The Jewish Passover ~Download this page (abridged) as a teaching resource HERE
THE PASSOVER | PESACH |
“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months…” (Ex. 12:2)
As Christians we find ourselves on the outside looking in on the Jewish traditions of Jesus. The Jewish people who live and keep these traditions have a treasure preserved in time—one that they are willing to share with us.
Preamble. As outsiders looking in we see the Jewish feasts and sacred occasions such as Sabbath and Passover by their external oddities. We hear Christians speak with surprise and even impatience about the extraordinary measures that the Jewish people go to in keeping the Sabbath and many Christians find the Jewish Passover impossible to understand. Often Christians carry with them odd and suspicious ideas about these sacred feasts. What follows is an insight into the festival of Passover, through a Jewish lens, which is intended to provide Christians with an understanding of the Passover as an ancient festival which has continuing meaning for today.
The Passover is an ancient celebration, probably three thousand years old, which remembers a decisive event that is interpreted in terms of God’s intervention in the history of God’s people. The Passover from Mitzrayim [biblical Egypt] is remembered metaphorically as Israel’s creation story and is foundational to Israel’s self-understanding.
The Exodus is remembered as an “historical” event in the sense of its direct association with a people rather than an event—it is “history” in the sense of a people grounded in faith. Out of ignominy emerge a people with a new self-awareness, connectedness and commitment to God. Their emergence, although long and painful, is also glorious; a “birthing” memory that is kept alive in the Jewish consciousness, firmly implanted in the realm of historical consciousness. It is a self conscious reality in the present, celebrated annually in the Passover (Pesach) festival whereby the story is told “as if every Jew came themselves, personally, out of Mitzrayim” (from the Passover Haggadah on Exodus 12:27).
In order to understand Passover we begin with the biblical story and explore the way that the received tradition (of Israel) has interpreted the event through subsequent history.
What is the Background of the Passover Festival?
The Passover story remembers the slavery of the Israelites in Mitzrayim and their miraculous and dramatic redemption by God. It is the story of a struggle between two powerful figures in the life of Israel—God versus Pharaoh. The celebration of Passover remembers this struggle, and the triumph of God that culminated in the release of the people: from slavery to freedom. But this is not all the story. The Passover, as the name of the festival implies, hints of another event—that final event in which the Israelites, having slaughtered the pesach (Gk. paschal) lamb, were protected by the Lord against the destroyer on the night of the death of all the first born in Mitzrayim. The Passover lamb is seen as the demonstrative act of commitment of the people to God that set them apart from the Egyptians—their final act of faith. What followed was their redemption.
The redemption from Mitzrayim is a foundational event in the story of Israel, remembered in the weekly Sabbath celebration, in the daily recitation of the Shema, and as the watershed of Israel’s salvation history. All subsequent events in the story of Israel are interpreted in relation to this single event.
The Events Surrounding the First Passover
...as told in the Book of Exodus Chapter 12
1. The Israelites are enslaved in Mitzrayim.
The story tells of a people oppressed. Oppression and domination is felt by the people in terms of their physical, religious and national identity.
A page from the Passover Haggadah
2. God intervenes.
“God heard their groaning” (Ex. 2:24). The text says “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God” (2:23). The text does not say “They cried out to God” suggesting that they had forgotten God or did not yet fully know God as their redeemer. When, however, their groaning “rose up” to God “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (2:25).
3. Moses becomes an intermediary between God and Pharaoh
Israel does not play an active part in the early part of the biblical narrative of the Exodus. Israel is passive; Moses is active. The rabbi’s raise questions about Israel’s worthiness of The Redemption. They ask “Did Israel initiate the receiving of the ten commandments (later at Sinai) or were they forced upon them”. Their worthiness according to the sages lay in their continued fidelity to the God of Israel, the sacredness of their marriages and family life, their morality and their lonely suffering.
