Written by: Allan Nadler
Pesach is a seven-day spring festival (observed for eight days in the Diaspora) that commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, and celebrates Jewish national freedom more generally. On the first evening in Israel, and the first two in the Diaspora, a festive family feast known as the seder (order) is conducted. The seder meal is laden with a host of symbolic foods—most notably matza, the unleavened bread that was eaten by the Israelites in their haste to escape from Egypt; maror, or bitter herbs that symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery; and charoset, a mixture of nuts, fruit, and wine that is meant to recall the mortar that the Israelite slaves were forced to make. The seder meal is prefaced, accompanied by, and supplemented with an extensive liturgy contained in a prayer-pamphlet known as the Haggadah, which literally means "the recounting" in fulfillment of the biblical commandment to "recount to your children all that God did for us by liberating our ancestors from Egyptian bondage."
In addition to providing precise instructions regarding the rituals and blessings accompanying the seder meal, the Haggadah extensively narrates the historical experience of the Jews since the inception of their faith with the biblical patriarch Abraham, culminating in the celebration of redemption following the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. It concludes with the recitation of Psalms and songs of thanksgiving and celebration. The Pesach seder is by far the most widely observed Jewish ritual, even among otherwise secular or religiously unaffiliated Jews. The national themes of freedom from bondage and persecution, and the elaborate family traditions represented by the seder meal, continue to resonate with many Jews long after they have otherwise abandoned almost all other Jewish religious practices.
Only the first and final days (in the Diaspora, the first and final two days) of Pesach are considered "sacred days of convocation," akin to Shabbat. The intermediate four days of these festivals are called hol ha-mo'ed, literally mundane days of the festival, during which special holiday prayers are recited daily, but the restrictions against labor do not apply. Aside from the seder, the most distinctive regulation governing the observance of Pesach is the strict dietary laws that prohibit the consumption of any leavened, or grain-based, food or drink.