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12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

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For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. FIRSTBORN SONS NEED TO FAST.

matzo
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The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. IT LASTS EITHER SEVEN OR EIGHT DAYS.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. LEAVENED GRAINS ARE A NO-GO …

Person sweeping the floor
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One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. … UNLESS THEY CAN BE COOKED WHILE WALKING BETWEEN MIGDAL NUNAIYA AND TIBERIAS.

baking matzo
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While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes. [PDF]

5. ESSENTIALLY, GRAINS ARE COMPLICATED.

matzo ball soup
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As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. SOME OF THE BEST MATZO FLOUR IS MADE IN ARIZONA.

field of wheat
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One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. PETS ALSO GET SPECIAL FOOD.

cute dog with head tilted
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For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. THERE ARE SIX SYMBOLIC FOODS.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. SOMETIMES AN ORANGE IS ADDED.

slice of orange
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In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. SOME MAJOR COMPANIES GET INVOLVED …

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. … ESPECIALLY MAXWELL HOUSE.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. THE WORLD’S LARGEST SEDER ISN'T WHERE YOU MIGHT EXPECT.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

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A Brief History of the High Five
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Since 2002, the third Thursday of April is recognized as National High Five Day—a 24-hour period for giving familiars and strangers alike as many high fives as humanly possible. A few University of Virginia students invented the day, which has since evolved into a “High 5-A-Thon” that raises money each year for for a good cause. (For 2018, it's CoachArt, a nonprofit organization that engages kids impacted by chronic illness in arts and athletics.) Here are a few more facts about the history of the hand gesture to get you in the high-fiving spirit.

UP HIGH

That may sound like a lot of celebration for a simple hand gesture, but the truth is, the act of reaching your arm up over your head and slapping the elevated palm and five fingers of another person has revolutionized the way Americans (and many all over world) cheer for everything from personal achievements to miraculous game-winning plays in the sports world. Psychological studies on touch and human contact have found that gestures like the high five enhance bonding among sports teammates, which in turn has a winning effect on the whole team. Put 'er there!

DOWN LOW

There is some dispute about who actually invented the high five. Some claim the gesture was invented by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke when he spontaneously high-fived fellow outfielder Dusty Baker after a home run during a game in 1977. Others claim the 1978-79 Louisville basketball team started it on the court. Since no one could definitively pinpoint the exact origin, National High Five Day co-founder Conor Lastowka made up a story about Murray State basketballer Lamont Sleets inventing it in the late '70s/early '80s, inspired by his father's Vietnam unit, “The Fives.”

Regardless of which high-five origin story is more accurate, there is little question of its roots. The high five evolved from its sister-in-slappage, the low five. The gesture, also known as “slapping skin,” was made popular in the jazz age by the likes of Al Jolson, Cab Calloway and the Andrews Sisters.

GIMME FIVE

As the high five has evolved over the past few decades, variations have developed and become popular in and of themselves. Here are five popular styles:

The Baby Five
Before most babies learn to walk or talk, they learn to high five. Baby hands are much smaller than adult hands, so grownups have to either use one finger, scrunch their fingers together or flat-out palm it.

The Air Five
Also known as the "wi-five" in the more recent technology age, this one is achieved just like a regular high five, minus the hand-to-hand contact. Its great for germaphobes and long distance celebrations.

The Double High Five
Also known as a “high ten,” it is characterized by using both hands simultaneously to high five.

The Fist Bump
It's a trendy offshoot of the high five that made headlines thanks to a public display by the U.S. President and First Lady. Instead of palm slapping, it involves contact between the knuckles of two balled fists. In some cases, the fist bump can be “exploding,” by which the bump is followed by a fanning out of all involved fingers.

The Self High Five
If something awesome happens and there's no one else around, the self high five may be appropriate. It happens when one person raises one hand and brings the other hand up to meet it, high-five style. Pro-wrestler Diamond Dallas Page made the move famous in his appearances at WCW matches.

YOU'RE TOO SLOW!

Don't fall for that old joke. The key to a solid high five is threefold. Always watch for the elbow of your high-fiving mate to ensure accuracy; never leave a buddy hanging; and always have hand sanitizer on you. Have a Happy High Five Day!

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13 Facts About Friday the 13th
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There are plenty of superstitions out there, but none have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture quite like Friday the 13th. It's inspired books, songs, and one of the most successful horror movie franchises of all time. But despite giving us anxiety, the origins of this notorious date on the calendar remain largely unknown to most. Where did it start? Does it really stretch back to the 14th century? And how does Loki figure into all of it?

