Passover Quick Facts

Hebrew Name: Pesach

Meaning of Hebrew Name: Uncertain, either having to do with passing over or protection

English Name: Passover

Western Calendar Month: March/April

Jewish Calendar Date: Nisan 15

Duration: Eight Days

Establishment of Passover: See Exodus 12

Note: sections of this page have been adapted from Ceil and Moishe Rosen, Christ in the Passover (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006).

Purpose of Passover

One of the most significant and popular Jewish holidays, Passover (or Pesach) recalls and rejoices over the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt. Pesach takes place during Nisan, a Jewish month of joy (or at least a month in which some prohibit mourning[1]) and one of the four traditional beginnings of the Jewish calendar year (Exodus 12:2: “This month [Nisan] shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you”). Pesach marks the beginning of our freedom, and asks us to partake in the Jewish story of enslavement and redemption.

Origin of Passover

Ma Nishtana? Why is this night different from all other nights?

The Ma Nishtana, or Four Questions, lies at the heart of Pesach—an earnest plea to understand why we set this night apart from all other nights of the year. The story of a ragged, demoralized group of Jews being redeemed from the yoke of slavery helps us answer Ma Nishtana?—“why is this night different from all other nights?”—which is traditionally asked by the youngest child at the Seder. The Seder is the festive ceremonial meal held on the first two nights of Passover in the diaspora, and in Israel on the first night.

The Israelites were “strangers in a strange land,” slaves living in Egypt (Exodus 2:22). It hadn’t always been that way. At first Jacob and his sons had gone to Egypt seeking relief after a famine in the land of Canaan (Genesis 47:4). There they became “as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 10:22). Jacob’s son Joseph, who had become chief counselor to the Pharaoh after his brothers sold him into slavery, brought prosperity to the Jewish people, but a new Pharaoh arose, “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). As the famine worsened in the region, the Egyptians soon found themselves rationing food and begrudging the Jews their share. The Egyptians, fearing a Jewish revolt, “treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor” (Deuteronomy 26:6).

The Israelites lived in fear and bondage for 430 years (Exodus 12:40)—lasting about as long as the modern Atlantic slave trade!  Moses, the chief spiritual leader of the Jewish people and the holy man who received the Torah from God, was born into this world of slavery, living as a privileged Jew within the Egyptian court. Eventually, with the sign of a burning bush that did not burn out (Exodus 3:2), God called Moses out of seclusion to lead his people to freedom.

What happened after is familiar to virtually all Jews, being one of the foundational stories of our people. God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” but Pharaoh was stubborn and hardened his heart, refusing to grant the Jews their freedom. Then followed the ten plagues we recall every Passover by dipping our fingertips in wine and dotting our plates with droplets for each plague, of which the last and greatest was the plague of the death of the first-born.

Instead of visiting the plague on Jew and Egyptian alike, God told Moses how the Jews should stave off the tenth plague:

… On the tenth day of this month [Nisan] every man shall take a lamb … you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. … It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt … The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:3–13)

God set into motion a unique historical event and a memorial for future generations: the Passover.

Getting Ready: the Hunt for Leaven

Although the Passover sacrifice is no longer made, we still respect the prohibition against leaven laid down in Exodus. This was to remember how we fled Egypt—in haste, without time to let the bread rise.

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD…throughout your generations…Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses…On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day…And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread…

Exodus 12:14–17

In modern practice, the removal of leaven (v. 15) consists of three parts: Bedikat Chametz, the search for chametz, or leaven; Bittul Chametz, the nullification of any claims to ownership of chametz through a declaration made in Aramaic; and Biur Chametz, the destruction of the chametz.

Just before Passover families traditionally conduct a hunt for the leaven. This hunt takes place by candlelight at night; companies even sell “bedikat hametz kits including a candle, a feather for brushing the hametz, and a spoon into which the hametz is brushed. All of the kit can be burned the next day with the hametz.”[2] After we have removed all chametz from the household and said Bittul, we burn the leaven or otherwise destroy it, thus completing Biur Chametz.

Many Jews have turned this process into a full-fledged spring cleaning, scouring the home from top to bottom. Some Jews are so fastidious that they store all their leaven in a separate cupboard and “to prevent the accidental eating of hametz during the holiday, tie or tape the hametz cabinets closed.”[3] Still others host “chametz parties” where everyone consumes as much of the remaining leaven as possible before Passover, to minimize waste.

