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The number four plays a significant role in Judaism. There are the four species of plants for Sukkot; four kingdoms in the book of Daniel; four Torah portions in the tefillin; four Matriarchs in the book of Genesis. At Passover, we find this number in abundance. In the course of the seder we have four sons, four cups of wine, four expressions of redemption (Exodus 6:6-7) and perhaps the most famous “four” of all—the Ma Nishtana, known in English as the Four Questions.

As the seder developed over the centuries, the Four Questions underwent many changes.1 For example, one question originally dealt with the reason for eating roasted meat at the seder. After the destruction of the Temple, that question was replaced with one about reclining.2 Today, the Four Questions, phrased as observations, are asked by the youngest child in the family:

WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS?

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS, WE MAY EAT EITHER CHOMETZ OR MATZOH; ON THIS NIGHT, ONLY MATZOH.

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS, WE EAT ALL KINDS OF VEGETABLES; ON THIS NIGHT, WE MUST EAT MAROR.

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS, WE DO NOT DIP EVEN ONCE; ON THIS NIGHT WE DIP TWICE.

ON ALL OTHER NIGHTS, WE MAY EAT EITHER SITTING OR RECLINING; ON THIS NIGHT, WE ALL RECLINE.

In response, the father then explains the Passover story. There are other questions that the rabbis could have chosen as well. In the spirit of rabbinical adaptation, here are some additional questions that both children and adults might ponder.

WHY DO WE PLACE THREE MATZOT TOGETHER IN ONE NAPKIN?

Traditions concerning these three matzot abound. One is that they represent the three classes of people in ancient Israel: Priests, Levites, and Israelites.3 Another teaches that they symbolize the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A third is that they are a depiction of the “Three Crowns”: the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. And a fourth option is that two of the matzot stand for the two Sabbath loaves which are also a symbol for the double portion of manna that fell on the Sabbath in the wilderness. The third matzoh then represents the special Passover bread called the “bread of affliction.”4 If those are not enough to keep one’s imagination occupied, there are still others. Some suggest that the three matzot stand for the three “measures of the fine meal” which Sarah prepared for Abraham’s angelic guests (Genesis 18). The reason for this interpretation lies in the rabbinic tradition that the three angels visited Abraham on the night of Passover!5 Out of all these explanations, which comes closest to the original reason for having three matzot, or is there yet another?

WHY IS THE MIDDLE MATZOH, THE AFIKOMAN, BROKEN IN THE COURSE OF THE SEDER?

What, if anything, is symbolized when we break the middle matzoh? Are we breaking the Levites, or Isaac, or the crown of learning, or one of the angelic guests’ cakes, or the bread of affliction? If any of these explanations is correct, why is the matzoh hidden away, buried under a cushion, and then taken out and eaten by all, and in the Sephardic ritual, eaten “in memory of the Passover lamb?”

WHERE IS OUR PESACH, OUR PASSOVER SACRIFICE, TODAY?

The Torah commanded that a lamb was to be sacrificed and eaten every Passover as a memorial of the Passover lambs that were killed on the first Passover night when we left Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:1-8). That command could only be obeyed while the Temple still stood. Since its destruction in 70 A.D., the Jewish people no longer have sacrifices—though some have advocated that the sacrifice still be made in Jerusalem even without a Temple.6 The Passover sacrifice, like other sacrifices, involved the forgiveness of sin. Some believe that the pesach had nothing to do with forgiveness. But both the rabbinic and biblical understanding is otherwise. In the Midrash Exodus Rabbah 15:12 we read, “I will have pity on you, through the blood of the Passover and the blood of circumcision, and I will forgive you.” Similarly, Numbers Rabbah 13:20 cites Numbers 7:46, which deals with the sin offering, then adds, “This was in allusion to the Paschal sacrifice.” Clearly at least some rabbis after 70 A.D. regarded the pesach as effecting atonement. Leviticus 17:11 confirms that “it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”7 Today, however, we have only a shankbone, the zeroah, as a reminder of the Passover sacrifice, and a roasted egg, the chagigah, in memory of the festival offerings. Rabbinic teaching is that without the Temple, we cannot offer sacrifices for sin; and so atonement comes by repentance, prayer, deeds of charity (tzedakah), and fasting. But nowhere did God say that we could dispense with sacrifices which acted as substitutes or stand-ins for us, taking the consequences of our sin upon themselves. Where then is our pesach today? These three questions are not as traditional as the four, but they are certainly worth pondering. Possible answers suggest themselves as we examine the remarkable development of the seder in history.

