Rabbi Jonathan Romain looks at the importance of the Passover feast for Jews and Christians
Of all the Jewish festivals, Passover (Hebrew: Pesach) is probably the most well-known and popular both within the faith and to the outside world. Why is that?
One reason is its powerful themes. This is not to diminish the important messages of other festivals in the Jewish calendar, such as that of personal renewal (Rosh Hashannah/New Year) or of forgiveness (Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement).
However, the Passover message of the exodus from Egypt and, more broadly, of national liberation and freedom from persecution, has a hard-edged urgency about it and has touched millions of others suffering from oppression in various ways
The cry of Moses in Pharoah’s court – ‘Let my people go’ (Exodus 5.2) – has reverberated across the world and down the centuries. As political slogans go, it is short, pithy and crystal clear. Moreover, in Hebrew, it fulfils the current vogue for three words catchphrases.
The second reason is that its observance makes such a deep impression, whether you are Jewish and keep it every year or are not Jewish but get invited to a Passover celebration.
Although there are also formal services in synagogue to mark it, it is primarily a domestic festival. It means that however young you are as a Jewish child, you attend, and it becomes an ingrained habit. Conversely, however irreligious you are, it is part of what Jewish families do, and so you do it too.
Another factor in its popularity, is that it is celebrated with food. As we read from the hagaddah, the book narrating the enslavement of the Israelites and their eventual redemption, each stage of the story is marked by eating symbolic foods.
Thus we eat bitter herbs to represent the bitterness of life in Egypt; or haroset (a mix of nuts, raisons, wine, apple and cinnamon) whose brown colour reminds of the mortar the Israelites used to build the store cities of Pithom and Ramses. Four small cups of wine reflect the four verbs of redemption in the single verse of Exodus 6.6, as well as the joy of the occasion.
Then there is the salt water to recall the tears of the salves, while the greenery of parsley tells of the spring-time at which the Exodus happened. A roast egg symbolises the burnt offerings of the sacrifices that used to be a form of worship in biblical times, while the shankbone harks back to the final meal in Egypt in each household before the departure.
Perhaps most expressive of all is the unleavened bread (matza) that echoes the haste in which the Israelites left when Pharoah suddenly changes his mind and orders them to leave immediately – so much so that the bread they were baking did not have time to rise.
It is a gastronomic simulation game, forcing us not only to narrate the events of the past, but to re-live them and feel as if we were there ourselves. It turns the festival from a history lesson to a personal experience, and has meant that the sense of the deliverance for the Israelites of old is our deliverance too.
As the hagaddah puts it, ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not led our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children would have remained slaves to Pharoah in Egypt’. Wow, what a narrow escape I had!
Given the fact that it is marked at home, and with children being present whose attention span might be limited, the ceremony also involves them more than most festivals do. There is a specific passage reserved for them to read, others that refer to different types of children, and various actions for them to perform. ‘Start ‘em young!’
The third reason for Passover’s fame is its part in the Christian story. We cannot know for sure, but there is the strong assumption that the Final [Last] Supper was the Passover meal that Jesus and his disciples – all of whom were Jewish – would have celebrated in Jerusalem (Matthew 26.17).
The act of ‘dipping in the dish’ may well refer to the act of dipping the parsley in the salt-water, which is part of the ceremony. The bread, which Jesus declared to be his body, and is central to the Eucharist, has come down to us in the form of unleavened bread. The wine that becomes his blood is from one of the four cups.
It is not uncommon for Christians to ask Jewish friends if they can attend the Passover meal (known as the seder), so that they can see first-hand what Jesus and the disciples did at that fateful meal. Alternatively, many a church will hold a seder of their own to recreate the scenario for themselves communally.
The main structure of the seder was determined around the first century, and has largely remained unchanged since then, so what we do today reflects what happened back then.
Passover, therefore, is a religious Tardis and one of the earliest forms of time-travel. For both Jews and Christians, it takes us back to key moments in our religious development.
Dr Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of The Naked Rabbi (John Hunt Publishing).
Pesach (Passover) this year begins at sundown on Wednesday, 5 April, and ends at nightfall on 13 April. The Seder evening feast is held on the first two nights of Passover (in Israel on the first night only).