Along with the removal of chametz, non-Passover kitchenware must be put away and Passover kitchenware that has not had contact with chametz must come out. Many families go so far as to empty the refrigerator fridge and wash it out and to completely defrost and clean the freezer.[4] Some ultra-Orthodox Jews even have separate kitchen appliances for Passover![5]

Unfortunately, the requirement of removing leaven poses a problem for bakers, merchants, and shop owners. No matter—a solution was long ago devised to save Jews whose livelihoods depended on leaven at all other times of the year. Mekhirat chametz was a sort of loophole for people with big supplies of leaven. Under Mekhirat chametz, a Jew puts his leaven in hock to a Gentile, with the expectation of buying it back at the end of the Passover period. Usually no money or leaven actually changes hands; the leaven is kept where it is and a loan is made out to the Gentile. Thus the leaven is technically out of the Jew’s ownership but can easily be reobtained once Passover has ended. Michael Strassfeld writes: “Originally, this process was devised for those Jews in the food or liquor business with substantial quantities of hametz. To avoid serious financial loss, mekhirat hametz was devised…an example of how Jewish law can respond in a humane way to a problem created by its own legal system.”[6]

The Heart of Pesach: the Passover Seder

How can a people best remember history? Books and scrolls primarily capture the interest of scholars; in time, words can lose their meaning. God, the master teacher, devised the perfect method of remembrance. He commanded the annual reenactment of that first Passover night, a ceremony that would appeal through the senses to each person of every generation.[7]

This annual reenactment is the Seder, which means “order” in Aramaic. (It is related to the Hebrew word for the prayer book, “siddur.”) During the Seder we perform a seemingly elaborate series of rituals in a specific order, in keeping with the traditions of generations of Jews.  Everybody gathers around the table, reclining on pillows to imitate the attitude of free Romans. The leader of the Passover, often dressed in a kittel, or white robe, guides everybody through the Seder using the book known as the Haggadah (lit. “telling” or “showing forth”), a book of readings, questions, fragments of stories and blessings ancient in origin. One author writes that “the text of the Haggadah was fixed during the time of the Second Temple or shortly thereafter…internal and external evidence [show] that the Haggadah is one of the oldest texts of rabbinic literature.”[8] Another elaborates: “In the course of the centuries, the ritual of the Seder has undergone only one decisive change: the Questions and the Haggadah recital were advanced to a position before the meal,” possibly so people wouldn’t doze off during the readings.[9] When we follow the Haggadah and perform the Seder, we share in a ceremony that binds us to our fellow Jews across time and place.

We begin with the kaddish—the blessing over the wine, four cups of which will be poured and drunk—or at least sipped from—over the course of the meal. Next comes urchatz, during which the leader dips his fingertips in a bowl of water. This gesture of ritual purification originates in an ancient tradition recorded in the Talmud: “R. Eleazar said…Whatever is dipped in liquid [in the case of Pesach, karpas] requires the washing of the hands” (Pesahim 115a).[10]

In the middle of the table sits the k’arah (Seder plate), an ornately decorated plate and “the focal point of the Seder.”[11] While “it is customary to arrange the various items on the Seder platter in the order of their use: first the karpas and salt water, then the bitter herbs and haroset, and finally the egg and shankbone,” arrangements vary.[12] Whatever arrangement is used, all Seder plates must contain:

  1. Karpas
    A green (usually parsley) which will be dipped in saltwater or vinegar (or charoset in some Eastern sects), to remind us of the tears we shed as slaves in Egypt.
  2. Matzah
    Unleavened bread that commemorates the Israelites’ hasty departure out of Egypt: “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves” (Exodus 12:39). We store the matzah in a special matzah tosh (cloth bag) with three compartments, each of which contains a piece, or a seder box with three drawers, or on a plate separated by napkins. The middle piece of matzah is then broken in half in the ceremony known as yachatz, one half being covered and laid aside as the afikomen. After breaking the matzah we go through magid, the telling of the story of Exodus, and rachatz, the ritual washing of hands. Here the matriarch of the house traditionally goes around with a pitcher of water, rinsing and drying off everyone’s hands with a fine towel. Finally, we say the ha-Motzi and an additional blessing for the matzah and eat it.
  3. Maror
    A bitter root, usually horseradish (either whole or ground), to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Sometimes little children are excused from eating the maror as the taste can be quite unpleasant for tender palates. To ease the astringency of the maror, we make “Hillel sandwiches” by mixing maror with the following.
  4. Charoset
    A honeyed apple-nut mixture representing the mortar we used to build bricks for the Egyptians. The Talmud tells us: “Abaye observed: Therefore one must make it acrid and thicken it: make it acrid, in memory of the apple-tree; and thicken it, in memory of the clay” (Pesahim 116a). The maror and charoset are both smeared on a piece of matzoh to make the Hillel sandwich, named after the ancient rabbi Hillel. The sweetness of the charoset offsets the intense burning of the maror, so that we experience multiple aspects of the Passover story at once.
  5. Beitzah
    A roasted egg representing the renewal of life. Unconsumed, it represents the discontinued korban chagigah (festival sacrifice).
  6. Zeroa
    a lamb shankbone, unconsumed. The zeroa represents the Paschal sacrifice, also discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple.

