Passover and Social Justice: an introduction


On the occasion of the Annual General Meeting of the Council, February 22, 2007

My sources are
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia article on Passover at
The Religious Action centre of the Union for Progressive Jewry, See Passover and Social Justice passover2/andsj/ and
Social Action connections at the Seder Table at: passover2/sedertable/
Miriam's Cup: a new ritual for the Passover Seder

Pesach is celebrated in the northern spring and southern autumn It begins on the 15th day of Nisan (on the Hebrew calendar). This year it falls between nightfall on April 2 and nightfall on April 10, 2007.

It commemorates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt, marking the "birth" of the Children of Israel who become the Jewish nation, as the Jews' ancestors were freed from being slaves of Pharaoh and allowed to become followers of God.

Passover is one of the three pilgrim festivals (together with Sukkot ("Tabernacles") and Shavuot ("Pentecost"), during which the entire Jewish populace made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when the Temple in Jerusalem was standing.

In Israel, Passover is a 7-day holiday, with the first and last days celebrated as a full festival (people don't work, there are special prayer services and holiday meals). In the Jewish diaspora it lasts for eight days (although Reform Jews celebrate for seven days). The first two days and last two days are celebrated as full festivals.

The primary symbol of Passover is the matza, a flat, unleavened "bread" which recalls the hurriedly-baked bread that the Israelites ate after their hasty departure from Egypt. Halachically, matzo may be made from flour from wheat, barley, spelt, oats, or rye. The dough for matzo is made when flour is added to water only, which has not been allowed to rise for more than 18-22 minutes prior to baking.

Many Jews observe the positive Torah commandment of eating matzo on the first night of Passover at the Passover Seder, as well as the Torah prohibition against eating or owning chametz, any leavened products — such as bread, cake, beer, whisky or pasta.

Origins of the festival

The term Pesach is first mentioned in the Torah account of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:23). It is found in Moses' words that God "will pass over" the houses of the Israelites during the final plague of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the killing of the first-born.

On that night on the 15th day of Nisan, the Israelites smeared their lintels and doorposts with the blood of the Passover sacrifice and were spared.

The term Pesach also refers to the lamb or kid which was designated as the Passover sacrifice (called the Korban Pesach).

Four days before the Exodus, the Israelites were commanded to set aside a lamb or kid (Exodus 12:3) and inspect it daily for blemishes. During the day on the 14th of Nisan, they were to slaughter the animal and use its blood to mark their lintels and doorposts. Up until midnight on the 15th of Nisan, they were to consume the lamb.

Each family (or group of families) gathered together to eat a meal that included the meat of the Korban Pesach while the Tenth Plague ravaged Egypt.

Although the term Pesach is not mentioned until the Book of Exodus, there are indications that at least parts of the feast were observed in earlier times. For example, Genesis 19:3 refers to the "matzot" which Lot served his angelic guests.

Korban Pesach

When the Temple was standing, the focus of the Passover festival was the Korban Pesach (lit. "Pesach sacrifice," also known as the "Paschal Lamb"). Every family (or, group of families) was required to offer a young lamb or kid at the Temple on the afternoon of the 14th day of Nisan and eat it that night.

Today, the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach is memorialized in the form of a symbolic food placed on the Passover Seder Plate, which is usually a roasted shankbone.

Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of not eating lamb or goat but many Sephardic Jews have the opposite custom of eating lamb or goat meat during the Seder in memory of the Korban Pesach.


There are several explanations for the eating of matza on Passover.

  • Hebrews left Egypt with such haste that there was no time to allow the bread to rise.
  • Matza was commonly baked for the purpose of traveling because it preserved well and was light to carry.
  • Matza has also been called – Lechem Oni – or poor man's bread. Passover is a time to be humbled and remember what it is like to be a poor slave. In this explanation, matzo serves as a symbol to appreciate freedom and avoid the puffed ego symbolized by leavened bread.

Chametz, ("leavening") refers to either a grain product that is already fermented (e.g. bread, cake, and pasta) or a substance that can ferment grain products (e.g. yeast or sourdough). During Passover, the only grain product that can be owned or eaten is one in which flour and water have not combined for more than 18-22 minutes — i.e. matzo.

The Torah commandments regarding chametz are:

  • To remove all chametz from one's home. (This is normally done before Passover, either by consuming, physically destroying, or selling one's chametz.)
  • To refrain from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover.
  • Not to possess chametz in one's domain (i.e. home, office, car, etc.) during Passover.

There are three types of maror — bitter herbs (typically, horseradish or romaine lettuce), together with matzo and the Passover sacrifice Exodus 12:8. In the absence of the Temple, Jews cannot bring the Passover sacrifice. This commandment is fulfilled today by the eating of maror both by itself and together with matzo in a Koreich-sandwich during the Passover Seder.

