Passover 2011 begins at sundown on Monday, April 18 and lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days in the rest of the world.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) commemorates the formative experience of the Jewish people: their transformation from scattered tribes indentured in Egypt to a nation on the road to redemption. As the Israelites hastily prepared for their precipitous flight from Egypt, they had no time to allow their bread to rise. Instead they baked matza, a flat, yeastless cracker of flour and water.
At the last minute, Pharaoh changed his mind and gave chase; God parted the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on miraculously dry land while causing the pursuing Egyptians, along with their horses and chariots, to drown in the briny deep.
On the first night of Passover (the first two nights, outside of Israel), a ceremonial meal called a Seder is held, usually in the company of family and friends. The Seder, replete with symbolism, revolves around bringing the Exodus story to life.
The other six days:
The Biblical Song of Songs is read during synagogue services on the Saturday that falls during Passover (the second if there is more than one). On the final night of Passover, some recall the splitting of the Red Sea — which, according to tradition, happened on that day — by gathering to sing songs of praise to God, with a bowl of water on the table before them. Chabad Jews dedicate a special meal on this day to the Messiah, complete with cups of wine