Passover symbolism

The Passover holiday celebrates the liberation from slavery and the aspiration towards freedom. At first glance, there are so many messages, customs, icons, symbols, and peculiar rules, that one could easily get the impression that the holiday is a reflection of the cultural history of the Jewish people and nothing more. I remember hearing a joke once that claimed that all Jewish holidays are different versions of this simple message: ‘The Jews get into trouble, and the situation looks hopeless. God delivers them from the threat of annihilation. Okay, let’s eat’.

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a sculpture of Jerusalem made of matzas, the unleavened bread.

The primary symbol of Passover is the matzah, the unleavened bread that our forefathers ate when they left Egypt. Bread is the symbol of food in our culture. When we sit down to a dinner, we make a blessing over the bread, and that covers all the blessings until our grace after meals. The word bread is often used to mean food. There is something very special about bread. We prepare the dough, and then let it sit. Whether we use prepared yeast or a starter dough that already contains yeast, or just leave the dough out in a warm environment, it is the process of the yeast slowly turning sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol which makes the dough airy and causes it to rise. Eventually we get a tasty bread which is light to the palate, and easy to digest. But it is not just the work of man. It depends on invisible agents that enable the preparation of the bread. It is an example of faith in what one cannot see. The yeast themselves are produced in cultures, and bread too is seen as a sign of culture, reflecting the culture of the people who make each particular type of bread.

When the Israelites were told to get ready for the exodus, the preparations included matzas, which were unleavened bread, for sandwiches along the way. The matzah were more concentrated than bread, did not spoil as easily, and did not take much time to make. They were also less tasty.

We all know the desire to prepare the future when we’re about to leave a job, or our parents home, or any safe nest that we may have. It may be very interesting to study the process in which these early Israelites turned from invited guests who were welcomed to make their home in the choicest neighborhoods of Egypt, and gradually lost their initial advantage and were turned into slaves. But that is a subject too complex to study here. Let me just say, that there are certain parallel aspects to enslavement that can be seen on a personal level, on a social level, and in the use of narcotics. And in this archetypical story, we are told that we have to cut the ties, and leave light. Take a simple sandwich with you, and know that you will long for the good things at home, but freedom is greater than all that.

The bible tells us that the Israelites were homesick for the watermelons that they loved in Egypt, and the cucumbers, and the meat. But in the process of their liberation, they were forced to give up old habits, and they chose to prepare a social system which had a foundation of justice, social services, and community responsibility for the weak and the poor.

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53 responses to “Passover symbolism

  1. Thank you for sharing this Shimon. Very interesting. Your posts always provoke thought and live with me for a long time after I’ve read them. I’m grateful for that.

    • And thank you too, Chillbrook, for taking interest. It is a pleasure for me to share bits of my thoughts and culture… just as it has been a great pleasure for me, through my life, to learn from others… about culture and beliefs.

  2. I am quite new in passover, that’s why I am looking for some passover message. Nice to have something special from here.
    Wishing you a happy Passover.

    • Thank you for coming by, Saif. I am sure that you have a lot to learn about Passover, and the other Jewish holidays, being new to this. But know this, that it is a great adventure… and we are never through learning… even when we’ve learned all our lives.

  3. You provide an insightful explanation of the history and the meaning of the Passover and the symbolism of the matzah. You simplify a complex religious observance for us.

    There are many forms of enslavement, as you mention. The story of the flight from Egypt is perhaps the archetypical story for which there are many ancient and contemporary examples. Such is the human condition with its ever present layer of irony.

    • Thank you, George… I just tell a few bits, where in fact, there are worlds… and great depths to explore. I could write a lot more about the subject… but I did want to give my readers, and my friends in other countries a taste of what my life here is like. And yes, I’m always aware that two people looking at the same thing, see two different things. Thank you so much for your comment.

  4. Ah, Shimon! I was hoping that you would write about Passover. Your thoughts and insights on the faith of the Jews enriches my understanding of the Bible and my Christian faith. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Ruth. Though we have differences in our views of life and religious attitudes, there is much in common between the Christians and the Jews, and when learning about Christianity, I often recognize the sources that came from the Jewish traditions. It is a pleasure to share with you, especially because I have learned so much from my Christian friends.