There are a lot of urban legends and half-truths out there, so we're diving a bit deeper into the history of this most terrifying of days with 13 facts about Friday the 13th.

1. THE BIBLE HELPED INSPIRE THE PHOBIA.

The Last Supper
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Part of superstition surrounding Friday the 13th comes from the Christian Bible. During the Last Supper, there were 13 guests—Jesus and his 12 apostles, one of which, Judas, would eventually betray him. Since then, some have believed in a superstition regarding 13 guests at a dinner table. This slowly extended to be an overall feeling that the number itself was bad luck.

Of course, when Jesus was crucified, it took place on a Friday, leading some to view the day with an anxious eye. Taken separately, both the number 13 and Friday have since made their way into modern superstitions.

2. SO DID LOKI.

Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Wilhelm Wägner, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Last Supper is one view on the origins of our fear of 13. Another comes from Norse mythology—more specifically in the form of the trickster god Loki. In those stories, Loki tricked the blind god Höðr into killing his brother Baldr with a dart of mistletoe. Baldr's mother, Frigg, had previously ordered everything in existence to never harm her son, except the mistletoe, which she viewed as incapable of harm.

How does 13 figure into this? Some accounts say Baldr's death took place at a dinner held for 12 gods before it was interrupted by Loki—the 13th (and most unwanted) guest.

3. SOME POINT TO THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR AS THE DAY'S ORIGIN (BUT IT'S PROBABLY NOT).

Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Contrary to what The Da Vinci Code told you, the reason people fear Friday the 13th isn't because of the Knights Templar. On the very unlucky Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip IV of France had members of the Templar arrested—growing uneasy with their power and covetous of their riches. There were trials, torture, and many of the Knights were burned at the stake, eventually leading to the superstition of Friday the 13th as a cursed and evil day.

That's not quite true, though. This is a take that's been drummed up in recent years, most visibly in Dan Brown's best-selling novel, but in reality, the unlucky combination of Friday and 13 didn't appear until around the turn of the 20th century.

4. A 1907 NOVEL PLAYED A BIG PART IN CREATING THE SUPERSTITION.

Panic on 'Black Friday' in the New York Gold Room, 1869.
Three Lions, Getty Images

We know a good deal about the history of our fear of 13 and of Fridays, but combined? Well, that's less clear. One popular thought, though, points to a 1907 book by a stockbroker named Thomas Lawson. Titled Friday, the Thirteenth, it tells the tale of a stockbroker who picks that particular day to manipulate the stock market and bring all of Wall Street down.

The book sold fairly well at the time, moving 28,000 copies in its first week. And it must have struck a chord with early 20th century society, as it's said to have caused a real-life superstition among stockbrokers regarding trading and buying stocks on the 13th. While not the first to combine the dates, Lawson's book is credited with popularizing the notion that Friday the 13th is bad news.

The fear among brokers was so real that in a 1923 New York Times article, it stated that people "would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path."

5. STOCKBROKERS HAVE REASON TO BE NERVOUS.

The 1873 rush from the New York Stock Exchange as banks began to fail and close, leading to a 10-day closure of the Stock Exchange.
Three Lions, Getty Images

Lawson's book was pure fiction, but the history of the stock market on Friday the 13th can be either profitable or absolutely terrifying, depending on the month. On most Friday the 13ths, stocks have actually risen—according to Time, they go up about 57 percent of the time, compared to the 52 percent on any other given date. However, if it's a Friday the 13th in October … be warned.

There's an average S&P drop of about 0.5 percent on those unlucky Fridays in October. And on Friday, October 13, 1989, the S&P actually saw a drop of 6.1 percent—to this day, it's still referred to as a "mini crash."

6. GOOD THINGS HAPPEN ON THAT DAY TOO, THOUGH! IT'S ALSO THE DAY HOLLYWOOD GOT ITS SIGN.

Hollywood sign on the hill
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On Friday, July 13, 1923, the United States got a brand new landmark as the famed Hollywood sign was officially christened as a promotional tool for a new housing development. But before the sign took on its familiar image, it initially read "Hollywoodland"—the full name of the development that was being built on the hills above Los Angeles. The sign took on its current “Hollywood” look in 1949 when, after two decades of disrepair, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to remove the last four letters and just maintain the first nine.

