In preparation for Passover, your home must be rid of all chametz. Exactly what is chametz? It's anything that is made from the five major grains (barley, wheat, oats, rye, and spelt) that has not been completely baked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water. Observant Ashkenazic Jews also avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and beans, since they are commonly used to make bread.
But if you think making your home “chametz free” is an easy job that you can complete just before Pesach begins, you had better think again. You'll need days, if not weeks, to accomplish this task.
An additional reason that observant Ashkenazic Jews avoid rice, corn, peanuts, and beans during Passover is that these were often processed alongside wheat and there was a fear that wheat that had been exposed to water (making it chametz) might have been mixed in.
Not only must you make certain that all chametz is removed from your house, but you may not use any utensils, dishes, pots, and pans that had come into contact with chametz. Therefore, some families have an extra set of Passover kitchenware while others might utilize paper products during the holiday.
The entire home, and particularly the kitchen, must be cleaned and scrubbed and made chametz-free. Once you are satisfied that everything is in order, a formal search, called bedikat chametz, usually takes place on the night before Passover. Any chametz that is found is carefully set aside, wrapped, and burned the following morning.
You had better be prepared if Pesach begins on a Saturday night. The process of making your home chametz-free is made more difficult when this occurs because some of the things you must do would violate Shabbat so they will have to be attended to well in advance.
Another ritual observed at this time is mechirat chametz, the sale of chametz to a gentile or a rabbi acting with power-of-attorney. In fact, those who sell their chametz intend to repurchase it after Passover. This rite usually takes place when the chametz discovered from the search is burned. It is customary that a renunciation of ownership is declared regarding any chametz that has not been detected.
In addition to buying food that is marked kosher for Passover, you want to have a good supply of matzah on hand. Matzah is a grain product made of flour and water that is baked quickly so that it does not rise. Enriched matzah, called matzah ashirah, contains egg, milk, honey, wine, or fruit juice. It is only permitted on Passover for someone who has difficulty digesting regular matzah.
Matzah, a special bread eaten during Passover
You also need to prepare special dishes for the Passover seder. There are some things you may want to add that are normally not on your shopping list. You'll need to prepare karpas (made from watercress, celery, potatoes, parsley, or cabbage), bitter herbs, charoset (a mixture of ground almonds or other nuts, cinnamon, and apples), drumsticks or shank cuts, and hardboiled eggs.
You will also need to purchase kosher red wine and/or grape juice, kosher salt, and holiday candles. For the meal itself, feel free to purchase whatever you wish, although the food should be kosher. Ashkenazic Jews generally eat a traditional meal of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, followed by roast chicken, turkey, or brisket of beef.
Pre-Passover Synagogue Observances
Passover is preceded by three special Sabbaths. Shabbat Parah occurs two weeks before the month of Nisan and on this Shabbat, the Torah portion (Numbers 19:1–22) explains the purification process involving the sacrifice of the Parah Adumah (red cow).
The Sabbath immediately preceding Nisan is Shabbat Ha-Chodesh. The Torah portion read that day (Exodus 12:1–20) recounts the commandments of the Passover sacrifice and preparations for departing from Egypt. The third Sabbath takes place just before Passover and is called Shabbat Ha-Gadol (the great Sabbath). The Haftorah read on this Shabbat (Malachi 3:4–24) refers to the final redemption of the Messianic Age that will be ushered in by Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet. Before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 3:4–24).
There is an additional observance preceding Pesach that is not exclusive to either the synagogue or the home but applies to a particular category of Jews. On the day just before Passover, there is the Fast of the Firstborn, when all firstborn males commemorate the fact that while their Egyptian counterparts were slaughtered, God spared the firstborn Jewish males. Should this day occur on Sabbath, the fast is made on Thursday.