The final days of Passover may not get as much publicity as the first but they are nonetheless an important part of Jewish tradition imbued with deep meaning.
“Passover also represents breaking away from the ties which bind, and so that’s anything which a person is addicted to in this world,” said Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, education director at Aish St. Louis. “As long as you still have a positive identification with [an addiction], even if you are not doing it, it still exists and is alive so you are not quite free yet.”
Freedom and finality are a key focus of the end of the holiday, which celebrates the parting of the Red Sea. The seventh and eighth days are rife with messages of liberation both literal and symbolic. Greenwald notes that the final days mark when the Jews escaping Egypt truly realized their liberation. Just as important, they also gained an understanding of the bigger picture behind the years of suffering, which preceded it.
“The analogy I like to use is that it is like having a thousand-piece puzzle but you don’t have the box cover so you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like,” he said. “They got the box cover so to speak. That’s true freedom.”
In some ways, Passover itself may last even longer than we think.
“Shavuos is the only holiday that doesn’t have a date given to it in the Torah,” said Greenwald. “It’s 50 days after Passover. It’s intrinsically connected with Passover. It’s the end of Passover. All these days in between with the counting of the Omer until Shavuos, are all days of preparation for re-receiving the Torah again.”
Cyndee Levy, director of adult education at the Central Agency for Jewish Education, said that Passover plays a big role in the Jewish calendar itself. Since it is mandated to fall in the spring, the calendar required the addition of periodic leap months to keep the lunar system aligned with the seasons.
“If it was a pure lunar calendar, it would be like Ramadan and travel all over the year,” she said.
Perhaps more unique is that Passover, like certain other Jewish festivals, is marked for two days of observance on each end instead of one if an observer is outside of Israel. Levy said this was a practicality based on the fact that the calendar was set within Israel and, in the age before modern communication, it was difficult to get the message out to the Diaspora in time. The result was the addition of a second day in areas beyond the Holy Land.
“Having it become two outside the land of Israel has stuck and is still in place, observed in most communities,” she said.
Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation said that work is restricted at the beginning and end of Passover.
“In terms of the original Biblical idea, the beginning and the end of the festival were bookended, marked by a special level of holiness in which you kept it sacred by not doing work,” he said.
Work, however, can have a number of definitions. Creative work is generally accepted as the kind that may not be done on Shabbat and the holidays.
“I call it manipulating the physical world,” said Gordon. “God created the world then abstained from creation. We mirror this in that for six days, you’ll do your work, you’ll accomplish and manipulate the physical world and the seventh is a spiritual day when we are meant to abstain from manipulating the physical and be wholly involved in the spiritual.”
However, Gordon said Passover does permit cooking, carrying and transfer of fire.
Many rituals are also associated with the end of Passover.
“On the last day of all of the festivals starting in the Middle Ages, a subservice was created called the yizkor service for people to memorialize,” said Gordon. “There’s actually a conflict with it because by Jewish Law we’re not allowed to mourn on festivals.”
In fact, even the practice of sitting shiva can be curtailed by the arrival of Passover.
“The national celebration takes precedence over the personal grief,” he said.
Hasidic Jews have a number of traditions related to Passover, said Rabbi Yosef Landa head of Chabad of Greater St. Louis. In some communities, the seventh day opens with a full night of music, dancing, celebration or Torah study.
“They are up all the way until daybreak because the splitting of the Red Sea took place at daybreak,” said Landa.
The final day concludes at sundown with the Feast of Moshiach, a tradition begun by the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Like Greenwald, Landa said that the final days of Passover do represent a celebration of freedom for both the individual in his personal struggles and the Jewish people in their escape from Pharaoh. It’s not just about the past but also looks to the future.
“Really, that’s the beginning of redemption from all exile,” he said. “Therefore, the final day which represents the conclusion of that redemption represents the conclusion of all exile which has yet to come and the end of the dispersion of the Jewish people.”