As a Christian, why would I be so enthusiastic to learn about a Jewish tradition? After all we believe that the Mosaic law was fulfilled through the atonement of Jesus Christ and we don’t follow those customs any more. Today I partake of the Sacrament instead, but there are still some wonderful things that we can learn from remembering those ancient customs.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke say that the last supper was a Passover Feast. By gaining a greater understanding of the Passover we gain greater insight into the Savior’s final hours and teachings, we gain a greater insight of his mission and great atoning sacrifice, we also gain greater insight and appreciation of the ordinance of the sacrament which was instituted at this time. I personally love the symbolism and beauty of the Passover and encourage everyone to have a passover experience at least once in their life, not necessarily as a religious observance but as a cultural and educational experience because of the insight and understanding that it develops.
So let’s talk about the Passover. The Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. It is symbolic. One of the cool things about symbols is that they can mean more than one thing. The Passover is also a symbol or reminder of the covenants that God made with the Israelites, including the covenants or promises that a Messiah or redeemer would come to deliver us from sin and death and a promise of a restoration.
The Passover lasts 7 or 8 days, depending on where you live in the world. The Passover is celebrated by cleaning the house and removing all “chametz” from the home. Chametz is any food with leavening in it. So this is a good time for spring cleaning and going through the cupboards and getting rid of any bread or cakes or anything with yeast in it and just cleaning in general. This is symbolic of repentance; we need to clean out our lives and periodically examine ourselves to see if there’s anything that we should be changing or getting rid of. During the 7 or 8 days of Passover, you don’t eat anything with chametz or leavening in it.
The first night of Passover includes a special meal called the Seder. The word seder means order. There are 15 steps of the passover seder and they are followed in a particular order. The fifteen steps include the ceremonial drinking of four glasses of wine, partaking of unleavened bread or matzah, symbolic washing of the hands, blessings and giving thanks, eating a meal, telling the story of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt along with some symbolic food to represent that story, and remembering covenants or promises that God gave to the Israelites along with symbolic food and drink to represent some of those promises. As I explain the steps of the Passover, I’ll also explain some of the symbolism and what they mean.
The Passover has been celebrated by the Jews for over 3,000 years. So I want to begin by explaining what a Jew is and how they came to be. You probably already think that you know what a Jew is, but I’ll bet there’s more to it that you realize.
Long ago there was a man named Abraham who had a son named Isaac. The Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, which was an incredibly difficult thing to ask, but Abraham and Isaac were willing to be obedient. Fortunately they did not have to follow through with it. An angel stepped in at the last minute and stopped the sacrifice from taking place. The angel then taught them that this was a type or example of a great sacrifice that would take place in the future. God himself would offer his only begotten son as a sacrifice for all mankind. Abraham understood, in a way no one else really can, how difficult that sacrifice would be for our Heavenly Father. The Lord then provided a ram that Abraham could sacrifice instead of sacrificing his son, and the place where that sacrifice took place is Calvary where many years later our Savior would be crucified.
This story is represented symbolically in the passover. There are three pieces of unleavened bread or Matzah. These three pieces represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The middle piece represents Isaac who is a type or example of Christ and his great sacrifice. As part of the Passover the middle piece is broken, the larger broken piece is wrapped in a white cloth and hidden. Later the hidden piece is found and we celebrate it’s recovery with a prize. This symbolically represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ll talk more about this later, but for now I’ll return to the story of the Jews.
