The two terms are synonymous, said Rabbi Larry Moldo of Modesto's Congregation Beth Shalom. But don't think July Fourth. That celebrates the freedom of a country. Passover celebrates the freedom from oppression for a people.
The ancient ritual was established to honor God for delivering the Israelites out of the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Modern observances also take note of anyone caught in oppression, "whether it's because of conditions imposed upon them or something they've brought on themselves," Moldo said.
The Passover commemorates the biblical story in Exodus: The Israelites, who had moved to Egypt to escape famine in their land, had originally been people of privilege because one of their kinsmen, Joseph, was second in authority only to the Pharaoh. But centuries later, the group had grown to thousands of people and had been demoted to work as slaves.
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Moses, called by God to lead the people out of bondage, announced a series of plagues on Egypt. But the pharaoh of his time did not let the Israelites leave until the final plague, when all the firstborn males in the land were killed, from the Pharaoh down to the animals. The Israelites escaped this plague by placing blood from a sacrificed lamb over their doorways; God later told them to remember this event through the Passover celebration each year.
"And when your children say to you, 'What does this rite mean to you?' you shall say, 'It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.' " (Exodus 12:26-27)
"It's one of the three pilgrimage festivals. It's one of the times when people had to go to the temple in
Jerusalem," Moldo said. Even though the temple was destroyed twice through the centuries, the celebration continues, evolving through the years.
Why is it still celebrated when other festivals have died out?
"Partially because there's a home meal (the Seder) involved," Moldo said. "But it's more than that. We have a book to go through. The kids are involved; they have to ask the four questions, or the four comments.
"There are 14 steps to the evening; not every family does them all, but everybody goes through at least three of them. The longest part is the telling of the story. Moses isn't mentioned at all, because we don't assume that Moses was responsible for the Exodus; he was just God's agent at the time. God was responsible for the Exodus."
A typical Seder can last from three to five hours, Moldo said.
The other part of Passover, besides freedom and the ritual Seder meal, is the cleaning. Moldo said it may be the origin of spring cleaning, for virtually every room, drawer, cupboard and piece of furniture must be cleaned to make sure not a single crumb of leaven is left behind. The cleaning must extend to any room where food may have been eaten. So, for example, because many folks might chomp on a snack while sitting on a couch and watching TV, all the cushions must be taken off and vacuumed, and everything in every drawer in that room must also be scoured.
That's because leaven represents sin, in the Scriptures and in tradition. And leaven is not simply yeast or baking soda, as many non-Jews might think.
"Leaven products get very complicated as things go by, and include rice, corn, corn syrup," Moldo explained. "Leaven is anything made with grains that have had water added. Beer isn't allowed, for example. It gets very complicated because you have to double check what all the chemical derivatives are — what you've used to clean the plates, some oils, for example."
And it goes way beyond food.
"We put away the pots and the pans that we use during the rest of the year," Moldo said. "We clean every place where anyone might have eaten. It's lots of hard work."
Cleaning begins about two months before Passover. Cleaning the oven a few days before the holiday is often the final cleaning chore, the rabbi said. Then you have to throw out any opened non-Passover food items and bring in the Passover cookware and dinnerware and special food. Not too soon, or they're "contaminated" by the ordinary food.
"Passover is not a simple holiday," said Moldo. "There's always stuff that you don't know or remember. There's a rabbi who comes up with a book every single year on what you need to do."
Passover, which lasts for eight days, begins at sundown March 29, but there's a pre-Passover service called Celebration of the Firstborn that happens that morning. While firstborn Jews often attend the hourlong service, those who are middle or youngest siblings are welcome as well.
"It's in recognition of the fact that we could have been killed, like the Egyptian ones were," Moldo said.
The service is followed by a light meal. "That's the last bit of leavened food you can have," Moldo said.
That evening, the first night of Passover, the Seder meal is held in homes. Jews often will invite family members or neighbors to this event.
A community Seder will be held March 30 at the synagogue. The retelling of the Exodus story is the longest part of the evening, Moldo said. It boils down to this, the rabbi said: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. God saw our agony and brought us out from there. We're not slaves anymore."
He said it has a broader message: "We were physical slaves to Pharaoh. We were idol worshippers before Abraham was called (by God). We remind ourselves that we weren't always doing the things that we do now. We don't assume we've always done things this way or that."
But today, Passover Seders end the same way every year. "At the end of the Passover service, you say, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' It makes it more emotional," Moldo said.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.