traditionally considered to visit every Seder; a special cup of wine, Elijah’s cup, is set out for him. After the conclusion of the meal, the door is opened and Elijah is invited in. Opening the door served both to welcome Elijah and as a symbolic reminder of the blood libel—the accusation that Jews used Christian blood to make matzo—which began in the Middle Ages, and became associated with Passover because the holiday often coincided with Good Friday and Easter. (Dead Christian children were sometimes found on Jewish doorsteps on the night of the Seder.) For the same reason, Passover was also frequently a time of pogroms. As a result, Passover in Eastern Europe became a time of mixed emotions and contradictory feelings.

Jews during the Holocaust, particularly in the first years in the ghettos, made heroic efforts to procure flour to bake matzot and to celebrate a Seder. The event most associated with Passover during the Holocaust was the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which began on the eve of Passover 1943. After World War II, an important component of the Passover Seder was to commemorate that uprising. In the 1970s and 1980s, remembering the plight of Soviet Jewry became a significant element in many Seders as well.

The night of the seventh day of Passover was for mystics and Hasidim a time of preparation for the crossing of the Red Sea, because according to Jewish tradition, the crossing took place on this day (the 21st of Nisan). Hasidim would stay up all night studying appropriate texts and reciting prayers; some adopted the custom of jumping over pails of water to symbolize the crossing. Observance of the last (eighth) day of Passover is based on rabbinic rather than biblical authority, and the dietary restrictions are loosened somewhat.

Suggested Reading

Meir Hildesheimer and Yehoshua Lieberman, “The Controversy Surrounding Machine-Made Matzot,Hebrew Union College Annual 75 (2004): 193–262; Eliyahu Ki Tov, The Book of Our Heritage, vol. 2, adapt. and exp. ed., trans. Nachman Bulman (New York, 1997); Yom-Tov Lewinsky, Sefer ha-mo‘adim: Parashat mo‘ade Yisra’el, vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1964/65).