After making our way through most of the Haggadah we have the Shulhan Orech or Passover meal (literally, the set table). The Bible calls for eating roast lamb at this meal, but because Temple sacrifices no longer exists, most Jews eat roast fowl or beef in place of lamb. The Shulhan Orech is a time of rest and fellowship for us to savor before we finish the Seder, which is eaten in the reposing style of Greco-Roman dining. We recline on pillows, we keep the wine flowing, and we eat a delicious main meal of fish or meat with wine, followed by postprandial wine poured during the remainder of the Seder.

Also at this time the children hunt for the afikomen, the bigger half of the middle piece of matzah that has been laid aside and hidden. This touch of levity and competitiveness tempers the somberness of the Passover story, just like the wine. The children ransom back the afikomen for a little reward, usually a small sum of money, so that the Seder may resume. At the end of the Seder we all eat a bit of the afikomen. The Talmud suggests that we cannot eat anything else after finishing the afikomen, lest the insubstantial taste of the matzah be overwhelmed and we forget the taste of the bread of our affliction (Pesahim 119b).

For the next seven days, we refrain from eating leaven, per the instructions in Exodus. While “it is a positive duty to partake of unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the night of Passover,” we no longer have to eat matzah after the Seder; we just have to avoid leavened bread.[13]

Special Synagogue Readings for Passover

In Exodus the first and seventh days of the Passover are given special status: “On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days” (Exodus 12:16). However, as is the custom on other holidays, Jews in the Diaspora celebrate the “holy assemblies” twice. Doubling up on holidays is a rabbinical hedge for Jews outside of Israel, so that they don’t accidentally miss the holiday when it falls in Israel.

Thus, diasporic Jews have Seders on the first two nights of Passover (Nisan 15–16), observe four Chol HaMoed (intermediate days), and celebrate two conclusory days of rest (Nisan 21–22). Jews in Israel have one Seder (Nisan 15), observe five Chol HaMoed and only celebrate one final day of rest (Nisan 21).  (The intervening or intermediate days of Passover, on which work may be done but the prohibition against leaven still applies, are called Chol Hamoed.)

First Day of Pesach:

      Torah portion: Exodus 12:21–51
      Maftir: Numbers 28:16–25
     Haftarah: Joshua 3:5–7; 5:2–6:1; 6:27

Second Day of Pesach:

     Torah portion: Leviticus 22:26–23:44
     Maftir: Numbers 28:16–25
     Haftarah: 2 Kings 23:1–9, 21–25

First day, Chol HaMoed Pesach:

     Torah portion: Exodus 13:1–16; Numbers 28:19–25

Second Day, Chol Hamoed Pesach:

     Torah portion: Exodus 22:24–23:19; Numbers 28:19–25

Third Day, Chol HaMoed Pesach:

     Torah portion: Exodus 34:1–26; Numbers 28:19–25

Fourth Day, Chol Hamoed Pesach:

     Torah portion: Numbers 9:1–14; Numbers 28:19–25

Sabbath Chol Hamoed Pesach:

     Torah portion: Exodus 33:12–34:26
     Maftir: Numbers 28:19–25
    Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1–14

Seventh Day of Pesach:

     Torah portion: Exodus 13:17–15:26
     Maftir: Numbers 28:19–25
     Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1–51

Eighth Day of Pesach:

     Torah portion: Deuteronomy 15:19–16:17 (start at 14:22 on Shabbat)
     Maftir: Numbers 28:19–25
     Haftarah: Isaiah 10:32–12:6

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Pesach

A favorite folk tradition is setting a place at the table for the prophet Elijah. A rabbinical controversy over the number of cups of wine one must drink eventually fathered this tradition of setting an extra place; later, Jews lent messianic meanings to this Pesach practice and hoped for the arrival of Elijah, who would usher in the Messianic age. At one point in the Seder, the door is opened for Elijah to enter so he can partake of the Seder along with everyone else.

