For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes ... you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree.
- Exodus 12:14-17
Passover, which begins at sundown on the 14th day of Nissan, is the holiday most commonly observed in the Jewish community. Its themes of freedom and remembrance seem to carry relevance from year to year as each new generation learns the story of Moses’ birth and of the Exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the holy land.
The holiday is filled with symbolic acts: we remove the chametz (leaven) from our homes to commemorate the speed with which the Jews left Egypt, not even having time to allow their bread to rise; we tell the story of the Exodus, fulfilling the dictate “And you shall tell your children on that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Ex. 13:8); and, of course, we hold a Seder.
The tradition of the Seder is thought to date back 4,000 years and celebrates the gratitude of the shepherds for a fruitful lambing season. To give thanks, a lamb was roasted and formed the basis of a feast to which guests were invited. One tradition of this feast was the smearing of the animal’s blood on the tent posts, to ward off bad luck, plagues, and illnesses.
There are, of course, many other commemorative elements to the Seder. On the Seder plate an egg represents the cycle of life, the roasted lamb shank bone signifies the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the exodus, bitter herbs recall the suffering of our ancestors, parsley serves as a symbol of spring and life and charoseth represents the brick mortar used by our enslaved ancestors. Additionally, salt water reminds us of the tears shed by those oppressed; matzah is eaten, hidden, and ransomed; wine is left for the prophet Elijah, the messenger of the Messiah and the champion of the cause of the poor and needy.
The list of the traditional rituals associated with this important holiday goes on. One more contemporary tradition, and one which has specific resonance with Jewish women, is that of adding a Miriam’s Cup to the table.
"In the merit of righteous women,
the Jews were redeemed from Egypt."
- Sotah 11b
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She learns, in a dream, that her parents will sire a child who will liberate her people and after his birth. She watches over him as he is raised by an Egyptian priestess, rather than dying as has been decreed the fate of all eldest Jewish sons.
A midwife and singer (she is perhaps best known for leading the women in singing and dancing after the crossing of the Red Sea), the use of a cup to preserve Miriam’s memory is particularly apt as she also had a powerful relationship with water, in the form of the knowledge, passed down from Abraham, of a well buried in the dessert. This nourishing well is meant to remind us that the Torah too is a well from which all may drink and be restored.
Although general knowledge of this well was lost, Miriam was able to call forth its waters to sustain the Israelites in the dessert. When she died, the well dried up before Moses and the wanderers begged G-d for the prayer to call them forth again. When the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, the well sprung over the land, allowing grass and vegetation to grow. Only when they entered the Promised Land did the well ultimately disappear, because, it is thought, they had reached their homeland and would have other sources from which to drink.
But certainly the communal well, that which connects us as Jews and as women, continues to flow.
Hag Samach (Happy holiday)!
God of Promise, we greet this new morning in celebration.
You remember us in Egypt
You gave us courage
To walk strange pathways
We grew as a people
Flowered as a nation
In freedom, today we gather
Praising Your name and the memory of Your blessing
You parted the waters
And sustained us
Against Pharaohs and Fuhrers
Caesars and Commissars.
In trust, we carry the message of redemptions and hope.
This Pesach morning, this chag hamatzoi,
We remember our past and go forward rejoicing.
- Lois Sargent
Temple Judea, Coral Gables, FL
From WRJ's Covenant of the Heart
Ways you can Celebrate:
- Begin using your own Miriam’s cup to commemorate the role of women in the Exodus.
- Conduct a spring cleaning to create a fresh environment conducive to a satisfying holiday celebration.
- Plan to give Tzedakah to the less fortunate Jews in your community or join your fellow Sisterhood members in making donations to WRJ’s YES (Youth, Education, and Special Projects) Fund.
Invite students, singles, the elderly, and newcomers to your community to your Seder. Encourage the participation of everyone in the Seder ceremony.