  5. What an insightful post of our holy day. Thank you Shimon. And I *love* the matzah sculpture!

  6. Excellent! I think that I will print this out to read at our seder this year, if you don’t mind.
    Chag Sameach.

    • Thank you very much, Cecelia. That is a great honor for me. And I will think of you at my seder, and hope that a melody ties between us, across the great expanse, as we perform the same ceremony.

  7. Wonderfully written, especially for this Christian who appreciates Jewish traditions (although I admit not knowing much about them). Yet you link the tradition today’s world in the last sentence. Brilliant … and the description about the bread production brought a smile too.

    • Thank you very much Frank. I remember once, listening to a caricaturist, talking about how he made his images of people. And it reminded me of the way most of us look at foreigners. We exaggerate certain striking characteristics… and avoid the little details. I think it exciting and enlightening, to get to know other cultures and other people… and it is a pleasure for me to share my own culture with others. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Thank you Frank, for pointing out this post to me. I liked it very much, and I like the idea that we can be enriched by exposure to different cultures.

  8. Thank you for explaining about the Matza and passover. We study the Exodus from Egypt. You make my understanding that much richer.

    • I’m so glad, Maggie, that I was able to add something to your understanding of this holiday. We have much in common, and it is always a pleasure to meet as study partners.

  9. Thank you for a succint and personal view of Passover, it’s not something I know much about, but do feel just that bit better informed now.
    Oh, and the joke was great 🙂

    • I am glad you liked it, Claire. This is what Jesus was doing at the last supper, for all we know. And it is the reason why Easter is celebrated so close to Passover. Perhaps next year, if we’re all still here, I’ll dedicate the post to you, and write about the very special things we eat on this night… because the food is part of the ceremony. It is a great delight.

      • I’m looking forward to our up and coming new blog year Shimon, I have so much to read and enjoy but most of all great company.
        What a wonderful and thoughtful suggestion, and I’ll be at the ready with my “best bib and tucker”

  10. Chag Kasher V’Same’ach, Shimon. I hope the night that is different from all other nights is a blessed and wonderful one for you, your family, your friends, and maybe even (who knows?) Elijah.

    • Thank you so much, Lance for giving me the traditional Passover blessing, and in my own language too. You have warmed my heart. And we will be prepared for a visit by the prophet Elijah, and I do hope he’ll join us. My best wishes to you and your loved ones on the coming Easter holiday.

  11. Thanks for sharing the secrets of your culture, Shimon … as I know very little about it yet … the bread segment is most interesting as well. Blessed be, friend. Love, cat.

    • Thank you very much, Cat, for your blessing. It is a pleasure to share. And I do hope that in this generation, among people who join hands in friendship across the world, we’ll see more tolerance and understanding for others, and friendship despite our differences.

  12. Liberation and freedom..What wonderful words!! Thank you for sharing..Your words cause me to think…

    • I agree with you completely, Roberta. Liberation and freedom are wonderful words and beautiful concepts… and sometimes it takes half a lifetime to reach them… but it is truly worth while.

  13. orlando gustilo

    Our traditions bind us together, and bind us to those who came before and hopefully those who follow. We’re in the queue, we know who we are. The Jewish tradition has contributed so much to Western civilization, which would be unrecognizable without its contributions. Thank you as always for sharing your world with us, Shimon. Chag Kasher V’Same’ach.

    • I agree with you Orlando… not just in your understanding of the influence of the Jewish tradition… but join you in the hope that we’ll be able to bridge our differences, and take advantage of all the wisdom in both the religious traditions, to enlighten us, and to find true happiness, and peace between us, and peace inside of us. I thank you very much for your traditional blessing in Hebrew. It is very touching for me to hear those words come from afar.

      • orlando gustilo

        I’m no Jew nor Christian. Jews and Christians may not accept me but these two traditions and others from ancient times to the present are for me my inheritance. So I concur with you about searching for bridges to cross divisions but divisions are in our conception of what is mine and what is theirs. And I concur even more with the hope we all find peace and happiness among us and inside us even as I know human nature is such that there will always be those who knowingly or unknowingly exclude. It’s part of our thinking process, differentiating the whole and giving each part a name, thus an independent reality wrested inorganically from something indivisible.

