Loosen your trouser belts, everyone. The Jewish festival of Passover is upon us, meaning endless matzah, countless family meals and weirdly delicious peanut cookies are about to be consumed all across the world.
It’s no different in Israel, of course, where the week-long holiday is going to be celebrated in full vigor. However, there are some unique aspects to the holiday in the Holy Land, some more bizarre than others.
Here are 10 fun facts that make Passover in Israel so special.
- In Israel, an Arab citizen buys all of the country’s chametz
Jews aren’t meant to have any chametz, or leavened foods, in their homes during the holiday, and the home of the Jewish people is no different. The State of Israel does exactly like many of its Jewish citizens and sells all its leavened products to a non-Jewish acquaintance. It’s not only flour we’re talking about, but whole factories, bakeries, kitchens and storerooms.
For the past 20-odd years the lucky buyer has been Hussein Jaber, an Arab Israeli who buys everything off Israel’s finance minister and chief rabbis for an enormous sum, only to annul the deal a week later, when the holiday is over. Talk about (not) making some money.
- Passover is ultimate hiking season
If you’re planning on touring Israel during Passover, take a long, deep breath. The week-long holiday is prime travel time in the country. Not only are kids out of school and many parents off work, but the weather is absolutely perfect for hiking, kayaking, cycling and all other kinds of outdoor activities. But don’t let the crowds put you off – pack a matzah sandwich and enjoy the not-yet-scorching-hot weather together with everyone else.
- Israelis only celebrate one Seder night
Many Jews outside of Israel get to sit down to Seder night for two evenings in a row. Aside from helping avoid arguments about which side of the family to celebrate with, this custom is meant to ensure that the Seder is definitely being done on the right night.
In ancient times, authorities in Jerusalem determined the beginning of each Jewish month anew every time, and spread the word to diaspora communities via messenger. A concern arose that news traveling too slowly would mean that people outside of Israel would celebrate festivals on the wrong day. To solve this, it was decreed that each Yom Tov (festival) should be celebrated for two days, just in case.
Centuries later, this decree is still greatly upheld by Jewish communities worldwide. But in Israel, like in the past, one day is still considered enough. So don’t be surprised when Israelis gawk at the thought of having two such huge family occasions one day after the other.
- Seder-night traffic jams
Speaking of Seder night, there’s nothing like Seder-night traffic jams to make you wish you were celebrating the holiday on a remote, ideally empty, island instead of at your mother-in-law’s.
Since everyone plans on sitting down to dinner at about the exact same time, the roads are absolutely jam-packed in the two to three hours before sundown. Make sure to leave ages ahead of time (at least a good few hours) and consider spending the night at your host in order not to join the thousands of others making the late-night journey back home.
- Seder night is always unexplainably cold
One last fun fact about Seder night that’s not based on any particular research but only on years of recurring disappointment: Passover is officially the beginning of spring, but it sure doesn’t feel so when you freeze in your new and slightly flimsy holiday clothes that you were silly enough to think would perfectly fit the occasion. Bring a sweater or shawl with you to dinner, especially if you’re celebrating in hilly Jerusalem.
- What Israelis eat on Passover depends on where their family comes from
The general rule for Passover is not to eat any leavened grains. But for many Jews, particularly of European background, restrictions don’t only apply to leavened grain, but also to rice, legumes and even peanuts. The reason? Historic concern that people might mix up flour made from forbidden grains and from similar-looking foods.
Israel is a hotpot of many cultures and heritage and dietary customs greatly differ from family to family – so make sure to ask whether it’s okay to bring that quinoa salad.
- Matzah with chocolate spread is a national treasure
Do like every Israeli and enjoy the most festive Passover breakfast possible: a matzah (or two) slathered in chocolate spread. Yes, it is enormously fattening. But it is also incredibly delicious. And don’t worry if you abstain from legumes on Passover – the local Israeli chocolate spread brand is kosher for Passover for all. Go on, treat yourselves.
- Supermarket aisles get all freaky
Even though the state itself sells its chametz before Passover (see #1), that doesn’t actually mean that all leavened products are shipped far away and kept behind lock and barrel.
In many supermarkets, for example, the offending items are simply covered in wrapping and kept off-limits for the week, rather than being schlepped away and back. This does make for a strange sight, leaving whole aisles draped in cloth or paper and the odd chametz item peeping from behind. Just don’t be tempted to reach out for it – it won’t be sold and might make others uncomfortable.
- Thousands of people gather for a priestly blessing in Jerusalem
Thousands of people praying in unison at the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a truly magnificent sight. It happens twice a year, during the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover, when throngs of worshippers gather to receive the priestly blessing.
If you want to attend, do so by foot or public transportation, get there early and bring a hat and plenty of water. And most importantly – enjoy the empowering moment.
- The largest Seder night in the world hosts Israelis, but not in Israel
Guess where the largest Seder night in the world takes place. Hint: It’s not in Israel. Or New York, Miami, London or Paris. It’s in Kathmandu, Nepal. Yes, you read right.
Nepal is one of the most popular after-army trip destinations for young Israelis, and the prime travel season there coincides with Passover. This means that every year many thousands (!) of Israelis celebrate the festival there, albeit in rather less traditional surroundings.
For the past 30 years, Jewish outreach organization Chabad has been organizing mass Seders for backpackers in the Kathmandu area, reaching guest lists of 2,000 people. Participants come from all walks of life – secular, traditional, ultra-Orthodox – making the Nepalese Seder an inspiring festive event.