THE SEDER CELEBRATED BY JESUS AND HIS DISCIPLES

The “Last Supper” might better be titled the “Last Seder.” As the gospels describe it, it was a Passover meal and seems to have included many of the same seder elements as we find in the Mishnah, the compilation of various rabbinic traditions put in writing about 200 A.D.

In the New Testament accounts, we find references to the various elements of the seder:8 the First Cup, or Cup of Sanctification (Luke 22:17); the breaking of the matzoh (Luke 22:19); the Third Cup, the Cup of Redemption (Luke 22:20); reclining (Luke 22:14); perhaps the charoset or the maror (Matthew 26:23); the chanting of the Hallel Psalms (Matthew 26:30).

In particular, the matzoh and the Third Cup were given special significance by Jesus:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20)

What did he mean by this?

THE PASSOVER LAMB

The early Jewish believers considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of this annual Passover sacrifice. Paul, the Jewish “apostle to the Gentiles” who had studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, wrote, “Messiah, our pesach, has been sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Elsewhere in the New Testament we find allusion to the parallel between Jesus and the pesach sacrifice. John in his gospel notes that Jesus died at the same time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple (see John 19:14)9 and that like the Passover lambs, none of his bones were broken (while in contrast the Romans broke the legs of the two others crucified at the same time [John 19:32, 33, 36]). The Passover lambs had to be perfect, without blemish; Y’shua was perfect, without sin (see 1 Peter 1:19). The Passover lambs saved us from the plague of physical death; Y’shua saves us from spiritual death.

The basic point is this: just as our people were redeemed from Egyptian slavery by a lamb, so now all peoples can be freed from slavery to sin through the Messiah—who is called in the New Testament, “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). This is what Jesus was speaking about at Passover when he called the matzoh his body, and the cup, his sacrificial blood.

THE MEANING OF THE MATZOH

The ceremony connected with the afikoman is shrouded in mystery. We do not know when the practice began of using three matzot, breaking the middle one, and hiding it away. But the meaning of the afikoman itself, as opposed to the whole ceremony, is clearer. In fact, it appears that early on, matzoh—in general, and not just the piece called afikoman—came to be a symbol of salvation, especially following the destruction of the Temple, when it came to symbolize the Passover lamb. In fact, it may have symbolized the lamb and salvation even in the days of Jesus when the Temple still stood. 10 This gives further clarity to what Jesus meant when he took the matzoh and declared, “This is my body.” He was claiming to be the Lamb—the symbol of deliverance from Egypt—through whom salvation would come to Israel.

Eventually the specific piece of matzoh called afikoman also came to replace and thus to symbolize the lamb.11 The word afikoman is usually traced to the Greek epikomion (“dessert”) or epikomioi (“revelry”). David Daube, however, late professor of civil law at Oxford University, derived it from aphikomenos, “The Coming One,” “He That Cometh”—making the afikoman an expression of hope in the coming salvation to be brought by God and his Messiah.12 Daube’s idea, which revived an earlier notion by Robert Eisler, has been received favorably by a number of recent Jewish writers.13 The afikoman ceremony had certainly developed by medieval times.14 Jewish believers in Jesus have long noticed the striking parallels between it and Jesus the Messiah.