Another hallmark of the Seder is the singing of “Dayenu” (“It Would Have Been Enough”). This upbeat song reminds us of the ways God has gone over and above his obligation to his people. For all the preparation we make on this holiday, the Exodus is a story of haste and hurry, which was only possible by the grace of God.

And those who haven’t prepared even get a second chance! Jews who miss the Seder can observe a make-up ceremony, instituted in Numbers, where God tells Moses: “If any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the LORD. In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight they shall keep it” (Numbers 9:10-11). Along with this make-up Seder, some people have an anticipatory Messianic Seder on the last night of Passover, based on the teachings of Rabbi Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber.[14]

Spiritual Meaning of Passover

Throughout this series, we have couched descriptions of Jewish people, their religion and their history, in terms of the first-person plural, “we.” We do not take this decision lightly—we might just as well have put everything in the neutral, encyclopedic register of the third-person, or even in the frank, direct first-person singular, “I.” Passover gives us pause when considering these alternatives, and proves to us afresh that the telling and understanding of Jewish religious history is the story of “we.” It cannot be told any other way.

The Mishnah records the saying of Rabbi Gamaliel: “In every generation a man is bound to regard himself as though he personally had gone forth from Egypt” (Mishnah 116b)—and, we might add, a woman as well! All of us who have an inkling of what it might have been like to suffer the yoke of slavery and the loss of religious freedom must yearly put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. Men, women, even little children who are just beginning to understand the very concepts of slavery and liberation—all should strive to expand this inkling bit by bit every year, until we come nearer to understanding the pains of our ancient bondage. It is only too easy to take for granted the great freedom enjoyed by most Jews today.

The traditional Haggadah tells us of four archetypal sons (Arba Banim)—”a wise son, a wicked son, a simpleton and one who does not know how to ask.”[15]. The wicked son distances himself from the history of his people with the word “you.” We read:

The wicked one, how does he express himself? “What does this service mean to you?” ‘To you’, (he says) but not to himself! Therefore, because he has excluded himself from the community, he denied the essentials of our faith; consequently you must blunt his teeth anl [sic; and] reply to him: Because of this the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt; ‘for me’, (you say) not for him; for had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.[16]

The severity of this reply might seem excessive—isn’t the wicked son just a blasé smart-alec who’d rather be with his friends doing something else?—but the point is well taken. According to the Haggadah, the wicked son thinks that the Seder, in all its byzantine complexity and ceremony, is irrelevant.

By estranging himself from this history, the wicked son estranges himself from the community of Jews and from God himself. For in Deuteronomy 6, the Lord tells Moses to tell the people, “then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 12). And in Numbers: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God” (Numbers 15:41). The Lord’s having brought the Jews out of Egypt is a core attribute of Who He is. God and “[the One] who brought you out of Egypt with a mighty hand” cannot be separated. Thus, a Jew who does not acknowledge the Israelites’ liberation, which ultimately allowed God to fulfill his covenant with the patriarchs, denies the validity of God’s promises.

Though we would not proclaim ourselves to be “wise,” Messianic Jews, like the wise son, join our people in seeing the Exodus as what God has done for “us.” We also believe that the Exodus at the first Passover points us to an even greater redemption in Yeshua. This leads us to the way the New Testament speaks about Passover and redemption.

Pesach in the New Testament

Controversy has sometimes erupted over what right Christians have (or do not have) to celebrate and acknowledge the Jewish Passover. For example, Christianity Today published, “Jesus Didn’t Eat a Seder Meal,” along with a rebuttal entitled, “Why Christians Can Celebrate Passover, Too.” Some Jews as well as some Christians might not understand why Jewish followers of Yeshua hold a Seder each year.

