How Antwerp Jews experience Passover
Spring has arrived, so Antwerp’s Jewish community is preparing for Passover, one of the most sacred and widely celebrated holidays in the Hebrew calendar. Passover starts with a thorough cleaning, during which every trace of yeast and leaven disappears from the Jewish household. Guide Ari guides us through the remarkable tradition of Passover.
Origins of Passover
The story goes that four thousand years ago in Egypt, the Israelites worked as slaves on the pharaohs’ buildings. Their life was brutal and unjust. This changed when Moses became their leader. He repeatedly asked Pharaoh to free his people, but he refused every time. Finally, God sent ten devastating plagues to Egypt.
In the tenth plague, God killed all the firstborn children of the Egyptians. In the process, God spared the children of Israel and “passed over” their homes. Ari explains: “This immediately explains the name Hebrew name Pesach, which means to “skip,” “omit,” or “pass over”.
Only after the tenth plague did Pharaoh let the Jewish people go. The Israelites left so quickly that the bread they baked for the road had no time to rise. They took flat, unrisen loaves with them: matzah.
Main customs during Passover
“With Passover, Jews commemorate the liberation from Egypt,” Ari explains. “As if returning to when their ancestors ate unrisen bread, Jews cannot consume fermented products on Passover. Nor are they allowed to have them in their homes. No bread, no biscuits, and no beer. Instead of bread, they eat matzah: flat bread made without leavening agents. It is an essential part of the feast because it symbolizes the haste with which the Jews left Egypt.”
Passover begins at sunset and lasts eight days, just like the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) celebrated in autumn. Both festivals are six months apart and mark the agricultural year’s conclusion in autumn and spring’s start in spring.
“But the run-up to Passover begins five weeks in advance,” Ari clarifies. “This is when Jews thoroughly clean their homes and remove every trace of yeast (chametz). This spring cleaning ends with two special rituals. First, children hide packed breadcrumbs all over the house. Dad then has to look for them in the dark with a candle. The next morning, the family burns the crumbs.”
On the first two nights of Pesach, the seder takes place. It’s an important dinner that gathers family and friends. Ari: “This involves following a kind of script: the Haggadah. It describes Peasch’s rituals and includes lyrics and songs about Jewish slavery in Egypt and the exodus from Egypt. During the seder, Jews eat special dishes, including vegetables that they dip in salt water to symbolize the tears of the enslaved people. Everyone gets as many as four glasses of wine or grape juice. Children also look for a piece of hidden Matze in exchange for a present.”
Passover is characterized by:
- Prohibition on possessing and eating yeast or leaven (chametz)
- Removal of products containing yeast or leaven from the house (biur chametz)
- Extended ceremonial supper at the beginning of the feast (seder)
- Eating flat unleavened bread (matzah)
- Hiding a piece of matzah for the seder meal (afikoman)
Passover in Antwerp
Passover is one of the most important Jewish festivals celebrated extensively by 20,000 Antwerp Jews. In April 2020, Passover gatherings were impossible due to COVID-19 measures. But nothing stopped Antwerp Jews from celebrating Passover together. They stood en masse on their balconies and doorways, singing and praying in groups at a safe distance anyway. On 16 April 2020, you could hear the song ‘Chasal Seder Pesach’ in Jacob Jacobsstraat, which you can re-listen to thanks to the FelixArchive.
If you are interested in the Jews of Antwerp and their way of life, we invite you to join us on a walk through Antwerp’s Jewish neighborhood. It is a chance to learn more about Antwerp’s Jewish community and better understand their traditions and customs.