The smell of smoke filled the air around Jerusalem last Friday. For those uninitiated with the custom, the annual burning of the Chametz might have come as a surprise, but this tradition marks the start of the Passover week.

Passover or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew is a week-long Jewish festival which commemorates the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt and their journey across the Sinai. What followed was a fantastical story filled with miracles and divine intervention as Moses carried out God’s wish to help the Jewish people escape from Egypt. The Egyptian Pharoah would not let them go and God brought ten plagues down, including that first born sons would be killed. It is said that God ‘passed over’ the houses of Jewish families and that is where the name Passover comes from.

As the Jews were fleeing in haste, they took bread with them for the journey, but it did not rise properly. To this day, an important part of the Passover custom is ridding ones house of every crumb of leavened goods – anything that rises – including all bread, pasta, cakes and beer before Passover and not consuming any of these items during the Passover week.

Chametz fire in a West Jerusalem neighbourhood

Homes are cleaned intensively in the run up to Passover to remove every crumb of bread from toasters and other surfaces and leavened items are ceremoniously removed and either sold or burnt. In Jerusalem, these things are not left to chance, and the municipality organises designated sites across the city where people can bring their chametz to be burnt. Despite the rain on Friday, the fires were kept burning with firewood and regular offerings of flour and other things. Kids stood round excitedly watching the flames and taking part in proceedings.

The banning of leavened products is also extended to supermarkets across Jewish neighbourhoods in West Jerusalem. All bread and other forbidden items are sealed off in the supermarket aisles for the duration of the holiday. Instead, flat crackers called Matzah are eaten.

West Jerusalem supermarket during Passover
Matzah are eaten instead of bread during Passover

Passover is a time of reliving the story of the exodus and a focal point of it is the 15-step Sedar meal which is celebrated on the first and sometimes also the second night of Passover. This video gives an interesting summary of the customs associated with this.

Last year, Passover was overshadowed by COVID-19. A year later, things are looking brighter with a high level of vaccination across Israel which has allowed the relaxing of regulations so that 20 people are now permitted to gather together indoors. This is returning some of the family spirit to this important Jewish festival.

The middle days of the Passover week are free for families to enjoy themselves and are known in Israel as being a very busy time. Many schools are also now on holiday for Easter and Christian celebrations are gearing up. Palm Sunday was celebrated in Jerusalem yesterday with a procession through the city streets.

It is lovely to see people starting to come together again and I hope that we’ll start to see more of this across the world as the vaccine starts to take greater effect.   

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