The Passover elements symbolize God's character and retell the story of our liberation.
by Jews for Jesus | March 01 2021
Passover is a beautiful and highly symbolic celebration. More than any other festival, it has been at the heart of the universal Jewish experience, helping to form the core of spiritual identity and pointing inexorably toward the hope of Israel’s salvation.
The date when Passover falls on the Gregorian calendar changes annually, yet each year, families around the world sit down for the Seder meal and follow the order set out in the haggadah. A closer look at these traditions shows us a comprehensive and fuller look, revealing the hidden meanings of the highly symbolic Passover meal. The Passover symbols point to a surprising and intriguing indication of God’s supernatural hand in developing Passover observance through the ages.
The story of Passover is a story of redemption; it is a story we are meant to personally contextualize. Looking at the ancient symbols of Passover is an opportunity to experience the story of Yeshua’s death, resurrection, and the promise of his return in light of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 12:24–27. The nation of Israel is commanded to celebrate the Passover as a yearly ordinance to remember how God has dealt faithfully with them and preserved them.
Rabbinic Tradition: We are called to personalize the meaning of Passover. It is commonly said, “In every generation let each man look on himself as though he himself came forth out of Egypt.”
Contemporary Judaism: The plight of Russian Jewry in the Soviet Era was seen as a counterpart to bondage in Egypt. And Reform Judaism has always related Passover to a general hope for freedom for all people. Again, this has to do with the call to personally appropriate the story of bondage and redemption as if we ourselves came out of Egypt.
New Testament: John 8:36. Believers in Jesus recognize that God has extended salvation to all nations; through the salvific power of Yeshua’s blood, we are set free from the bondage of sin. Jesus is the Redeemer of humanity.
Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 12:5, 8, 46. The lamb is one of the three items to be eaten at the Passover meal. In the original Passover in Egypt, the entire lamb was central to the observance. The Israelites took the lamb, sacrificed it, placed the blood of the sacrifice on the doorposts of their homes, and then ate the lamb as their main course. At the first Passover, the angel of death “passed over” the homes marked by the blood of the lamb during the final plague.
The word used today for the lamb “shankbone,” zeroa, is used not only to remind us of the Passover lamb but also as a symbol of God’s “outstretched arm” with which He delivered us from Egypt (Exodus 6:6). The same word (zeroa) is used to pose a question in Isaiah 53, a key Messianic prophecy: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the [zeroa] [in English ‘arm’] of the LORD been revealed?” (v. 1). Then Isaiah continues in verse 2, “For he …” (seemingly now speaking of the arm as a person). Isaiah then goes on to describe the servant who would suffer and die for the sin of his people “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (v. 7).
Rabbinic Tradition: This is not traditional because it’s not been eaten at Passover since the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
Contemporary Judaism: Among Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European origin), chicken is often substituted for lamb. Sephardic Jews (those of Mediterranean, Spanish, and Middle Eastern origin) often continue to eat lamb, but are not allowed to roast it whole since that only applied when the Passover sacrifices were able to take place.1
New Testament: Jesus is understood to be the Passover Lamb who was slaughtered to take away the sins of the world (1 Corinthians 5:7). John the Baptist affirmed this when he saw Jesus and said of him, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Hebrew Scriptures: The “roasted egg” (beitzah) does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures as it remembers the destruction of the Temple.
Rabbinic Tradition: The beitzah represents the renewal of life. Unconsumed, it represents the discontinued korban chagigah (“festival sacrifice”) that was offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. The egg evokes the idea of mourning over the destruction of the Temple and our inability to offer sacrifices at Pesach.
Contemporary Judaism: The beitzah is consumed at the contemporary Seder as an “appetizer,” and is dipped in salt water to symbolically grieve the destruction of the Temple. It serves as a visual reminder of the chagigah.
New Testament: The beitzah isn’t specifically mentioned in the New Testament. However, both the egg and shankbone force us to ask: With no Temple, no altar, and no sacrifice, how is it possible to atone for sins? The rabbis say that forgiveness from sin is obtained through repentance, prayer, and good deeds. But the Law of Moses states that atonement must be made through blood, and our good deeds can’t save us. Today’s Seder leaves this dilemma unanswered and unresolved. Believers in Jesus believe Yeshua is that atonement.
Hebrew Scriptures: The maror (“bitter herbs”) are another one of the three items to be eaten at the Passover meal as commanded in Exodus 12:8.
Rabbinic Tradition: The maror represents the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. Each Passover, as we eat the maror, we remember the toil and burden of slavery that our ancestors endured.
Contemporary Judaism: Maror is still eaten at the contemporary Seder and is given the same significance as in rabbinic tradition. The natural reaction to eating the bitter herbs (usually fresh ground horseradish) is to cry, which is a physical reminder of the sadness of life without redemption.
New Testament: In John 13:26 at the Last Supper, Jesus says, “‘He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.’ And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon” (King James Version). While this is often translated as the unleavened bread that is dipped, it could also be the bitter herbs, since after the first cup, the Passover ceremony commences with bitter herbs dipped into a vinegar sop (karpas).
Hebrew Scriptures: The “unleavened bread” is the last of the three items commanded for the Passover in Exodus 12:8, typically called matzah.
Rabbinic Tradition: The unleavened bread recalls the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt. The impending Egyptian army did not allow Israel to wait for their bread to rise. We recall the escape from Egypt for the seven days of Passover as it is traditional to abstain from leaven.
Contemporary Judaism: The matzah is eaten at the contemporary Seder and the seven days following in place of leavened bread, and it holds the same significance as in rabbinic tradition.