The afikoman ceremony had certainly developed by medieval times.14 Jewish believers in Jesus have long noticed the striking parallels between it and Jesus the Messiah. The afikoman, the middle or second piece of matzoh, is broken, wrapped in a linen cloth, and hidden away behind a pillow. In Christian theology, Jesus is the “second person of the Trinity”15 who became man; he too died, was wrapped in linen burial cloths, and buried. The afikoman is then retrieved, or brought out of hiding, parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. For all we know, the Ashkenazic practice of having children steal the afikoman may have something to do with a rabbinical refutation of the resurrection, implying that Jesus’ body was stolen. In fact, the afikoman ceremony may be a rabbinic refutation of the message of salvation in Jesus. On the other hand, it may have been a transformation of a ceremony that originated with Jewish believers in Jesus. Or it may have developed as a separate way to express the hope of Messianic redemption.16 One Jewish writer gives evidence that in the medieval Jewish community, the afikoman was symbolic of the Messiah whose arrival was “hidden.”17 This same writer remarks, “From a phenomenological perspective, it is hard to miss the similarity between the different stages in the afikoman ritual and the crucifixion of Jesus: his being outfitted with shrouds, then being hidden away in a cave until his resurrection.”18

While the historical details of the afikoman ceremony remain to be uncovered, those who believe Jesus is “The Coming One,” the Lamb of God, find that the ceremony illustrates him in a remarkable way, as it may well have done for Jewish believers down through history. Followers of Jesus recognize that there is still a pesach sacrifice, none other than the Messiah himself who redeems us from sin as we were once redeemed from Egypt.

ENDNOTES

  1. David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Salem, NH: Ayer, 1992 [reprint; orig. 1956]), p. 187.
  2. Mordell Klein, ed., Passover (New York; Paris: Leon Amiel, 1973), p. 69.
  3. Nahum N. Glatzer, The Passover Haggadah, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 9.
  4. Klein, p. 52.
  5. Jeffrey M. Cohen, 1,001 Questions and Answers on Pesach (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), p. 75.
  6. Klein, p. 28.
  7. For the reference in this paragraph, see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 1965), pp. 131-132.
  8. The full-fledged seder as we know it today did not develop until after the loss of the Temple in 70 A.D.; however many basic elements were present earlier.
  9. Some might wonder how the Last Supper could be a Passover seder (as reported in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke), if Jesus was not crucified until the time the Passover lambs were being killed in preparation for the upcoming seder (as reported in the Gospel of John). Some scholars propose that two different calendars were in use at the time among different Jewish groups, with John using one calendar and the other three Gospels, another calendar.
  10. See Lawrence A. Hoffman, “A Symbol of Salvation in the Passover Seder,” pages 109-131 in Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), and on this point, see p. 115.
  11. Ibid., see pp. 118 and 123.
  12. Daube, “He That Cometh” (London: London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding, 1966).
  13. E.g., Deborah Bleicher Carmichael, “David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (1991): 45-67; Israel J. Yuval, “Easter and Passover as Early Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” pp. 115-16 in Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, ed. by Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999); Yuval, “Passover in the Middle Ages,” Origin and History, p. 149. Disagreeing with Daube are Lawrence A. Hoffman, “Symbol of Salvation,” p. 126 n.22; and Joseph Tabory, “Towards a History of the Paschal Meal,” Origin and History, p. 79 n. 50. Yuval believes Daube’s thesis has not been given sufficient consideration.
  14. Yuval, “Passover in the Middle Ages,” pp. 145 ff.
  15. On the Jewishness of the Trinity or Tri-Unity of God, see the articles listed at http://jewsforjesus.org/topics/answers/trinity.
  16. For the idea that the traditional Jewish Haggadah developed in dialogue and in opposition to Christian understanding, see Yuval, “Easter and Passover As Early Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” pages 98-124 in Origin and History. Yuval, however, does not specifically mention the three matzot nor the breaking and hiding of the afikoman.
  17. Yuval, “Passover in the Middle Ages,” pp. 146-47.
  18. Ibid., p. 147. “Phenomenological” refers to an approach that describes religious phenomena without judging as to their truth.