LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Passover, which celebrates what the Hebrew Bible describes as God's deliverance of the Israelites from bondage, begins at sundown today.
Jews of all denominations and traditions will gather for a ritual meal called a Seder, which means order.
It features six symbolic foods, including matzo, a cracker-like unleavened bread symbolizing the Exodus from ancient Egypt when there was not enough time to let the bread rise.
While Passover rituals vary in different cultures, Jews are traditionally not permitted to eat or possess any foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats.
Bitter herbs, often horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery; parsley dipped in saltwater symbolizes the tears the Israelites shed in bondage; and an apple, nut, spice and wine mixture called charoset represents what the Hebrew Bible describes as the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build Egyptian edifices.
A number of contemporary scholars believe the story of the Exodus is apocryphal and that the Israelites were never among the peoples subjugated by the ancient Egyptians. Regardless of any historical debate, most rabbis believe that should not obscure the themes, including faith, freedom and redemption,
inherent in the biblical tale.
According to the book of Exodus, the enslaved Israelites used the blood of lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of Death would "pass over" their homes and instead slay the firstborn sons of Egyptians -- the 10th and most horrific of the plagues that finally persuaded the pharaoh to agree to Moses' demand: "Let my people go."
During the Seder, people drink four cups of wine or grape juice, symbolizing the promises that God made to the Israelites, including deliverance from bondage. Also as part of the ritual, a child traditionally asks "the four questions."
The introductory question of "Why is this night different from all other nights?" is followed by "Why is that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzo, but on this night we eat matzo?"
"Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?" "Why is it on all other nights we do not dip even once, but on this night we dip twice?" and "Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?"
The purpose of the questions is to spark discussion and learning, as teaching the Exodus story to children is one of the most important elements of the Passover Seder.
The meal is accompanied by reading from the Haggadah, or "narration" book, which tells the story of the Israelites' deliverance from bondage.
Passover commemorates the time between the Exodus from Egypt on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan and the parting of the Red Sea seven days later.
The holiday is observed for seven days in Israel, with one Seder, and eight days outside Israel, with two. This is because it is held that people in ancient times who lived far from Jerusalem could not know when a new month under the Hebrew lunar calendar had been officially declared and, in turn, could not be sure of the exact date.
Passover is an entirely home-based ritual observance, which does not require a rabbi. Unlike most Jewish holy days, there is no synagogue service for Passover.
In his Passover message, President Barack Obama made reference to the Seder he will participate in at the White House, declaring "Passover is a celebration of the freedom our ancestors dreamed of, fought for and ultimately won. But even as we give thanks, we look to the future. We are reminded that responsibility does not end when we reach the promised land, it only begins.
"As my family and I prepare to once again take part in this ancient and powerful tradition, I am hopeful that we can draw upon the best in ourselves to find the promise in the days that lie ahead, meet the challenges that will come and continue the hard work of repairing the world."