What is Passover and how can you support Jewish employees during the festival?

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Passover, also known as ‘Peasch’, the Spring festival, is an important festival in the Jewish calendar, taking place between the evening of Wednesday 5 April to the evening of Thursday 13 April this year.

One of the most widely celebrated festivals for those of the Jewish faith, Passover honours the Biblical story of Exodus where God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt after 400 years.

Fast forward to today, those who follow Passover attend a meal ritual known as Seder in homes, avoiding leaven (see below), and recite the Exodus story. Passover focuses on the concept of redemption and is a time for reflection where Jewish people will look back at their own history and connect. However, it is also a time to be conscious of the current suffering of others in the world and people who are oppressed today.

This sacred holiday always starts with the Seder, a long meal which is normally made up of 15 steps that represent the story of Passover. Jewish people recite special blessings or prayers, visit their synagogue, listen to readings from the Torah, eat a ceremonial meal which includes traditional foods such as matza bread and drink red wine or red grape juice which is centred around the Seder Plate.

During this Passover meal, a key point is to read the Book of Exodus, Chapter 12 in the Hebrew Bible called the Torah. According to Jewish tradition, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after God inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians, ending in the death of firstborn sons. To protect their own firstborns, the Israelites were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, so that the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ their homes which lead to as we now know it today as being ‘Passover’.

During Passover all leavened foods are banned from being eaten and bought. This includes leavened bread, rolls, bagels, muffins, biscuits, croissants, doughnuts, crackers, cakes, cereals, coffee with cereal additives, wheat, barley, oats, spelt, rye and all liquids containing ingredients or flavours made from grain alcohol. Therefore, before Passover begins, a lot of families will undertake a deep clean of their house to remove any of these items.

A further important element of Passover, which is a theme to all Jewish holidays, is the giving of tzedakah ‘charity’ so that those in need will be able to purchase food (especially matzah) for Passover.

How can employers and colleagues support Jewish employees during Passover?

As is the case with all religious holidays, employers and employees should take steps to support their colleagues who wish to celebrate important dates in their religion’s calendar. In order to support those of Jewish faith during Passover, employers and colleagues should:

  • Be flexible when it comes to requests for annual leave, where Jewish employees may want to take time off to go and celebrate Passover with family and friends.
  • Where possible, if their attendance is essential, avoid booking important meetings and scheduling events during Passover for those who wish to take annual leave.
  • Speak to Jewish colleagues about Passover and ask respectful questions which will help you to appreciate and learn about the culture. This will help to show Jewish employees that you’re interested to learn about what is important to them.
  • Wish Jewish colleagues a happy Passover – where you can simply just say “Happy Passover” or alternatively “Chag kasher v’sameach” which translates as “May you have a happy and kosher Passover”.
  • Be thoughtful of what Jewish people eat and drink during Passover – for instance if meetings or events are held during Passover where food will be served, find out what Jewish people can and cannot eat during this period.
  • Appreciate that not all Jewish employees will choose to celebrate Passover in the same way, so take time to understand the individual and how they celebrate with friends and family.

This article was written alongside Georgia Foulkes-Hartley.

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