4. The Ten Plagues
There is a struggle. Life is a struggle. Our will against another; our will against God. We are victims of circumstance. Israel is a victim, a pawn in a big ‘game’. On their own Israel is powerless. God is battling for them.
5. The Passover Lamb
Israel is called upon to demonstrate its commitment to God. The blood of the Passover lamb marks them out. On the one hand it is their statement of faith and commitment to God; on the other an act of defiance to the Egyptians.
6. The Deliverance & flight from Mitzrayim via the Reed (Red) Sea
The final deliverance happened suddenly “so the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in cloaks upon their shoulders” (Ex. 12:34) and they fled.
Pesach Mitzrayim and Pesach Dorot
The first Passover (Pesach Mitzrayim) is unique and differs from Pesach Dorot (Passover of the Ages) in two ways.
1. Linked to the taking of the lamb for the Passover is the puzzling instruction that this should be done four days in advance of the lamb’s slaughter (Ex. 12:2-6). This instruction is unique to Pesach Mitzrayim. The Mekilta suggests that God gave the people two precepts by which they would merit their redemption: The Blood of the Passover, and the Blood of Circumcision. Keeping these precepts linked the redemption with the pledge of God to Abraham and his sons [and daughters]. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi suggests that the extra days were needed (1) to pick out the lamb (2) to circumcise themselves and allow three days to recover and (3) to slaughter the paschal lamb.
2. The application of the blood of the lamb to the entrance to the houses of the Israelites.
The importance of the link between the Covenant of Circumcision and Passover is clarified in the Book of Joshua where the Israelites, having entered the land (after crossing the River Jordan) are circumcised before celebrating the Passover in the Land. Circumcision, the sign of God's covenant with Israel, and the linking of circumcision to Passover, underscores the communal and covenantal nature of Israel's participation in the redemption.
The Passover in Temple Times
We can ascertain, from studies of Jewish writings of the rabbinic period (200B CE-200 CE) the nature of Passover celebration in Temple times. The tractate, Pesachim, in the Mishnah (compiled 220 CE) preserves for us the ancient order of the Passover Seder which is still the pattern for today's Passover seder.
- The eating of a communal home based meal with symbolic foods
- The ritual questions that invite the telling of the story
- The retelling of the story
According to Gamaliel (Mishnah, Pesachim 10.5) three things must be included in the telling—to neglect these elements would be to fail in one's duty...
- The Passover—because God passed over the houses of our ancestors in Mitzrayim.
- The Unleavened Bread—because our fathers were redeemed from Mitzrayim.
- The Bitter Herbs—because our oppressors embittered the lives of our ancestors in Mitzrayim.
The Jewish Passover event in Temple times
was always associated with
the lamb and the unleavened bread. The Passover lamb was brought to the Temple and ritually slaughtered. Families were then able to roast the lamb and prepare the home based Passover seder. The symbolic foods and the wine played an important role in the ritual of the Passover meal.
With the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the means to participate in the sacrificial rituals of the Temple it was no longer possible to offer a Passover lamb at Passover. However, the lamb remains, symbolically present, in the contemporary Passover liturgy.
The Contemporary Passover
The annual Passover festival has always been a powerful retelling of a story—a story that is rooted in the emergence of Israel from the mists of time. Israel's story of redemption becomes, at the annual Passover Seder, a living present reality. The Passover Haggadah (haggadah means “the telling”) presents the Passover story and it's retelling in the Passover Seder as a rubric.
The word Seder means “order.” The Haggadah shel Pesach [Passover Haggadah] within the Passover celebration follows a particular set order designed to fulfill the commandment of Exodus 13:8 that the story be told throughout the generations.
On the Passover Seder plate are placed...
- z'roa, a bone (usually chicken) which represents the ancient passover lamb (korban pesach) sacrificed at passover at the Temple and eaten during the passover Seder.
- an egg (beitzah) which represents the festal meat offerings (korban hagigah) offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and eaten as part of the Passover meal.
