Why is Passover so popular?

During Passover, the normal sequential Torah reading cycle pauses to revisit passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that address Pesach observance. 

Even in America, where, to a great extent, most Jews limit their ritual observance and are comfortable living in the nominally Christian (or secular) culture, Pesach observance – one or two Seders, eating of matzoh, and chametz avoidance for most or all of an entire week – is generally or closely followed.   

Why do Jews who otherwise minimize Jewish rituals cling to those of Passover?  Here are ten possibilities:

  1. Non-ritually observant Jews nevertheless consider themselves fully Jewish.  The Seder affords them what they consider an annual “non-religious” opportunity to reaffirm their sense of and connection with Am Yisrael -- the Jewish people.
  2. The story of deliverance from oppression never ceases to be thought-provoking and inspiring on any number of personal levels.  Whether or not the exodus really happened as is described in the Torah and is retold annually at the Seder, Jews gather to renew their commemoration of something extraordinary and worth remembering about their (mythical?) heritage.  At the same time, they can relate the story to hardships and “deliverances” (whether experienced or yet hoped-for) in their own lives.  The story is endlessly adaptable and applicable to all types of struggles and redemption, e.g. burdens and addictions.  Non-Jews, too – friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. -- can readily identify with the human longing for “deliverance” from oppression and restrictions of all kinds.  While the Seder specifically celebrates Israelite freedom from slavery, its theme is therefore universally and eternally appealing. 
  3.  Passover is a very special, home-based, family holiday, inviting and requiring careful preparation.  The Seder kicks off a week of “observance” through altered eating habits, thereby requiring conscious attention.  It is family and community-affirming, rekindling childhood memories and creating new ones.  It is “different from all other nights” and all other family gatherings.  Its centerpiece is a familiar, set “play” in which all can be, if they wish, actors.  All Jews can participate in it without belonging to, or setting foot in, a synagogue, or without having to demonstrate much ritual knowledge.
  4. It’s a good time, a happy “happening” with songs, discussion, and lots of special foods.  Although the subject is ostensibly religious/the exodus, the actual experience is mostly gay and celebratory.  Aside from life cycle events, the Seder may be one of the few times that the extended family gathers for a good time, albeit underlined with a purpose. 
  5. Seders are flexible.  Although there is a “script” with an ancient set of fifteen elements, the essential core consists of explaining (and consuming) the symbolic foods and telling the story.  This can be done within 30-60 minutes (faster, if necessary), with everyone feeling that they have kept tradition and fulfilled their obligation.   Yet, there are endless possibilities for much longer, deeper discussions to make the Seder evening interesting.
  6. Passover’s essential story of freedom resonates strongly in the American ethos. 
  7. Given the popularity of Easter in America, with an Easter egg hunt even on the White House lawn, a parallel Jewish ceremony seems desirable.*
  8. Although preparing a Seder is a lot of work, it occurs only once each year and is thus easier than weekly Shabbat observance.*
  9. The Seder subtly strikes unconscious but deeply felt chords: life, aging, and death; little understood or acknowledged forces; the great events and sweep of history, the passage of millennia, our collective experience as a people/nation living out a destiny.  It is a profound ritual rooted in ancient folk magic and mystery.  Hence, the Seder speaks to us on levels that resonate but that we may not even recognize.  Whatever the degree of hilarity and good-feeling, the Seder is accompanied by a deep, perhaps unspoken, and rare conversation with self, family, and history that is neither to be either ignored nor missed. 
  10. The Seder has been called the oldest continuously celebrated religious ritual in the world.  The express purpose of the Seder is to educate our children.  Jews want their children to continue this annual ritual with its engendering of connectedness, that they themselves have observed and felt their entire lives.  Even if they do little, or nothing, else to give their children a Jewish education, they feel duty-bound to their parents and children and want this familiar tradition to continue.  “Opting-out” of this quintessential annual Jewish ritual is tantamount to consciously rejecting the obligation to pass on (or participate in the passing on of) Jewish heritage. 

With all these positive aspects, it’s not surprising that Passover, even with all its special “rules” and restrictions, is so popular and observed! 

A Happy, Sweet, and Meaningful Passover! 

(* I learned these points from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman)

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