Yeshua and the Haggadah

“Biblical” or “Traditional”?

Traditional Seder TableHow should we, as Messianics, celebrate the Passover? When new people come to our congregations, do we properly teach them the significance of the seder, and how to hold a real seder in their homes? Do we guide them, or do we cast them adrift, and assume that they know what questions to ask? Have we not learned the lessons of the four sons, ourselves? Do we fail to realize that we need to meet the needs of him who does not know what questions to ask?

Recently, I encountered someone asking about how best to to celebrate Passover. This person was a new Messianic, and had no experience with the event. It was a good question, and deserved a good answer. But before I had a chance to write my own response, someone else wrote the following, saying,

You also have to decide if you’re going to do it with Biblical elements only or if you want to do a “traditional” Passover.

This led to a tangential discussion all its own. Is it really true that a choice must be made? Was it necessary to confuse the new Messianic, celebrating Pesach for the first time, with a question she had no way to answer?

The person asking the original question didn’t deserve to be put in the position of having to answer a question for which she was unprepared. But for those who have been following this blog for any length of time, you are well prepared to follow-up on this question. We’ve discussed the seder before, and we will discuss it further in the future.

So, let us address this question now. Why would someone suggest that there is a distinction to be made between a “traditional” seder versus a “biblical” seder? Are the two really so different? Where would someone get the idea that we should choose one over the other?

It really isn’t so hard to understand this foundational assumption. One hears this sort of statement from Protestant Christians all the time. There is a popular mindset that says one must follow only that which is recorded in the Bible, without reference to the historical background or later development offered by the rabbinic discussion. One routinely hears statements like, “Where is that in the Bible?” Or, “That isn’t Biblical!” What these people are really saying is that they will only accept as authoritative those statements that are written in the Bible, while rejecting the authority of any concept that is not found explicitly stated in the Bible.

But was that Messiah’s view? Did he think that one must choose between that which was “biblical”, as opposed to that which was “traditional”?

We at the Mishkan believe there was no such choice necessary. In the time of Yeshua, there was only one way of holding a Passover seder—according to the haggadah that had been developed in Babylonian captivity. Which is not to say that they had written a book called “The Haggadah” by that time. But the symbols and manner of telling the story, which were later compiled into the haggadah, had been established by the time of Yeshua, and he followed the common practice.

Mishkan, are you saying Yeshua’s Seder included the 4 questions, the cup of Elijah, etc.?

Yes, absolutely! Those items, and more, were all an established part of the Passover seder by the time of Yeshua. Of course, there is room for discussion about the exact details. For instance, there are slightly different versions of the four questions in the two versions of the Talmud, and the last question was altered after the destruction of the Temple. But, in general, the modern seder is very, very close to what Yeshua would have celebrated.

Our problem is, when we approach the the Bible with insufficient historical or cultural background, our ignorance causes us to think that the Gospel writers intended to indicate that Yeshua used only a single piece of matzah and a single cup of wine. In fact, if we stick strictly to what is recorded in the Gospels, Yeshua’s seder took all of about 15 minutes!

But we only get that impression because the goal of the gospel writers was not to give an instruction manual on every detail of a traditional seder. After all… it was traditional! Everybody knew what went into having a Passover seder. There was no need to detail every item on the table, for every reader of the day would have realized what it meant to have a seder.

The purpose of the gospels was merely to highlight the elements on the table that Yeshua explicitly paralleled to his own life and death.