Recounting the Exodus

On the first night of Passover (first two nights outside Israel), a Jew must recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This commandment is performed during the Passover Seder.

The Passover Seder

It is traditional for a Jewish family to gather on the first night of Passover (first two nights outside the land of Israel) for a special dinner called a Seder (derived from the Hebrew word for "order", referring to the very specific order of the ritual).

The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of this meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold, using a special text called the Haggadah. Four cups of wine are consumed at various stages in the narrative. The Haggadah divides the night's procedure into these 15 parts:

  • Kadeish (Recital of Kiddush blessing and drinking of the First Cup of Wine)
  • Urchatz (The washing of the hands)
  • Karpas (Dipping of the Karpas in salt water)
  • Yachatz (Breaking the middle matzo; the larger piece becomes the afikoman which is eaten later during the ritual of Tzafun)
  • Maggid (Retelling the Passover story, including the recital of the "Four Questions" and drinking of the Second Cup of Wine)
  • Rachtzah (Second washing of the hands)
  • Motzi (Traditional blessing before eating bread products)
  • Matzo (Blessing before eating matzo)
  • Maror (Eating of the maror)
  • Koreich (Eating of a sandwich made of matzo and maror)
  • Shulchan Oreich (lit. "set table" — the serving of the holiday meal)
  • Tzafun (Eating of the afikoman)
  • Bareich (Blessing after the meal and drinking of the Third Cup of Wine)
  • Hallel (Recital of the Hallel, traditionally recited on festivals; drinking of the Fourth Cup of Wine)
  • Nirtzah (Conclusion)

The Seder is full of questions, answers, and unusual practices (e.g. the recital of Kiddush which is not immediately followed by the blessing over bread, which is the traditional procedure for all other holiday meals) to arouse the interest and curiosity of the children at the table.

Audience participation and interaction is the rule, and many families' Seders last long into the night with animated discussions and much singing.

Passover and Social Justice

Torah commands us to teach our children, "It is because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt," creating an immediate connection between the text and our lives today. As we are commanded, we place ourselves directly into the story, remembering what it was like for us, the Children of Israel, to be slaves in the land of Egypt.

Passover is observed primarily in the home

Jews create the holiday experience for ourselves. To that end, many different Haggadot have been developed over the years to reflect the interests of different participants and also to speak to various populations or issues.

The way each family interprets and expands upon each section of the Haggadah can vary greatly.

For Reform Judaism Passover is rich in social justice themes. The Religious Action Centre of the Union for Progressive Jewry says on its website: passover2/andsj/ "It is impossible to study the story of our redemption and not feel compelled to eradicate injustice in the world today."

Among the primary themes in the Passover observance are hunger and homelessness and oppression and redemption.

"This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us. Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover." (Haggadah, "Ha Lachma Anya")

"Even the poorest person in Israel may not eat until he reclines, and they must not give him less than four cups of wine." (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 99b)

The requirement that even poor Jews be provided with ample wine, and presumably, with all the ritual foods and courses for the one night of the Seder, leads to the expectation that we should help the poor and the hungry year-round.

"My Father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and dwelled there." (Haggadah, "Maggid")

This raises awareness of immigration and refugee concerns. The memory instils in Jews a desire to eradicate homelessness in the areas around us, and ultimately, the world.

"This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free." (Haggadah, "Ha Lachma Anya")

This personal experience of slavery motivates us to examine the current international situation and wrestle with cases of injustice, oppression, and slavery today. Pesach raises awareness of contemporary examples of slavery and oppression throughout the world.

It inspires us to celebrate the great strides made by various contemporary groups, which have fought for redemption from oppression and won, as our ancestors did.

Social Action Connections at the Seder Table

Within the Haggadah, there are many opportunities to add additional readings or elaborate on the social action themes already present.

Four Cups of Wine:

  • New rituals include the addition of "Miriam's cup," filled with water to symbolize Miriam's miraculous well.
  • Also potato peel symbolises the Holocaust
  • In addition, an orange sometimes is placed on the seder plate, as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community (Susannah Heschel).

Rabbis for Human Rights suggests the following four interpretations for the four cups:

The First Cup: Freedom in our own country
As we lift the first cup, we envision an Australia where everyone has a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him/herself and of his/her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services (from Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights).

The Second Cup: Deliverance in Israel
A modern day Israel that fosters the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants, that "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants" (from the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, 1948).

The Third Cup: Redemption from Overwork and Underwork
As we lift the third cup, we envision a world where everyone has work and, without any discrimination, receives equal pay for equal work. We envision a world where everyone also can enjoy rest and leisure, and periodic holidays with pay.