New Testament: Jesus equates the matzah with his body at the Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22:19). He broke the bread (afikomen: see next section) and distributed it to his disciples saying, “This is my body, which is [broken] for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24). Today, matzah is often used as a communion element to remember Jesus’ sacrifice. The matzah is meant to remind us that Yeshua’s body was broken. Interestingly, the modern way of producing matzah causes it to be striped and pierced. Some Jewish believers see this as a kind of “visual midrash” that reminds us that the Messiah’s body was “striped” (Isaiah 53:5, KJV) and “pierced” (Zechariah 12:10; Revelation 1:7).
Further, just as leaven causes bread to rise, sin puffs us up. At Passover, we remove all leaven from our homes, not only in memory of the haste with which we departed Egypt, but also as a symbol of removing sin from our lives. The apostle Paul charges us to: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
a. The Afikomen
For more information, read this article.
The second (middle) piece of unleavened bread (the afikomen) is taken from the matzah tosh (special pouch with three compartments for each of the three pieces of matzah) during the Seder. The matzah is removed and broken, and then the broken piece is wrapped in the cloth and becomes the afikomen that is hidden from view.
The afikomen was not part of the original Passover described in the Old Testament.
While the traditional meaning of afikomen is “dessert,” there have been other Jewish opinions. According to the late Jewish scholar David Daube and others, afikomen is actually a Greek word meaning the “coming one,” and is a clear reference to the Messiah.2 He also observed that: “If there was no previously established symbolism relating to the unleavened bread, then what were his disciples to make of it when he ‘gave to them and said, “Take, eat, this is my body”’?”3
As believers in Jesus, we know that our Messiah’s sinless body was “broken” in death, wrapped in a cloth, hidden in burial, and then brought back by the power of God. We see amazing parallels of these events in the traditions of the afikomen that remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice. Therein lies a new significance—a new meaning—brought to the Seder.
For those of us who do believe, the tradition of the afikomen confirms the messianic symbolism of the bread that has become part of the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Hebrew Scriptures: The charoseth (a sweet mixture of chopped apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon) is not specifically mentioned in the Old Testament.
Rabbinic Tradition: The mixture represents the mortar used by the Israelite slaves to make bricks for Pharaoh. The charoseth is sweet and delicious, and so the rabbis explain that even the most difficult circumstances of our lives are sweetened by the promise of future redemption.
Contemporary Judaism: The charoseth is eaten at the contemporary Seder and is given the same significance as in rabbinic tradition.
New Testament: The charoseth is another possibility for Judas’ “sop,” but it is not explicitly mentioned in Yeshua’s Last Supper.
Hebrew Scriptures: The karpas (“greens”—usually parsley or celery) do not appear in the early celebrations of Passover.
Rabbinic Tradition: The greens represent life. But before we eat them, we dip them into salt water, representing the tears of life. The karpas are dipped in salt water to represent and remind us that the lives of the Israelite slaves were immersed in tears. By dipping, we are also reminded that a life without redemption is a life drowned in tears.
Contemporary Judaism: The karpas are eaten at the contemporary Seder and have the same significance as rabbinic tradition.
New Testament: The karpas may have been eaten at the Last Supper, though likely without its later significance. They are not specifically mentioned since greens were likely part of festive meals during that time period.
Hebrew Scriptures: The original Passover makes no mention of a cup. Yet throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the cup is often used as a symbol of both God’s judgment and salvation. These themes are woven together beautifully in the Passover story.
Rabbinic Tradition: The four cups represent the four phrases in Exodus 6:6–7: “I will bring you out”; “I will deliver you”; “I will redeem you”; “I will take you to be my people.”
Contemporary Judaism: The contemporary Seder practices the tradition of the four cups and is given the same significance in the haggadah as in rabbinic tradition. First is the Kiddish Cup (the Cup of Sanctification), followed by the Cup of Plagues, the Cup of Redemption, and lastly, the Cup of Hallel (the Cup of Praise).
New Testament: At the Last Supper, Jesus raised the cup before the supper (Luke 22:17–18), and the cup after the supper (the Cup of Redemption), when he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This is the covenant promised to us by God when He said He would establish a new covenant with His people (Jeremiah 32:38–40). Paul tells us that the communion cup represents the blood of Messiah (1 Corinthians 10:16). The Hallel Psalms sung during the Cup of Hallel were likely sung by the disciples after dinner. Read more about the Passover cups and their significance in the Last Supper.
Pesach commemorates an important historical moment in the lives of our Jewish ancestors that we partake in and remember every year through its symbols. Yet, Passover is not a stand-alone example of God’s redemptive power. God has continually and faithfully delivered His Jewish people—from exile in Babylon, from persecution under the Nazi regime, and countless other instances—evidenced by the very fact that you and your family are sitting at the Seder table! The Passover symbols remind us of God’s continued presence with us and the hope we have in Messiah.
2. Traditionally, the word is explained as “dessert” or “that which comes later.” The late Jewish scholar David Daube, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and others have more recently defended the explanation that it is derived from the Greek afikomenos, “the coming one.” See David Daube, Collected Works of David Daube, vol. 2, New Testament Judaism, ed. Calum Carmichael (Berkeley: The Robbins Collection, 1992), 425; Deborah Bleicher Carmichael, “David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (1991), 45–67.
3. See Daube, note 2, 425: “Mark 14:22. In the Aramaic it may well have been ‘this is me.’ For the order to commemorate, see Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24.”