Haggadah in the Gospels

Yet, even while not trying to list every detail of Yeshua’s seder, the Gospel writers included a number of items that correspond to the traditional haggadah! But we have to know what we’re looking for in order to recognize these points of contact. For those of us who have actually followed the traditional seder for a number of years, these elements leap out at us as we read the Gospels:

  1. it was in the evening—not daytime, as da Vinci‘s painting portrays
  2. opening brucha/benediction (shehechianu)
  3. the shulchan aruch/spread table (they did eat)
  4. the Hillel sandwich (the sop)
  5. the four cups (Luke explicitly differentiates two cups—an opening
    cup (22:17) and “the cup after supper” (22:20), which is identified as
    “the cup of redemption”)
  6. niggunim after the seder (they sang a hymn)
  7. the all-important matzah! (take, eat, all of you—this is my body)

It is interesting to note that Yeshua explicitly stated he would not drink of the last cup of the evening, the fourth cup, the cup representing the Kingdom (Matthew 26:29). This fourth cup is traditionally identified with the saying “I will take them as my people, and I will be their God” (Luke 22:18, cf. Shemot/Exodus 6:6). Thus, we find a reference to something that was not included, but should have been. That tells us the pattern of the four cups was so well established in Yeshua’s time that leaving one out required some sort of explanation.

Thus, we find that it is important to be careful about taking a “minimalist” approach as we read the Bible. That’s the perspective that says, “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen”. That is precisely the Christian mentality that allows one to divorce the Torah from the Messianic letters. It is argued, “If Jesus wanted us to keep all the commandments in the Torah, he would have repeated them at some point.”

The error of such a statement is obvious to most of us—we recognize that once a thing is established, it remains in effect thereafter. But some of us evidence a similar minimalist mentality when we talk about first century events, like how Yeshua would have celebrated the Passover.

What we all need to understand is that the seder elements, as written in a traditional haggadah, are all intended to serve as a basis for further discussion and commentary. That is, we have failed to properly use the haggadah if all we do is read the text as it sits on the page. The leader of a Pesach seder should learn the contents of the haggadah well in advance, study out the elements he does not understand, and be prepared to answer any questions that might be raised through the evening. The leader at a seder must be prepared to expand upon the elements of the story, to make them more meaningful to his audience, so that each person at the table can genuinely experience the the redemption of Adonai, “as if he, himself, had been delivered from slavery in Egypt”.

That’s what Yeshua did at his own seder. He was intimately acquainted with the traditional elements. He followed the traditional rubric, and told the story in the traditional way. But when he came to aspects that paralleled his own purposes, he highlighted the symbolism so that the seder could serve as a reminder of his life and death for years to come.

That’s how it ought to be for us. Yeshua celebrated a seder with his friends. Through the evening, he selected several specific items and associated them with his own life, death, and resurrection. Likewise, we should be able to pick up any traditional haggadah, participate in a traditional seder with our Jewish friends, and be right at home. We must come to the point where we see ourselves in bondage in Egypt, or we have not properly understood the purpose of the seder. Yet, we must also be prepared at any point in the proceedings to give an explanation of the Messianic hope we have within us.

A Big Task, But You’re Up to It

The Passover celebration contains many themes and symbols. If this is your first or second time celebrating Passover, it can seem intimidating, even daunting. There is so much to learn! How can we ever know enough to do an adequate job of leading a seder? Well, just take small bites. Each year, you should become a bit more familiar with the story and the symbols. Don’t expect to master everything at once. Focus on a different theme or symbol each year. Learn why things are on the table, and what significance they add to the memorial. Realize that there are both objective and subjective aspects to the telling of the story.

Most importantly, you must realize deep down in your kishkes that,

“Passover is for the kids!”

Only when you feel deep down in your gut that Passover is not about you, but about passing on the story of God’s love, power, and redemption to the next generation, can you really say that you have fully apprehended what the Passover seder is all about.

But if you are new to the observance of Passover, don’t feel intimated. There is much to be learned, yes. But you have the rest of your life to learn it all. And, more importantly, what you build will serve as the foundation for all the generations who follow in your footsteps.

Keep the traditions, for they serve as a memory device for the whole community. And get to know them so well that you can use them as a stepping-off place, from which you can expand on the work of Messiah at any point. The musician who is most noted for his ability to improvise is able to do so because he is so intimately acquainted with the written score.

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