The Fourth Cup: Liberation from Slavery All Over the World
As we lift the fourth cup, we envision a world where no one is held in slavery or servitude… a world without sweatshop labourers, where all workers are able to make a fair wage, where all products are fairly traded, and no one country or financial institution can dictate trade policies.

A Fifth Cup
As wine can serve as a symbol of abundance and luxury, the fifth cup is a perfect opportunity for a discussion on privilege and poverty:

Ha Lachma Anya/ This is the Bread of Affliction: This reading takes place near the beginning of the Seder in the yachatz section. It provides the primary textual inspiration for feeding the hungry during Passover, as well as calling for an end to slavery, which continues to exist around the world in various forms. In Australia, we should consider the situation of Aboriginal peoples.

This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread,
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.
This year we celebrate here.
Next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are all still in bonds.
Next year may we all be free.

The Matza of Unity
Passover has a critical message about our ethics and values.

  • We eat the Karpas, the green vegetable — and recall our concern for the environment.
  • We dip into the salt water of tears — and remind ourselves to care for the oppressed.
  • We eat the bitter herbs — and sharpen our concern for the stranger.
  • We taste the matzah, the bread of affliction — and feel the memories of our servitude to Pharaoh.
  • We note the roasted egg, symbolic of the extra offering in the Temple in ancient days — and ask ourselves, what are our own sacrifices?

Let us now take the middle matza and divide it in half. As we break this matza and set it aside, we link ourselves symbolically with all Jews throughout the world, especially those who have lived under the heel of the oppressor.

Our Seder meal will not conclude until the missing piece of matza is found and returned to the table. The matza, when restored, shows the desire of our people to be together as one, at peace. As Jews, we are a people of sacred fragments; we need help from God to bond together in everlasting unity.

May this Passover be a time of recommitment to our people and our faith.

Four Questions: This reading allows for much creativity in the text and inclusion of social action themes or questions.

  • Why on this night are some people still enslaved today?
  • Why on this night do so many remain hungry in the world?
  • Why on this night do we invite the hungry and lonely to share our meal?
  • How can we eradicate hunger and homelessness tonight and every night?

A fifth question can be posed: "Why is this night no different from other nights? Because on this night millions of human beings around the world still remain enslaved, just as they do on all other nights. As a celebration of our freedom, we remember those who remain enslaved."

Maggid / The Narration:
Amidst the retelling of the exodus from Egypt, additional stories can be shared, surrounding the oppression or redemption of other peoples, such as the rescue of Ethiopian Jews during the 1980's, the emigration of Soviet Jewry during the 1970's and 1980's, and current groups still found in slavery, such as those in Sudan.

The Maggid is also an excellent opportunity to study current immigration and refugee issues.

Ten Plagues:
As we recite the plagues, we pour out ten drops of wine, lessening our joy, to remember the plagues set upon Egypt.

Many Haggadot contain modern day plagues, such as AIDS, breast cancer, child poverty, domestic violence, environmental destruction, homelessness, homophobia, hunger, illiteracy, and racism. Consider the following reading from A Common Road to Freedom, A Passover Haggadah for a Seder conducted with both Jews and African Americans:

Each drop of wine is our hope and prayer that people will cast out the plagues that today threaten everyone, everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts:
The making of war,
The teaching of hate and violence,
Despoliation of the earth,
Perversion of justice and government,
Fomenting of vice and crime,
Neglect of human needs,
Oppression of nations and peoples,
Corruption of culture,
Subjugation of science, learning, and human discourse,
The erosion of freedoms.

Cup of Elijah:
This section of the Haggadah focuses on our hopes for the peace and redemption of messianic times, while also reminding us of what we can do l'taken et ha-olam, to repair the world in our own time. This reading reminds us that there are still injustices based on gender, and that we must continue to fight for equality in the Jewish community, in the workplace, economically and in society between men and women:

Elijah, we are told,
Will precede the Messiah.
He will be a sign to us.
And so we welcome Elijah
At the end of Shabbat,
A taste of the ideal, the messianic.
We pray, we sing.
At the Seder we even open the door.
At a bris we welcome a baby boy into the covenant. There we place a chair for Elijah, reminding us that each child born bears the potential…could make the difference…could be the Messiah.
But some would say that the Messiah will truly come when we welcome our daughters into the covenant with Elijah's chair present, bringing them into our people, recognizing their potential to make a difference.
We open the door. We welcome Elijah, girls and boys, women and men.
Together, we realize potential.

(Lisa S. Greene)

Ron Hoenig is Jewish Co-chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (SA)