Isaac had a son named Jacob. God gave Jacob a new name. He called him Israel, so his descendants are called Israelites. Jacob, or Israel, had twelve sons. One of those sons was named Joseph and his brothers didn’t like him very much so they sold him and told their father that he was dead. Joseph’s captors took him to Egypt where he had many unpleasant adventures. At one point when Joseph was in prison he interpreted the dreams of two of the Pharaoh’s servants and they both came true exactly as he said they would. Therefore when the Pharaoh himself had a very strange dream Joseph was brought before him to interpret the dream. The dream was a warning from God that a great famine was coming, but they had time to prepare for that famine. Joseph was put in charge of storing food, and when the famine came, people came from all over to buy food from Egypt because they were prepared. Joseph’s parents and family were also affected by the famine so his brothers came to Egypt to buy food. They did not recognize Joseph, but he recognized them. He messed with them for a while, which they totally deserved, then he asked them to bring the whole family to Egypt and he would take care of them. They’d have a place to stay and food to eat so they came. They stayed and they prospered, but after a while another Pharoah came to power who never knew Joseph personally since by this time he was long gone. This pharaoh thought these outsiders were becoming too powerful, so to prevent that, he turned them all into slaves. Another word for outsider, or foreigner is Hebrew. The word can also mean someone without a land of their own, so these people were called Hebrews to distinguish that they were not actually from Egypt, they were foreigners.
This family continued in slavery for many years, until Moses was given the assignment from God to free them. Part of that deliverance story includes God sending plagues on the Egyptians. There were ten plagues, and the final one was that an angel of death would come and the first born in each household would die unless they obeyed some rather specific and strange commandments from God. They had to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and put blood from the lamb on the side posts and upper doorposts of the houses. Then they were supposed to roast the lamb and eat it with unleavened bread. God promised that if they would do this then the angel of death would pass over those houses and their first born would not be destroyed. Everything happened just as God said it would, and this plague was the last straw for Pharaoh who finally let the Hebrews, or Israelites go. But then Pharaoh changed his mind again and chased them and they needed even more divine intervention to get away.
So now they’re free. God asked them to have a special feast day every year called the Passover to remind them what he had done for them. He also wanted to give them a special promised land that he’d already promised great-great-great-grandpa Abraham. It was that special land where someday the Son of God would be sacrificed.
But the family wasn’t quite ready for the promised land so they wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years, until the old generation passed away and the children grew up. Then it was finally time for the Israelites, now led by Joshua, to settle in the land of Canaan. There were a lot of people by now, millions and millions. Remember that Jacob or Israel had 12 sons, and those kids had a lot of kids and so on for hundreds of years, so they divided the land up according to which of those families you belonged to. But after a while they didn’t get along so well so they broke into 2 separate kingdoms. One was called the Kingdom of Northern Israel and the other was called the Kingdom of Judah.
They were naughty; they fought with their neighbors and they fought with each other and eventually the northern kingdom was conquered and the people were scattered or mixed in with their conquerors. We call this group “The Lost 10 tribes.” We don’t know much about what happened to them after they were conquered. We don’t have a written history. They’re lost. Not necessarily lost meaning that they don’t know where they are, but they don’t know who they are. They don’t know that they are descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the special promises that apply to them.
So the Northern Kingdom of Israel is gone. The remaining kingdom is called the kingdom of Judah. Now remember this isn’t necessarily the tribe of Judah, or only the descendants of Judah who is one of the sons of Jacob or Israel. It’s a kingdom with the name “Kingdom of Judah” and it consists of descendants of Judah, Benjamin, Levi, Ephraim, Menassah, and others. The Kingdom of Judah was also conquered eventually and the people scattered, but somehow they did a better job maintaining their identity. They are called Jews. So being a Jew isn’t just a religion, it is a heritage. It is anyone who is a descendant of someone from the Kingdom of Judah. They are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who understand their heritage.
Okay, that explanation was kind of long. I promise the others are a lot shorter, but it was kind of complicated and I think it’s important.
So moving on, typically candles are lit before beginning the Passover. The candles represent knowledge. It represents the promise of enlightenment that is coming. It also represents the coming of Christ who is the light of the world.
There are 4 cups of wine drunk during the passover. These represent God’s 4 promises to save his people taught in Exodus chapter 6. The first cup of wine is called the cup of sanctification, the 2nd one is called the cup of deliverance. The third cup of wine is called the cup of redemption, and the 4th cup of wine is called the cup of restoration.
