PHOTOS: Israel’s Festival of Freedom

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As spring blooms across Israel, Jews prepare for a centuries-old celebration of their deliverance from slavery to sovereignty.

Passover is among the most important and joyous holidays in Judaism. A festival of freedom marking the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, it also celebrates the birth of the Jewish people itself, who were united into a single nation through Moses’ revelation at Mount Sinai.

To celebrate the festival, Jews hold a meal called a seder, recount the tale of the Exodus with the reading of the Hagadah, and refrain from eating leavened bread or hametz. In Israel, the holiday has a special significance, akin to Thanksgiving in the United States. Bread is absent in the entire country, supermarkets sell out, and there are interminable traffic jams as Israelis head to the homes of family and friends to celebrate.

These images show all sides of Israel’s festival of freedom. At the Western Wall, the traditional notes and prayers placed between the stones are cleaned. Bakers make the traditional matzot, an unleavened cracker consumed during the holiday in lieu of bread. Food is donated to the poor so they too can celebrate the seder and to Israeli soldiers so they can also take part in the holiday while maintaining the country’s defense.

There are also images of one of the holiday’s most unique ceremonies: The selling of hametz. Since some leavened products cannot be easily disposed of, they are sold to non-Jews under a special contract. The non-Jew will have full ownership of the hametz during the holiday for a nominal fee, so as not to transgress Jewish law. But after the holiday, the hametz will be sold back to the Jew for the same fee. As seen in these pictures, this has now become a public ritual undertaken by Israel’s top officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and President Reuven Rivlin.

Passover is also shared with non-Jews in other ways, as the images of a formal seder with foreign diplomats show. This is fitting, since the story of the Exodus has influenced non-Jews for thousands of years with its themes of liberation, redemption, and peoplehood. By invoking these great themes, Passover becomes both a special day for the Jewish people and a universal celebration.

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Banner Photo: Gershon Elinson / Flash90