7. APPROPRIATELY, IT'S THE DATE HEAVY METAL WAS BORN.

Cover of Black Sabbath album
vinylmeister, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

This one isn't exactly scientific, but don't tell that to a metalhead. According to heavy metal lore, the genre was born Friday, February 13, 1970, with the UK release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album. Bands like Steppenwolf had laid the foundation in the years before (Steppenwolf is also credited with coining the term "heavy metal" in their lyrics for 1968's "Born to Be Wild"), but those first dissonant "Devil's Tritone" chords of "Black Sabbath"—yes, the opening track of the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath was the song "Black Sabbath"—were the true birth of the dark, brooding, rocking subculture. Horns up.

8. THERE ARE SCIENTIFIC TERMS FOR THE PHOBIA.

Friday the 13th on a calendar
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Afraid of Friday the 13th? Well now you can put a name to your phobia. You likely already know the term triskaidekaphobia, which only applies to the fear of the number 13. But for specific fears of Friday the 13th, you can choose between paraskevidekatriaphobia (Paraskevi meaning Friday in Greek) or friggatriskaidekaphobia, based on the word Frigg, the Norse goddess that Friday was named after in English. (Remember, it was her son who Loki had killed …)

9. ONE INDIANA TOWN PUT BELLS ON EVERY BLACK CAT TO WARD OFF BAD LUCK.

Black cat wearing a bell.
Danilo Urbina, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND 2.0

The folks of French Lick, Indiana (Larry Bird's hometown) are apparently a superstitious lot. In the 1930s and extending into the '40s, the town board decreed all black cats in the town were to wear a bell around their neck every Friday the 13th. Apparently, the confluence of two popular phobias was a bit too much for the small Indiana town to handle.

10. FIVE PRESIDENTS WERE PART OF A CLUB TO IMPROVE THE NUMBER'S REPUTATION.

old-fashioned formal dinner
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Some people aren't just unaffected by the stigma of 13, they're downright defiant of it. In order to prove that there was no curse on the number, Captain William Fowler—who had fought in 13 Civil War battles—started a club in 1882 that spat in the face of superstition.

Members would meet on the 13th of the month, at 13 past the hour, and sit 13 at a dining table. For some, this behavior was just begging for a hex, but these men didn't care. They sought to disprove the myth and others along with it—open umbrellas lined the dining hall and members would willingly break glass, waiting for a so-called curse to befall them.

This wasn't just a club for eccentrics, either. Five presidents would become honorary members of The Thirteen Club: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Cleveland would take part while he was in office. In all, it's said that no man was struck down by any particularly curious fate (except perhaps McKinley, who was assassinated), despite having so blatantly tempted it.

11. IN ITALY, PEOPLE FEAR FRIDAY THE 17TH.

number 17 on a wooden background
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Italy's got the right idea, but they're a few days off. Traditionally, their fear coincides with the number 17, which can be arranged as the sum of the Roman numerals VIXI, which can then, in turn, be translated as the Latin phrase "I have lived." The overall superstition around Friday remains the same—it all has to do with Jesus's crucifixion.

This is no niche phobia, though. As ThoughtCo. points out, there are people who refuse to leave the house or go to work on Friday the 17th out of fear of the ominous date. And the Italian airline Alitalia doesn't even put a row 17 (or a 13) on its planes, as seen on this seat map [PDF].

12. THERE CAN'T BE MORE THAN THREE IN A GIVEN YEAR.

Calendar of 2015 with three Friday the 13ths
Calendar: iStock. Coloring: Mental Floss.

There's some good news if you're one of those people who are genuinely afraid of Friday the 13th: There can't be more than three in any given year, and it's possible to go as many as 14 months without one. There's an easy way to figure out if a month will have a Friday the 13th, too—if the month starts on a Sunday, you're guaranteed one. For 2018, 2019, and 2020, we get a bit of a break, as each year will only have two. This year, only April and July are affected.

13. AN ASTEROID WILL COME RELATIVELY CLOSE TO US IN 2029.

asteroid projection image
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Let's just get this out of the way: We'll be fine. An asteroid will not collide with the Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. We will, however, get a pretty spectacular look at asteroid 99942 Apophis (also known as 2004 MN4), which is about 320 meters wide and would be devastating if it did hit. When the asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers gave it a haunting 1-in-60 chance of colliding with Earth, but extra data has proved that it'll miss us entirely.

"We weren't too worried," Paul Chodas, of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, said, "but the odds were disturbing."

That's not to say the asteroid still won't be a sight to behold: Apophis will cruise past Earth 18,600 miles above ground. "For comparison," NASA wrote on its site, "geosynchronous satellites orbit at 22,300 miles." The asteroid will be mostly visible in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and another event of this nature may not be seen for another 1000 or so years.

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