Celebrating Passover while staying at home

For many Jewish people, this year’s Passover is going to be very different to normal.

The festival, which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, began at sundown on Wednesday 8 April.

But with public gatherings banned and potential issues with accessing kosher food, some Passover traditions will be adapted this year to keep people safe.

Lockdown celebrations

In the UK Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, lasts for eight days. Throughout the festival, Jewish people normally celebrate by coming together with their family, friends and wider community. This year, Coronavirus will change all that.

To get an idea of just how much, we spoke to one Jewish teenager living in North West England about how he will be celebrating Passover this year. Sam (17) is a Modern Orthodox Jew who is very active in his community and runs a local Jewish youth group.

Sam prepares for a Seder meal at Passover

During Passover, Sam explained, it is forbidden to eat or be in contact with what is known as ‘chametz’. Mainly, chametz is any type of food that’s been allowed to ‘rise’, such as the leavened bread you would buy to make your sandwiches. Instead, during Passover, Jewish people normally only eat flat, unleavened bread called matzah. It’s a symbol of when the Israelites had to flee Egypt in such a hurry that their bread simply did not have time to rise.

The Torah states that God commanded the Jewish people to make matzah

In the days before Passover begins, Jewish families will typically give their houses and cooking equipment a thorough cleaning, getting right into all the nooks and crannies to make sure no chametz is still there. In Sam’s case, this means cleaning out his bedroom to make sure there are no forgotten snacks hidden away anywhere. This year, the lockdown means he has even more time than usual to tidy his room!

Missing friends and family

Passover is an incredibly social religious festival. Normally, Sam would be going to the synagogue regularly to pray and meet friends, as well as visiting other people’s houses for Seders. Seders are special group meals during which specific foods are eaten and the biblical story of Exodus is read aloud.

Sam says that at Passover, Jewish people “remember a time where we were persecuted and then rose up from the ashes and chains and became a great people again, a strong people united.” Being able to celebrate that feeling with family and friends is a key feature of Passover.

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Jewish families are guided through a Seder by a text known as the Haggadah

Whilst Sam understands why social distancing is necessary, he is sad that this year he won’t be able to celebrate in the traditional way with his grandparents or sisters. Neither will he be able to meet with his friends at the local Jewish youth group.

Sam says that: “going to synagogue is part of my social life, I have friends there that I wouldn’t have become friends with or simply would never see otherwise… We’re a tight bunch so not seeing each other, hanging out, learning is a bit depressing.”

However, Sam is proud of how his local Jewish community have reacted to the coronavirus quarantine. Both Sam and his brother have been offering their help to those who need it and his mother has helped to deliver food to the elderly and vulnerable. Members of the community have not only been making sure that everyone has what they physically need, but have also been calling those in self-isolation to ensure that they don’t become lonely.

This community work is important to Sam, who believes that “it’s about understanding that you are part of something bigger than yourself.”

For many Jews, Passover offers time and space for reflection, and this year Sam is grateful for his safety and health. As he says: “we more than anyone else know it could be a lot worse so as long as we have a smile on our face and song in our heart we’ll be just fine.”

Relaxing the rules around Passover

In Judaism there is a type of court called the Beth Din whose job it is to provide guidance to Jews about what they should or shouldn’t be doing as part of their faith.

As coronavirus has spread across the world, the London Beth Din has temporarily relaxed the rules around Passover food for those self-isolating or unable to get kosher for Passover. Jewish people living in the UK have instead been encouraged to prioritise their health and that of their families and communities.

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Some Jewish people will burn any chametz (leavened food) they find in their houses

Whilst it is unusual for rules to be relaxed this much during such an important religious festival, Sam points out that the Jewish concept of ‘Pikuach Nefesh’ allows for exactly this sort of thing. It is the idea that no mitzvot (Jewish law) is more important than saving a human life. If someone’s life will be saved by a Jewish person breaking a mitzvah, then it is their duty to do so.

In the context of coronavirus, this means that, if the social distancing rules make getting kosher for Passover foods difficult, it can be permitted to eat foods that would normally be restricted. The Beth Din guidance means no Jewish person in the UK needs to put themselves or their families at risk to celebrate Passover this year.

As Sam prepares for Passover to begin, he reflects and gives thanks for his relative fortune in these circumstances: “Pesach 2020 will definitely be a Pesach I won't forget but we are safe and healthy".

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