Pesach, or Passover, begins at sundown on the 14th day of Nissan (usually in April, sometimes at the end of March) and lasts for seven or eight days. It is the most commonly observed holiday in the Jewish community. Its themes of freedom and remembrance remain relevant 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 chametz (leavened bread) 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 we hold a Seder.
The list of the traditional rituals associated with this important holiday goes on. 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 community feast. 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.
One contemporary tradition that has specific resonance with Jewish women is adding a Miriam’s Cup filled with water to the table next to Elijah’s cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She learns in a dream that her parents will have a child who will liberate her people after his birth. Instead of taking him to his death, as has been decreed the fate of all eldest Jewish sons, she places him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile and watches over him as he is raised by the daughter of Pharaoh.
The cup is meant to acknowledge the crucial role of women in the Exodus of the Jews and their freedom from slavery. The water represents the mysterious water well that followed Miriam and the Israelites as they traveled through the desert for 40 years. When Miriam died the well dried up until the Israelites went to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Once they entered the Promised Land the well dried up for good, seemingly because the Israelites had reached their homeland and would have other sources from which to drink.
Another contemporary tradition that resonates with Jewish women is the inclusion of an orange on the seder plate in acceptance of Jewish lesbians and gay men. Initially it was suggested that we should add a piece of bread—to refute the idea that there was as much room for lesbians and gays in Judaism as there was for a piece of bread on a seder plate—but was later reconsidered, as one could infer that it indicated that Jewish lesbians and gays, like the bread, were a violation of Passover. Instead the orange was added, to show the fruitfulness of including lesbians and gays in the Jewish tradition.
“In the merit of righteous women, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.”