You've seen signs at the grocery store, but have you ever wondered what it really means?
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sweet-and-sour brisket on platter with carrots and potatoes
Credit: Lennart Weibull

Passover, one of the most meaningful Jewish holidays of the year, is around the corner, but it represents a lot more than an excuse to chomp on matzah. This year, Passover starts at sundown on Friday, April 15, 2022. As many look forward to its arrival, some may also wonder what is fit to eat during the week-long holiday. "Passover celebrates Jewish freedom from slavery and the Jewish people's journey towards nationhood," says Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president and co-founder of Maharat and Rabba at the Hebrew institute of Riverdale-The Bayit.

Expanding on Rabba Hurwitz, Rabbi Ron Isaacs, who co-authored The Family and Frog Haggadah with Karen Rostoker-Gruber, says, "Passover is the Festival of Freedom, commemorating the exodus from Egypt of the Israelites who had been enslaved for 400 years. Having to leave quickly, they did not have time to let their bread rise, and thus the custom on Passover of eating unleavened bread (matzah) during the festival," he offers. "For Jews, it is an opportunity to not only remember and reenact the story at the Passover meal, but to also look for opportunities to help free all those around the world who are still enslaved and do not have freedom."

What Does "Kosher for Passover"Mean?

During Passover, Jewish people adhere to a special diet, known as "Kosher for Passover." This refers to foods that are rabbinically certified as permitted to be eaten during the holiday, says Rabbi Isaacs. "During Passover, all foods which contain any quantity of leaven (fermented substance) are prohibited. All utensils which have come into contact with leaven must not be used during the Passover holiday." This means abstaining from any grain products including wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt.

The reason behind this? "Grains rise, and in commemoration of the fact that the Jewish people left Egypt in a hurry, without time for their bread to rise properly, we eat matzah—flat bread that does not bake for more than 18 minutes long," explains Rabba Hurwitz, highlighting that traditional Jews are extra strict with the food consumed on Passover, "so much so that food cannot come into close contact with any food that may be 'contaminated' with grains, and so we only eat food labeled 'Kosher for Passover.'"

One important note: "Kosher for Passover" is not the same as eating "Kosher" in general; as Rabba Hurwitz points out, the latter is food that is fit to eat according to Jewish tradition.

What About Corn, Rice, and Beans?

Some Jews of eastern European heritage (or Ashkenazi) also abstain from a category of food called "kitniyot," which includes corn, rice, beans (including all soy products), and lentils, says Sarah-Kay Lacks, senior director of special initiatives, holidays, and Shabbat at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. "In December 2015, the Conservative Movement—the institution that regulates one of Judaism's three main branches—issued a ruling to conservative Jews saying they could eat kitniyot during Passover if they so desired," she says. Accordingly, this significantly increased the types of foods and recipes such individuals could eat during the eight-day holiday each spring.

Passover Food Is Delicious

Rather than view the time as filled with restrictions, many people view Passover as a poignant opportunity to create delectable and creative meals with a limited set of ingredients. "Passover food is epic in its familiarity and ability to create sense memories. There's gefilte fish (basically cold fishloaf) with beet horseradish, traditionally made at home with a live fish in your bathtub; now made by cracking a jar from the kosher aisle of your supermarket," says Lacks. Many Passover meals, Lacks elaborates, start with matzah crackers and chopped liver, "a silky umami bomb that is basically Jewish fois gras." There's also a vegetarian chopped liver composed of eggs, vegetables, and nuts, which is more than the sum of its parts, says Lacks.

Still, like any holiday, the occasional kitchen fiasco does happen. As is the case, it often turns into a well-loved memory: "One year my mother accidentally confused the matzah balls and the gefilte fish. She stuck all the cold fish balls in the chicken soup and created the worst mashup of Jewish foods any of us had ever tasted," recalls Lacks.

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