Above: Some of the classic foods that American Jews eat for the Passover. Matzah (unleavened bread) is described explicitly in the Bible. Gefilte fish, a type of ground fish loaf, actually has nothing to do with the holiday but it is a tradition for Jews of Central European descent to serve it with the Passover meal. Horse radish is meant to symbolize the bitterness and suffering and is also descried in Exodus.
For those of you not familiar with the Passover, it’s a holiday when Jews across the world tell the story of the Exodus through a symbolic meal (the Seder) where each of the foods and each of the courses, including wine service, represent an element in the narrative. It’s such a popular and powerful festival in the Jewish liturgic calendar that even secular and non-observant Jews take time out from their lives to partake in the ritual. And even though it tells a story full of pain and suffering, the outcome of the narrative arc is a happy one: G-d delivers the Hebrews from the Pharaoh and bondage. And the meal itself and the storytelling make Passover one of the most fun and most beloved holidays for Jews everywhere in the world.
You can read more about the Passover and the Seder plate and foods in this excellent Wikipedia entry. Be sure to click through to the Passover Seder plate entry as well.
The central food of the meal is the matzah (pane azzimo in Italian), unleavened bread.
As most Jews will tell you, observant Jews carefully remove any leavened foods from their homes and eat only unleavened foods, including matzah, because it reminds of the Jews’ haste in fleeing Egypt: They were in such a hurry to leave that they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. That’s true. But it’s only part of the story.
In the passage from the Book of Exodus where G-d instructs the Jews to observe the Passover ritual, He actually tells the Jews to eat matzah before they leave. In his instructions, He simultaneously gives them culinary direction; gives them a preview of what is about to happen (i.e., the Exodus); and he tells that them that they must commemorate the Passover and the story of the Exodus once every year for perpetuity.
It’s really fascinating (imho) to read the original text where the Passover is described. I’ve copied and pasted it below. And I encourage to read the entire story. It’s one of the most moving and compelling stories from the Bible and it continues to inspire literary and figurative art works: The Jews’ deliverance from bondage resonates not only as an analogy for subjugated peoples of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries but it’s also an allegory for personal redemption and resurgence. What a powerful archetype!
Here’s the passage where matzah is described and where G-d instructs the Jews how the holiday will be observed. Personally, I find it to be an amazing piece of writing. The conative component alone is brilliant: G-d is at once speaking to the Jews in the story and the Jews reading the story. Here it is… enjoy and chag sameach, happy festival!
“‘This will be a day for you to remember and celebrate as a festival to Adonai [G-d]; from generation to generation you are to celebrate it by a perpetual regulation.
“‘For seven days you are to eat matzah — on the first day remove the leaven from your houses. For whoever eats [c]hametz [leavened bread] from the first to the seventh day is to be cut off from Isra’el. On the first and seventh days, you are to have an assembly set aside for God. On these days no work is to be done, except what each must do to prepare his food; you may do only that. You are to observe the festival of matzah, for on this very day I brought your divisions out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you are to observe this day from generation to generation by a perpetual regulation. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzah. During those seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses. Whoever eats food with hametz in it is to be cut off from the community of Isra’el — it doesn’t matter whether he is a foreigner or a citizen of the land. Eat nothing with hametz in it. Wherever you live, eat matzah.'”
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