There are some really cool things about these cups and the events that took place during the last supper. When Jesus drank the 3rd cup which is the cup of redemption, he said, “This is my blood,” signifying that he is the redeemer and it was time to fulfill that promise of redemption. When it came time for the 4th cup, which is the cup of restoration, Jesus did not drink it because it was not yet time for the restoration, but he promised that he would drink it later. That part hasn’t happened yet, but in D&C 27 he promised that it would be soon. But, part of that promise relating to that 4th cup of restoration has taken place and I’ll explain about that next.
During the celebration of the Passover, when they get to the 4th cup, they fill a cup for Elijah and open the door to symbolically invite him to enter. Elijah is a promised prophet of the restoration before the Savior’s 2nd coming. I think it’s interesting that Elijah was given that assignment many, many years before the Savior’s first coming. There was a plan from the beginning that the Savior would come once and fulfill a very important mission and then he would come a second time, this time in great glory, but before that could take place there would be a restoration first, and the preparations were being made for both of those events long before the first one ever occured.
The promise that Elijah would come as part of the restoration and in preparation for the second coming of the Savior is recorded in the 4th chapter of Malachi which was written about 400 BC and those promises were repeated to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1823AD by the angel Moroni. The promise was finally fulfilled on April 3, 1836 as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants section 110 where Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the newly completed Kirtland temple to restore necessary priesthood keys for the restoration of the gospel.
There’s some exciting things about that special day. It was Easter Sunday, and it was also during the time that Passover was being celebrated. Those holidays don’t always overlap. Easter is a “Moveable” feast. It is one of those annual holidays that does not fall on a fixed date. It moves around.
The date for Easter was established by The Council of Nicaea in the year 325AD. They decided that Easter would be celebrated on the 1st Sunday after the First Full moon after the vernal equinox, which marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The Passover follows the Jewish calendar and begins on the 15th day of the month called Nisan. Even though it’s a certain day of a certain month, it moves around because the Jewish calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar that we use today. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar rather than following a solar cycle and the months move around a little bit compared to our calendar. The Jewish calendar also starts each new day at sundown rather than at midnight. We typically consider a new day when you wake up, rather than when the sun goes down. Anyway, Easter and Passover are based on different calendars with different calculations and they don’t usually overlap, but on that special day in 1836 when Elijah came to fulfill those ancient prophecies, they did.
So back to the passover. At a passover feast, there is a special plate, called a Seder plate that has special symbolic items on it. There is matzah or unleavened bread, maror (which is bitter herbs like horseradish for example), charoset (which is an apple walnut mixture), Karpas or green vegetables, an egg, and a bone.
I’ll go over what each of these mean. The unleavened bread or matzah represents the bread of affliction. When the Israelites left Egypt they had to leave immediately, right now. They didn’t have time to let bread rise. Another interesting thing is that the idea of putting leavening in bread originated in Egypt so when they were told to leave out the leavening it was also symbolic to leave the worldliness of Egypt behind and become a holy people.
I already mentioned that the three pieces of unleavened bread or matzah represent Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and part of the Passover Seder is to take the middle piece representing Isaac, which is a representation of Christ, and break it, wrap it in a white cloth, hide it, and find it again. During the Last Supper when Jesus got to the part of breaking this unleavened bread, he told his disciples, “This is my body.” Once again trying to make it clear that the Passover pointed to him. Isaac’s (almost) sacrifice pointed to the Savior and his sacrifice. He was trying to explain to his disciples that he was going to die, he would be buried, and that he would come back again. He was trying to explain the meaning behind the symbolic actions that they had participated in all their lives. They all pointed to him and what was about to happen to him.