- karpas (a vegetable, e.g., potato, or parsley) which is dipped into a bowl of salty water to represent the salty tears of oppression.
- haroset, a compound of apples, nuts, wine and spices which mixed to a paste becomes a reminder of the mortar the oppressed Israelites used to bind bricks together.
- maror and hazeret, bitter herbs which represent the bitterness of slavery and ignomy.
“On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord
did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8).
Three elements of the Passover of ancient times remain central
to today's Passover ritual.
The Redemption from Egypt,
the matzah and the bitter herbs.
The Passover Seder Table
The Passover Seder table is dressed with three items.
- Matzah—Unleavened bread
- A Bowl of salty water
- A Seder plate
A cup of wine is provided for each participant in the Seder. This cup will be filled four times in the course of the seder. An additional cup is provided for Elijah [Elijah's Cup.] Elijah's return is anticipated as a sign of the coming of the Messiah.
Passover ...a "Good" Story
~ With Certain Essential Elements
- We must become involved in it.
- It must speak to our conscious or subconscious
- It must be meaningful
When one repeats a good story one relives the event. When one is telling or hearing the story of Passover one becomes a part of the story. It is as though you yourself were a slave in biblical Mitzrayim and experienced the awesome power of God.
In the Passover Haggadah I really have the experience that I am there; I am part of the story.
In the Passover Haggadah every Jew Relives the Experience
Every Jew feels again the ignominy of slavery and the glory of freedom. The important Passover teaching is that in our subconscious we need to accept that disgrace, suffering or death is never the final word. No matter how bad life gets there is hope; things will get better. We have to believe in divine intervention and we have to tell the story.
This is why the Torah tells us “When your children ask you ‘What is the meaning of this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Mitzrayim when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses’” (Ex. 12:26).
The Passover Seder is the setting for “the telling” of the story. The telling of that story is called the Passover Haggadah. In a ritual family or community based celebration each person participates in the redemptive story which is told over a cup of wine. At the end of the retelling the wine is drunk. Symbolically, the glass of wine becomes the receptacle absorbing the story of the participants.
When they drink the wine each drinks their own story as though they, themselves, came personally out of Mitzrayim.
Jesus and Passover
The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us that Jesus celebrated a Passover Seder the night before he died.
Understanding the deep spiritual dimension of the Passover is important for Christians. The Jewish Passover has always been understood as both the story of the 1st redemption from Mitzrayim and as a paradigm for God’s deliberate and saving presence in Israel’s story for all time.
The story carries a message.
“I was there for you in the past and I will be here for you in the present. I am your God who brought you out of Mitzrayim; who created a holy nation out of you. You are a people with whom I have made my covenant. You will have difficulties again (that is shown again and again in the history of Israel) but do not despair for I am who I am, the same I am who Moses told you about. I am Adonai, the God that you know (cf. Ex. 3:14-15). Just as you understood and received me in Mitzrayim—I am the same I am, now. Receive me now as the same God, do not interpret all that happens to you as though I do not care. For I, God, will redeem you again and again.”
God’s working in our midst means that redemption is still operative.
The Haggadah (teaching) of Passover gives us the very important teaching that God is the Only One, it was the Lord and no other who provided the redemption. ..The one ‘echad’ of the Shema.
The Important Teaching: God is the Only One
“For that night I will go through the land of Mitzrayim and strike down every first-born in the land of Mitzrayim, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Mitzrayim, I the Lord” (Ex. 12:12).
“The Lord freed us from Mitzrayim by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents” (Deut. 26:8).
These are strong and powerful words whose purpose is to underline that it was God who redeemed Israel. The sages spell it out for us:
“And the Lord brought us forth out of Mitzrayim”: not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be he, himself, in his own glory and in his own person. As it is said: “For I will go through the land of Mitzrayim in that night, and will smite all the first born in the land of Mitzrayim, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Mitzrayim I will execute my judgments: I am the Lord” (Ex. 12:12).
