Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Guidelines - Christians and the Passover Seder meal
In certain Christian milieux (groups, religious communities, parishes) there is a growing practice of enacting the Jewish Passover meal in order to enter into and gain a deeper understanding of the Christian Paschal celebration.
This leaflet offers some guidelines and explanations to ensure that this practice respects the distinctive Jewish and Christian identities.
WHAT IS A PASSOVER SEDER?
In Hebrew Seder means “order” and designates the components of a rite. When we speak of the Passover Seder we mean the whole celebration - which can last for several hours - during which the Jewish people commemorate and re-live, as a family, their liberation from Egypt: “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt and the Eternal our God brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not liberated our fathers from Egypt, then we, and our children and our children's children, would still be servants to Pharoah in Egypt.” (The Haggadah)
The most important moment of the Seder is the account of God's liberation of his people from Egypt “with a strong hand and outstretched arm” and it is commonly called Haggadah, a term that means “telling” from the root ngd “to tell”. The Haggadah is the text of the Passover ritual and it fulfills the biblical precept “Thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt'” (Ex. 13:8). It is made up of elements that are fixed and some that can vary according to different traditions that have developed in the Diaspora. The Haggadah has been enriched by miniatures, drawings, songs, commentaries, etc.
According to the scholars the Haggadah as it is known today as a separate liturgical text was first drawn up around the seventh century of the common era. The redaction was rather late but the rites and prayers are much older. The most important are already found in the Mishna, (the first codification of the oral Torah in the second century), and even go back to the pre-Christian era. The Seder, a memorial that actualizes God's liberating action in favour of his people, is commented and re-interpreted by the Jews from generation to generation, down to this day.
The text of the Haggadah, the central part of the Seder, was first printed in 1482 in Guadalajara in Spain. Editions multiplied quickly, making this book one of the most beautiful, rich and popular works of Judaism.
JESUS AND THE PASSOVER SEDER
The New Testament records that Jesus observed the Passover (Pesach), the feasts of Pentecost (Shavuot), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). Matthew 26:17 reads: “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus to say ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?'”
“To eat the Passover” is synonymous with “to celebrate the Passover”. The expression refers to the central moment in the rite which is that of the immolation of the lamb in the Temple of Jerusalem and the family eating certain portions of it in “memory” of God's liberation of the people from oppression in Egypt.
But apart from these two facts - the immolation of the lamb and its “memorial” value - the New Testament says nothing about the manner of celebrating the Passover, and there are no contemporary sources. At any rate, it was not a Passover Seder as it is celebrated today, since the latter, as previously mentioned, came several centuries later.
From the historical point of view, we cannot affirm from the New Testament that Jesus' Last Supper was a Passover meal. Some scholars would tend to see it rather as a farewell meal.
However, the authors of the New Testament agree in interpreting Jesus' death on the cross and his testament-memorial transmitted during the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) in the context of Passover.
THE EUCHARIST AND THE PASSOVER SEDER
The Christian Eucharist through which the Church transmits the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus has not only a Passover dimension, but it is also linked to the Jewish prayer of blessing which, already in the New Testament times, accompanied the main meals: “As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples. ‘Take and eat.' he said ...” (Mt. 26:26-27).
The phrases “say the blessing” and “give thanks” recall one of the most important liturgical actions of Judaism: the prayer before the meal (birkat ha-motzi) and after the meal (birkat ha-mazon), which recognize that the goods of the earth, represented by bread and wine, are from God, who is the creator and redeemer sustaining and transforming them.
It is thought that this prayer, which begins with the birkat ha-motzi (of rabbinical origin) and ends with the birkat ha-mazon (of biblical origin based on Dt. 8:10), in its essential elements goes back to the post-exile period (after 587 BCE) and accompanies each meal including the Passover meal.
Even in the hypothesis that Jesus would have celebrated a farewell meal instead of the Passover meal, the essential link remains between what he says and does and the prayer of blessing. It is in this context of the blessing that Jesus instituted the memorial of his death and resurrection and in which the Church transmits it during the Eucharistic Prayer, which is at the centre of its liturgy.
CAN WE SPEAK OF A CHRISTIAN SEDER?
It is ambiguous to speak of a Christian Seder. It must be avoided because the term is historically incorrect. The expression “Christian celebration of the Passover Seder” is also to be avoided, for the Passover Seder belongs to the Jewish tradition and only the Jews celebrate it.
CAN CHRISTIANS CELEBRATE THE SEDER?
Since it is a constitutive rite of Judaism, the Passover Seder can only be celebrated by Jews: they are its subjects and recipients. But that does not mean that its wealth must remain inaccesssible to Christians.
The ideal would be to participate in a Passover Seder as a guest of Jewish friends, in their home. Thus one would be truly a “guest” of the Jewish tradition and faith to which the Church is “linked” in its very identity.
When Christians reenact the Passover Seder it is not a celebration of the rite but a reflection and an experiential study to deepen understanding, in respect and gratitude. When this is done it is advisable to invite a rabbi or an observant Jew who is conversant with the tradition. A preparatory meeting to explain the rite can be very helpful. The Bishops' Conferences of North America and England and Wales give the following directrive in their Guidelines for pastoral activity during Holy Week:
“In recent years the custom has grown in many parishes to arrange a demonstration Seder during Holy Week. This can have educational and spiritual value. It is wrong, however, to “baptize” the Seder by interspersing or concluding it with New Testament readings or Christian associations - or, worse, turn it into a Eucharist or a prologue to a Eucharist. Such mergings show a lack of respect for Judaism and a distortion of both Christian and Jewish traditions.
The primary reason why Christians may decide to hold a demonstration Seder should be to understand better the Jewish roots of our Eucharistic liturgy. Any sense of “restaging” the Last Supper is inappropriate, historically inaccurate and should be avoided.
Demonstration Seders arranged in cooperation with local synagogues are strongly encouraged. Wherever possible, a Jew should be invited to lead the Seder and assist the Christians present to understand its ritual and meaning to the Jewish community ... In all events, Christians should take every care to ensure that the correct Jewish ritual is followed and that the Seder be respected in its full integrity.”
It is not sufficient to read the texts and understand the symbols of the Passover Seder. Christians should also enter into communion with the faith of the Jewish people who incarnate it and continue to transmit it.
The correct attitude of Christians towards the Passover Seder consists in sharing the history of the Jewish people, discovering the links that bind the Church to this people and giving thanks for their faithfulness to the Sinai Covenant.
* This article, in leaflet form, was prepared by the SIDIC Centre in Rome and the Study Centre for Christian-Jewish Relations in London. Requests for leaflets or further information may be addressed to:
SIDIC, via del Plebiscito 112 (Int.9), 00186 Roma, Italia
The Study Centre for Christian - Jewish Relations, 17 Chepstow Villas, London, England W11 3DZ
Relation and Encounter, 1125 William Court, #1, Brooklyn, NY, USA 11235