Of course now we have the sacrament. We eat pieces of broken bread. We’re not served tiny rolls or full slices of bread, we are served pieces of bread that are broken, and the bread is covered with a white cloth until it is time for the sacrament. It ties back to the symbolism of the Passover. It represents that our Savior died for us, he was buried, and he was resurrected. He was broken so that we might become whole. He died so that we might live.
The sacrament as we observe it today is a little section of the Passover. It is simplified to include only those parts that specifically relate to the Savior. The broken bread and the cup of wine. We drink water instead of wine now because of the commandment given in D&C 27, but the symbolism is the same. We eat and drink in remembrance of our Savior and his great atoning sacrifice.
Going back to those symbolic items on the Seder plate, The Maror or bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery and the bitterness of sin. The charoset or apple mixture represents the mortar the Israelites had to make. It actually tastes really yummy. I wondered why something sweet would represent the mortar, and some of the sources that I studied said that it represented that even though they were slaves in Egypt, it was familiar and familiarity is sweet. Several times after they were freed the Israelites kept saying, “Oh, we wish we were back in Egypt, it was so much better there. We had onions and garlic and…” whatever they were feeling nostalgic for at the time.
Moving on, the karpas or green vegetables represent spring and rebirth. And the bone represents the sacrificial lamb. Jews don’t sacrifice a lamb any more for Passover because they believe that you have to have a temple to do that, and they haven’t had a temple for nearly 2000 years so the bone just reminds us of the sacrificial lamb. The egg represents creative power and rebirth. For Easter, we decorate and hide colorful eggs which are supposed to represent creative power and rebirth, and the egg on the Seder plate means basically the same thing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about the Passover. I find it so interesting and I love to share it with people. I invite you to host a cultural passover experience for your family or friends so they can learn about it too. I have the instructions, script, and a passover questionnaire with answers available to download for free.
I’ll quickly answer a few frequently asked questions about having a passover experience.
Q. What do I serve for the Passover meal?
A. The Passover meal may be whatever you want to serve. In ancient times it was a lamb, but now that is represented symbolically. Jews today eat food that is Kosher (complies with Mosaic Law as outlined in the book of Leviticus, including abstaining from pork, shellfish, etc.) I’ve hosted several Passover experiences for family and youth groups and others. If I’m hosting a large group, I typically just have a pot luck dinner. Preparing for the Seder is enough work already, I prefer to keep it low stress by allowing others to help with the meal.
Q. How long does the Passover experience take?
A. I have prepared a simplified version of the Passover that takes only about an hour, including answering questions to a quiz, going through the 15 steps, and the meal. An hour seems long enough to learn from it, and short enough to enjoy it.
Q. Why do I include a quiz as part of the Passover experience?
A. The quiz serves multiple purposes. First it helps provide a method to teach about the Passover in a way that is concise and interactive. Searching for and filling in answers to the questions invites audience participation. Second, it helps people realize that there are things they don’t already know and invites searching for answers. I’ve noticed that people tend to listen more carefully when they are searching for answers to questions. Third, giving a quiz first gives insight about the Passover before actually doing it which helps people know what to expect. It provides greater understanding, makes more sense, and is more meaningful as you go along. Fourth, the quiz includes scripture references and an opportunity for follow up study if desired.
Tips: I typically invite people to spend a few minutes to work on the quiz on their own before beginning any explanation to see how many questions they can answer on their own and assure them that it’s okay if they don’t know everything, because we’ll be answering all the questions together as a group. Then I go through the questions on the quiz and give the answers as we go along. After the quiz, then we turn to the script and remind everyone that the Passover Seder is simply following through 15 steps. Then we light a candle or tea light and follow through the script as outlined. When you get to step 11, which is the meal, you eat dinner. As you go through the script, you may pause and reiterate things that Jesus said and did during the Last Supper. Pay attention to the interest level of your guests, move forward and skip things if they’re getting antsy or slow down and explain as they show interest. Be flexible, it’s okay if you don’t get to everything, you want an enjoyable experience where people have fun learning something new.
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