“For I will go through the land of Mitzrayim in that night”: I, and not an angel. “I will smite all the first born in the land of Mitzrayim”: I, and not a seraph. “And against all the gods of Mitzrayim I will execute judgments”: I, and not a messenger. “I am the Lord”: I am He* and no other. (Haggadah shel Pesach).
The repetition "I" in this Midrash (interpretation) underlines the essential point that the first redemption that precedes all other redemptions was made by the person of God and no other.
* David Daube The New testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Mass: Hendrickson, 1998) p. 325, suggests ani hu (I he) is I AM, i.e. έγώ είμι—the I AM of the messianic presence is preserved here.
The Last Supper
The question remains… What really happened at the last Passover of Jesus? How does the redemptive message of Passover flow through to and develop into a distinctly Christian theology of redemption?
Some scholars suggest that it was after the telling of the story over the 2nd cup of wine that Jesus departed from the traditional blessing. When the participants at a Passover Seder come to the end of the "retelling" of the story of redemption they drink the 2nd cup or wine—they literally drink their own story as if they themselves were slaves in Mitzrayim and had re-lived the historical experiences in their own lives. The story is literally their own story. Told over the cup, the cup of wine absorbs the story, and the matzah (unleavened bread) also is a part of that story. The cup and the matzah are at once the story of the individual, and the story of the community.
Jesus took the Cup and Blessed it...
Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26:28). [This is forgiveness—redemption!]
Then he took a cup, and after giving 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” (Lk. 22:17-18). And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (Lk. 22:20).
Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk. 14:23-24).
...And the Bread
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt. 26:26).
Then 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” (Lk. 22:19).
While they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body” (Mk. 14:22).
From the perspective of Passover theology when Jesus said “This is my body …blood” he really meant it. This was his story, his life, his blood.
“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk. 14:26; Mt. 26:30). —It is probable that the hymn is the Hallel sung which is sung at the end of the Passover Seder.
In the synoptic gospels Jesus and his disciples are Jews celebrating Passover. The Passover story was one that had a deep meaning for them as Jews. The earliest Jewish Christians, were able to interpret, from Jesus’ actions [and in the context of a Christian redemptive theology] certain spiritual and theological understandings about the person and meaning of Jesus.
What was it about Jesus’ actions that night that was so profound that they were only understood in the light of the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Why did Jesus choose Passover?
Christians and Passover Celebrations
In recent years many Christians have been becoming interested in celebrating the Passover. It is very important, therefore, that Christians understand the Passover in all its historical and spiritual reality for Judaism.
For the Jews, Passover is not just an annual remembrance of an ancient memory in the past. It is the annual celebration it is a spiritual journey that is shared by the Israelites, and through history, to the Jews of today. At Passover Jews live again their own story. It is a story that acknowledges slavery in all its forms, a story that reminds us that God is with us in all our mess, and a story that in telling of our liberation in the past, anticipates our future liberation.
Israel’s Creation Story...
The Passover is an ancient celebration that remembers a decisive event that is interpreted in terms of God’s intervention in the history of God’s people. The Passover from Mitzrayim is remembered metaphorically as Israel’s creation story and is foundational to Israel’s self-understanding. As an ‘historical’ event the Exodus is remembered in the sense of its direct association with a people, rather than an event. The Exodus is ‘history’ in the sense of a people grounded in faith. Out of ignominy emerge a people with a new self-awareness and commitment to God. Their emergence, on the one hand, is long and painful and on the other is glorious. Celebrated annually in the Passover (Pesach) festival it is a story told “as if every Jew came himself/herself personally out of Mitzrayim” (The Passover Haggadah).