    • I suppose that is the character of human cognizance; to give everything a name, and a category, and to define relationships. We cannot change human nature, even if at times we might have a vision of something more beautiful.

  14. i’ll gladly give up the watermelon and cucumber if the rest is what i stand to gain. of course, the crime is that those things didn’t already exist along with the watermelon and the rest.

    • I agree with you, Rich. Sometimes we turn a bright new car, or a big house into the objective of life… forgetting that there is content to life that is more important than the packaged commodities. One of the things we tell our children on the Seder night (the banquet of the first night of Passover), that every generation has to struggle with the same issues, and has to struggle for freedom. That it is not just a historical experience with a ‘happy ever after’ ending. And I realized that you understood this from your comment. Always a pleasure, hearing from you.

      • always a pleasure to learn something from you. i had a friend who died about two years ago, great man named sam. he fought in world war II and was a proud veteran of jewish heritage. i loved to sit and do nothing but ask questions about both his military and religious heritage. he had great stories about the war and great knowledge of history. and it worked both ways – he loved being asked and sharing his life, and i loved hearing it. i mention that because the two of you would probably have had a good time over cake and coffee.

      • I am sure we would have.

  15. Blessing and Happiness dear Shimon, as always it was nice and interesting to read. Thank you, with my love, nia

  16. So interesting to hear your take on the Passover and its meaning for you. I like too how you pointed out that sacrifice is sometimes needed to gain a better standing in life.

    • I do believe that there is a price to be paid for almost all worthwhile things in life. It isn’t always a sacrifice… sometimes just the price. I never agree to accept so called ‘free’ gifts from the bank or the department store… or the cell phone company. You might call me obstinate. But I just don’t like those types of free. And as for Passover, I’m just telling a small part of what it’s all about. I could easily write a heavy book on the subject… and I’m sure most people would not be interested. But I wanted to share a bit of what my life is about. Thank you very much for your comment.

      • I too agree that there is a price to be paid for most all worthwhile things. My mom grew up so poor they had to put paper over the holes in the floors of their home. Yet she never wanted a handout. Now today, so many with great ability want a free handout. So sad. There is a price to be paid.

  17. shimon, a very thought provoking post. Freedom, sacredness, survival – intertwined. I must ask about the nature of the Matzas sculpture?

    • Glad you liked the post, Marina. We made the sculpture in my studio, and the photograph was used as a packaging graphics for boxes of matzas sold by a commercial company.

  18. I always enjoy when you share about your culture, and I always learn something new. I loved the joke that explains the simple message of Jewish holidays.

    • I am so glad that you find it interesting, yearstricken. And yes, as you know so well, humor often allows us a more healthy perspective, and better accessibility to the most complex subjects.

  19. This is so beautiful, Shimon; I especially like the reflection of bread, yeast and faith…and the joke, which seems to fit many faiths and cultures! Blessings, and gratitude to you.

    • Thank you very much, Catherine. Glad you enjoyed it. And I wish you too, all the pleasures of this holiday season, and of the rejuvenation that is spring.

  20. A beautiful piece. I intended to respond sooner but decided to “carry it around” with me for a while. You so gently unfold the tenets of your faith, sharing details I knew nothing about. The matzah with its symbolism. A Passover feast honoring the spirit of a people sacrificing everything to wander into the wilderness towards freedom. On a much smaller scale this resonates so personally with me, Thank you

    • Very good to hear from you Nikki, and the nice thing about blogging, is that there is no rush We can, if we wish, reply to a writer… or just enjoy his or her writing… Glad too, that you enjoyed the post. And as you say, the development of an individual is often parallel to the development of a people, and there is much to learn, one from the other. Freedom is all important when we don’t have it, but when we achieve it we realize, that we are just taking the first steps, on our way to really appreciating it. Thank you so much for your comment.

  21. An insightful and beautifully written post. Wonderful sculpture!

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