There has always been a lot of pressure on firstborn children, as they were often expected to care for the family property or business in order to ensure stability within the community. Even in modern society, the firstborn usually receives the most attention and the most responsibility.
For all those reasons (and more, we're sure), the final plague, the Death of the Firstborns, was the most devastating (even though people had died in, or as a result of, the other plagues). The Death of the Firstborns was also the first plague during which the Israelites needed to take an active role in order not to be affected (marking their doorposts with blood).
While Passover is a commemoration of the story of the Exodus, there is also a special Fast of the Firstborn, which is observed on the 14th of Nisan, the day before the first seder.* It is observed only by the firstborn. This includes minors--except that, halachically, minors (under the age of bar/bat mitzvah) are not supposed to fast. Therefore, it has become the accepted practice that the firstborn’s father fasts instead.
It is interesting to note that the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 18:3) infers that Egyptian women/girls also died during the Death of the Firstborns, and therefore there are different opinions as to whether firstborn women/girls should fast as well (one should follow the custom of the community).
The Fast of the Firstborns begins at sunrise and ends at nightfall (with the start of the seder). It is customary, however, for those obligated to fast to attend a seudat mitzvah (the feast of a mitzvah) such as a brit milah (circumcision) or, most often, a siyyum (celebration of the completion of studying a section of Torah or Talmud), which cancels the fast.
*unless it coincides with Shabbat
This Treat was last posted on April 5, 2012.
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