A Contemporary Experience
The annual Passover celebration brings the ancient memory firmly out of the mists of time to contemporary experience as the whole story is related again, “…tell it to your children,” (Deut. 6:7; Ex. 12:26-27) in the celebration of the family Passover seder. As ‘the story’ is related over the 2nd cup of wine, the wine “absorbs” the story. At the end of “the telling” the wine is drunk as each participant in the Seder meal drinks, not only the story of God’s redemption of their ancestors, but their own story as well.
Understanding the deep spiritual dimension of the Passover is important for Christians who seek to explore a little more deeply the theological meanings behind the actions that Jesus performed on the night of Jesus’ Last Supper. The story of the Passover has always been understood as both the story of the 1st redemption from Mitzrayim and as a paradigm for God’s deliberate and saving presence in Israel’s story for all time. The story carries the message.
Christians and the Jewish Passover: Teaching and Understanding
Christians must to careful to respect fully the present reality and purpose of the Passover for the Jewish people, “the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God” (Pope John Paul II, Mainz, 1980).
Attempts to turn the Passover into a Christian “Last Supper” are strongly discouraged. Christians are urged to respect the integrity of the Jewish Passover as it stands. While the synoptic gospels present a Passover Seder as the occasion at which Jesus instituted the Eucharist it should be remembered that the Christian Eucharist is not the Passover.
While there are theological elements of the Passover Haggadah which help us understand the mystery of God’s intervention in human history, and the meaning of Christ, the memory of Jesus’ last supper with the disciples, now celebrated as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remains a distinct celebration of the Institution of the Eucharist rather than a Passover Seder.
While there is spiritual and educational value in Christians celebrating or participating in Passover Seders “it is wrong to ‘baptize’ the Jewish Seder by ending it with New Testament readings about the Last Supper or, worse, turn it into a prologue to the Eucharist. Such mergings distort both traditions” (USCCB Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching, 1988).
Many representatives of Christian denominations around the world have emphasized the message that the lessons of the Passover Haggadah point to our common connection to Israel and the history of salvation which is rooted in Jewish tradition and scriptures. These churches emphasize that the Passover Seder should never be used as the springboard for a Christian reinterpretation and restaging of the Last Supper of Jesus. As a central and foundational religious festival of Jews Passover should be treated with respect and accorded its full dignity and integrity. The Passover Seder belongs to the Jews.
Guidelines for Christians regarding Passover Celebrations
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference provided the following guidelines for Christians who wish to celebrate Passover in 1992…
“In recent years numbers of Catholics have become interested in celebrating Passover (Pesach, Seder). Thus it is necessary to draw attention to the following:
- Passover is a feast sacred to the Jews. When non-Jews demonstrate it, the rites of the Haggadah should be respected in all their integrity. For this reason the use of a text approved by a Rabbi is recommended; even if a text has been approved overseas, the local Rabbi should be consulted, as attitudes vary somewhat with place and circumstances.
- It is desirable to invite a Jewish couple or family to conduct the rite.
- One of the chief reasons for this celebration by Christians should be to acknowledge and experience some of what we have received from the Jews in the history of salvation.
- This ritual has value as background for teaching about the Last Supper, but it should never be a hybrid presentation of Jewish and Christian celebrations.
- In recent years some Catholics have chosen to attend a Seder on Holy Thursday instead of the Catholic Liturgy. Thus they celebrate the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt, while omitting the celebration of our Passover and deliverance in Christ. It is strongly recommended that the Seder experience be held outside Holy Week, or at least at a time allowing for attendance at the Holy Week ceremonies.”
(Taken from the “Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations” provided by the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, 1992, available from the Jewish-Christian Relations web site.)
Other Bishops’ Conferences and Church Groups have provided guidelines for Liturgies and homiletics which respect the Jews and Judaism. LINK to GUIDE LINES for LITURGICAL CELEBRATION and HOMILIES HERE.
An Information sheet about Passover, suitable for parish news sheets,
is available for download. [Download]
A Study Group brochure about Passover, suitable for parish and school study groups, is available in A4 format. [Download]
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