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They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let's eat!

Every year since the return from captivity in Babylon, in the celebration of Passover the Jewish people have kept alive the memory of their redemption from Egypt. There is hardly a Jewish person today, however secular, who does not keep Passover. The observance of the festival is no longer the simple affair we read about in Exodus 12. Over the centuries the order of service has been modified both by the addition of new rituals, elements and symbols and also by the removal of the central focus of the festival, the lamb. In this article, Mike Moore introduces Passover as it is observed today.

Keep the feast

Preparation for the Passover begins weeks before the celebration itself. In obedience to the command to remove all hametz, or leaven, from their houses, Jewish housewives spring clean their homes thoroughly. In order to ensure that every last crumb of hametz is removed from the home, on the eve of Passover the head of the family searches the house by the light of a candle, using a feather to sweep any remaining morsels of leaven onto a wooden spoon. Wrapping the fragments of leaven in a cloth, he burns them, reciting the blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to remove the leaven from our homes.”

In 1 Corinthians 5:7f, using the imagery of removal of hametz from homes, the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian believers (among whom were Jewish believers) to expel immoral members of the assembly: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

If Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the spring of AD 57, as some New Testament scholars believe, he would have been writing around the time of Passover. The encouragement to “keep the feast” would seem to indicate Jewish believers in Corinth continued to observe Passover.

Passover supper

Because of the simplicity of the “Lord’s Supper”, which was a Passover Seder, some Christians imagine that the Last Supper must also have consisted of nothing but a loaf of bread and a cup of wine but who – particularly Jewish people – celebrates a great event without plenty of food? Some Jewish wit summed up the essence of the Jewish festivals as: “They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat!”

At Passover, Jewish families gather to celebrate the defining moment in the nation’s history with a semi-formal service during which the Passover story is told and the family enjoys the Jewish equivalent of a Christmas dinner. The service is called the Seder (Hebrew for “Order”) and the order is set out in a service book or Haggadah (“Telling”). The Seder is a multi-sensory educational experience, designed to keep the attention of all present – not least the children – so that the story and lessons of the Passover may be written indelibly on minds and hearts. Stories, songs, games, questions and answers, and the obligatory food and drink all serve to drive home the story of redemption.

In the Gospels, we see features that are present in today’s Passover Seders. Luke 22:17f records Jesus saying the Kiddush, the sanctification of God’s name; John 13:4f, records the washing of hands; John 13:26f and 30 tells us that Jesus dipped the matzah into the maror and haroset. After the Passover meal, according to 1 Corinthians 11:23f, Jesus said the Blessing “after the meal” and the Blessing over the Third Cup, the Cup of Redemption (verse 25). Matthew 26:30 records that Jesus and his followers sang the closing Hymn, or Psalm, before leaving for Gethsemane.

Four cups. Four questions.

The centres of focus on the Seder table are two candlesticks, four cups of wine and a beautifully decorated plate on which are a number of symbolic foods. At the commencement of the Seder, the candles are lit by the lady of the house, who recites the traditional blessing: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik neir shel Yom Tov. “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes us holy with commandments and commands us to kindle the light for the festival day.”

Four cups are on the table, each of which has significance: “the Cup of Sanctification”, “the Cup of Praise” (in some Haggadahs, it is called “the Cup of Plagues”), “the Cup of Redemption” and “the Cup of Adoption”. The first two cups are drunk before the meal and the second two afterwards. Luke 22 records that Jesus drank from two cups. In verses 17 and 18, he “took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves’.” This cup was more than likely the first cup of the Seder; the Cup of Sanctification. In verse 20, Jesus “also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you’.” The cup “after supper”, the third of the Passover cups, represented the sacrificial blood of the Passover Lamb which Jesus, on that night, invested with new meaning.

At the Seder, the youngest child recites “Four Questions”, asking why “this night” is different from all other nights. “On all other nights”, the child says, “we eat either leavened bread or unleavened; why, on this night, do we eat only unleavened bread?”

“On all other nights, we eat any manner of herb; why, on this night, do we eat only bitter herbs?”

“On all other nights, we do not dip the sop even once; why, on this night, do we dip twice?

“On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining; why, on this night, do we all recline?

The Seder leader explains that “this night” is truly special because the Jewish people were once slaves in Egypt but are now free, and then relates the story of the exodus, as set out in the Haggadah.


Food, glorious food

On the table are three pieces of matzah, or unleavened bread, concealed inside a Matzah Tash. There is also salt water, parsley, horseradish, a roasted egg, haroset (a delicious mixture of apples, raisins, almonds, honey and, sometimes, wine) and the shankbone of a lamb, each of which symbolises some aspect of the Israelite experience in Egypt.

The traditional explanation of the parsley (karpas) and the salt water is that the green parsley represents life and the salt water the tears of life. As those at the table dip the green herb in the salt water before they eat it, the parsley reminds them of the tears of their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. The horseradish, or bitter herb” (maror), reminds them how bitter life must have been before God redeemed them but the haroset is a reminder that even the bitterest labour was made sweet by the promise of redemption. The hagigah, the name given to the roasted egg, was the term for the daily temple sacrifices in ancient Jerusalem, the burned shell being symbolic of the daily offerings that were offered on the altar of the Lord. Before being eaten, the egg is dipped in the salt water (symbolic of tears) to mourn the fact that there is no longer a temple in Jerusalem.

Unlike in biblical times, today’s Jews do not eat lamb at Passover because the festival lambs had to be presented and sacrificed in the temple. In AD 70, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans and, today, the meat of choice at Passover is usually chicken. All that remains of the Passover lamb, apart from the memory of it, is the zaroah, or shankbone.

Back to the future

Near the beginning of the Seder, the middle piece of three pieces of unleavened bread is removed from the Matzah Tash and broken in half. The three pieces are thought to be symbolic of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Priests, Levites and the People, or the three measures of fine flour with which Sarah fed her heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. The larger portion of the broken matzah is hidden until the end of the meal, at which time the children excitedly search for it and bring it back to the table, where it is shared by everyone as a dessert. The hidden matzah is known as the afikomen, a Greek word which is understood by most Jewish people to mean a “dessert” or a festival revelry. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that the word means “He is coming” of “the Coming One”, and was introduced into the Seder in biblical times as a symbol of the Messiah. For a detailed study of the Afikomen, see The Mystery of the Middle Matzah in the March 2010 issue of the Herald or go to www.cwi.org.uk/library/articles/TheMysteryoftheMiddleMatzah1.htm).

Passover looks forward to the coming of a greater Redemption than the exodus from Egypt when, according to the teaching of the rabbis, Messiah will end the Exile and transport the Jewish people to the land of Israel on clouds of glory, rebuild the temple and cause all nations to worship the true God. The Seder ends with the children being sent to the door to see if Elijah the Prophet, the forerunner of Messiah is coming. As always, the children return disappointed but the family wish each other “Next year in Jerusalem”.

The Passover looks back to the past and forward to the future and, in the same way, the Lord’s Supper looks back to Messiah’s redemptive death on behalf of his people and forward to his return: “Do this till I come”. How tragic that as Jewish families read, sing, play, eat and drink their way through the Haggadah, because of tradition they miss the fact that almost every symbol on the table speaks of Messiah. It should be our longing that they behold and embrace the Lamb of God, through whose blood they can experience true freedom.

CWI workers are available to present demonstrations of the Passover at which the Seder is explained in far greater detail, or to conduct a full Seder with a meal. These events are appropriate at any time of the year. We provide advertising and supply souvenir Passover Haggadahs to everyone who attends. To book a Passover event, please contact CWI head office.

This article first appeared in the Spring Herald 2011


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