The reason becomes clear when we turn to the the gospel accounts, which indicate that the famous “Last Supper” of Jesus has a great deal to do with Passover. Though the full-fledge Seder as we know it today didn’t develop until some time after the first century, Yeshua (Jesus) and his disciples “should be viewed as [celebrating] a primitive primitive Seder.”[17]

In the Gospel of Luke we read:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” …

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on  I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22: 7–8,14–20)

The pouring of the two glasses of wine comports with the practice of pouring four glasses of wine during the Seder, of which some consider the first and the third to be the most important. In addition, Yeshua’s breaking of the bread may reflect the current practice of yachatz, the breaking of the middle piece of matzah. Yeshua symbolically equated his body with this bread—just as it was broken, he would be  “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).

The Gospel of John also suggests that the Last Supper put a unique twist on a longstanding Passover practice. In John’s account we read that Yeshua washed the Apostles’ feet before the Passover: “Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5). Jesus was staging a reversal of urchatz, when the leader of the Seder washes his hands to ritually purify himself before the meal. By washing the filthiest extremities of his disciples’ bodies, Yeshua was offering an object lesson in humility.

Although this first-century Seder diverges from modern practice in many respects, the wine, the bread, and the washing are all in keeping with the burgeoning development of Passover. Jesus and the apostles observed the Passover as it likely was practiced among first-century Jews, but his additional words and actions inspirited the Passover with his own life and the promise of salvation.

Messianic Jews believe the Last Supper was a kind of rededication of the Passover in a world whose Messiah had come. The apostle Paul even likens Jesus to the Passover Lamb in one of his letters: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). And so does John the Baptist, who proclaims early in Jesus’ ministry: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; this verse has entered Christian liturgy under the name of Agnus Dei).

We would do well to remember:

The question of whether or not Jesus celebrated a Passover Seder as we now know it today is to some degree moot. He observed the Passover in the same way as any other first-century Jew. This event can draw Jews and Christians closer to one another rather than driving an additional wedge between our faith communities.
[. . .]
Perhaps the Last Supper . . . was used by Yeshua as the backdrop for his claim to be the fulfillment of the types and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures for a greater Lamb, a greater redemption from bondage (to sin), and a new perspective on salvation through his shed blood.[18]

As Messianic Jews, our Seders allow us to join with the historical and present experiences of our people as we recall God’s redemption from the slavery in Egypt. We also join with others who believe that Yeshua is our “Pesach sacrifice” who redeems us from slavery and sin. For what drove Pharaoh to enslave us was what drives every person when we do what is wrong or fail to do what is right—sin, the slavery within us. But there is a promise of redemption extended “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” to those who trust in and follow Yeshua.

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End Notes

[1] Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed., s.v. “Nisan”: “The tabernacle was erected in Nisan (Ex. 40:17) and the princes brought their offerings then (Num. 7:1–2). Because the 12 princes offered their gifts to the tabernacle every day beginning with the first of Nisan, each day was considered a festival. All public mourning is prohibited in Nisan . . . nor are eulogies allowed (Sh. Ar., OH 429:2). As ‘the greater part of the month was thus sanctified, the entire month is deemed holy’ (ibid., comm. Of Magen Avraham, 3).” Cf. Rosh Hashanah 11a: “on New year the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt ceased; in Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come.”

[2] Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 14.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Moishe Rosen, foreword to Celebrate Passover Haggadah, by Joan R. Lipis (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2002), 3.

[8] Heinrich Guggenheimer, The Scholar’s Haggadah (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995), 183.

[9] Introduction to The Passover Haggadah, trans. Jacob Sloan (New York: Schocken Books,  1969), 6–7.

[10] This rule has fallen into general disuse but is still observed during the Seder.

[11] Ceil and Moishe Rosen, Christ in the Passover (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006), 79.

[12] Introduction to The Passover Haggadah, trans. Jacob Sloan (New York: Schocken Books,  1969), 9.

[13] H. Freedman, Introduction to the Pesahim tractate, from vol. 6 of The Babylonian Talmud (London: The Soncino Press, 1938), xii.

[14] Menachem Posner, “The Last Two Days of Passover In a Nutshell: What and How We Celebrate,”, accessed July 17, 2017,

[15] Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehman of Mainz, Passover Hagadah (London: Honigson Publishing Co. Ltd., 1969), 34–36.

[16] Ibid., 40–44.

[17] Mitch Glaser and Darrell Bock, “Why Christians Can Celebrate Passover, Too,” Christianity Today, April 10, 2017,

[18] Glaser and Bock, “Why Christians Can Celebrate Passover, Too,” Christianity Today, April 10, 2017,

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