Smoke wafted through the air in Jerusalem yesterday morning as Jews burned scraps of bread and added the final touches to weeks of meticulous preparations for Passover, the holiday in which the biblical story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt is retold.
This year, the holiday comes amid uncertainty over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the sides facing an end-of-the month deadline to reach a preliminary deal or agree to an extension of negotiations.
Israel sealed off the West Bank, barring Palestinians from entering Israel, an annual Passover precaution against possible attacks.
Israeli police also restricted access to a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims, trying to avoid friction by allowing only Muslim worshippers age 50 or over to enter.
The weeklong Passover holiday, which began at sundown yesterday, commemorates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from centuries of slavery in Egypt, as described in the Old Testament. In Judaism, it is dubbed the festival of freedom.
Most of the country shuts down in the evening as families and friends gather for Seder, the ritual multicourse meal where the story of the exodus from Egypt is discussed in detail so that the tradition is preserved throughout the generations.
Leavened goods like bread and items made from yeast, such as beer, are banned during the holiday.
In the weeks leading up to Passover, Jews clean their homes, scrubbing every nook and cranny to get rid of even the tiniest forbidden crumb that might lurk there.
Instead, Jews eat matzo — unleavened bread — to illustrate how the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they fled from bondage in the land of the Pharaohs.
It is also traditionally viewed as the bread of the poor, and is symbolically consumed to remind Jews of their ancestors’ hardships.
Speaking at a matzo factory in the Hassidic community of Kfar Chabad last week, Rabbi Menachem Glukovsky explained the deep meaning of the matzo for the Jewish people.
“It’s called the food of faith, just like our forefathers, when they left Egypt into the desert with a lot of faith, they trusted God, they went with these matzos and we relive it every year,” Glukovsky said.
A central theme of Passover is helping those otherwise unable to celebrate the holiday. An Arab-Israeli politician says he helps isolated Jewish communities in Muslim countries, including Syria, by supplying them with holiday essentials.
Aid groups in Israel also were busy giving food packages to the needy, with organizers reporting more people seeking their help this year due to the economic downturn and the increasing cost of living.
In last-minute preparations before sundown yesterday morning, observant Jews symbolically tossed their last remaining scraps of bread into fires in the streets of some neighborhoods. And in some areas, home to Ultra-Orthodox Jews, large vats of boiling water were set up on the sidewalks to purify kitchenware to make them “kosher for Passover.” Men in rubber gloves dipped people’s pots and pans in the boiling water.
The holiday provided a brief break from US-led efforts to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met late on Sunday, while US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyk was expected to return from consultations in Washington by today.
The talks have been close to collapse for the past few weeks. Little progress has been made on issues of substance. Instead, the crisis was triggered by sharp disagreement over the terms of extending the negotiations, which would include a release of Palestinian prisoners.