There is no more meaningful celebration in Jewish life than that of Passover. It is deeply rooted in Jewish history and is an essential part of Jewish identity.
But Passover is also as wide as it is deep, because Jewish communities around the world have added their own particular flavors by elaborating upon already existing traditions or even contributing their own. A brief tour of some of them can add to our appreciation of how the creativity of the Jewish people has adorned the ancient story and the time-honored traditions of the Exodus.
The essentials of the Passover are the same today as those we find recorded in Exodus. Yet, as Jewish history has unfolded, Passover traditions developed, and by the time of Jesus, such innovations were evident. The Passover was no longer celebrated in exactly the same way, “…with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11).
The Gospels tell us that the disciples reclined at the Passover Seder. It was certainly not eaten in haste, as the upper room discourse in John confirms. Some believe that the custom of reclining is of Persian origin and came to symbolize the freedom of the Exodus. The Mishnah (part of the Oral Law) specifies that even the poorest Jew must recline at Passover (Pesachim 10:1). Likewise, the four cups of wine, around which the celebration is structured, also are stipulated in the Mishnah and are nowhere mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures but are loosely implied from the four expressions of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 (Talmud Yerushalmi).
However, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs still play the same prominent roles they had in the beginning. The Hallel (Psalms of Praise) is still recited. Also, another important exception is that the lamb is no longer sacrificed because of the destruction of the Temple.
As the Haggadah, the liturgical book used during the Passover Seder, developed over the centuries, additional readings and songs were added to the earlier portions of Scripture and Psalms. The song “Dayenu” (“It Would Have Been Enough for Us”) is a relatively recent addition as is the spirited “Chad Gadya” (“An Only Goat”). These songs are a vivid demonstration of Judaism as a living tradition that is constantly finding fresh application in whatever time and place the Jewish people may be found.
Customs of Passover around the World
Some of the customs that are particular to a specific Jewish community relate to the elements of the Seder Plate, which are the bitter herbs, the egg, the parsley, the shank bone and the charoset (a tasty confection that is meant to symbolize the mortar from which the Jewish people made bricks as they toiled in their slavery to Pharaoh). The four cups and the unleavened bread complete the ritual foods of the Seder.
Different Passover customs often originate in the distinction between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewish cultures. The Ashkenazic Jewish people trace their roots to Germany and Eastern Europe; the Sephardic to Spain and the various countries in and around the Ottoman Empire to which they fled as a result of the Spanish Inquisition.
For example, the Ashkenazic Jews make their charoset with apples and walnuts. However, the Sephardic Jewish people sometimes substitute apples with a thick liquid made from boiled dates. The centuries-old Jewish community in Venice makes charoset as a concoction of chestnut paste and apricots. The Jewish community of Persian descent is both creative and colorful, and is known to use oranges, pomegranates and even bananas for their charoset with pistachios instead of walnuts.
Likewise, maror, the bitter herbs, comes in different forms depending on the geographical location. Horseradish is the staple of the Ashkenazic Jews, but in Sephardic lands the preferred choice is some form of lettuce.
The breaking of the middle of the three pieces of matza (unleavened bread) is a universal Passover tradition that is especially meaningful to Messianic Jews, because it symbolizes the affliction of Messiah (Isaiah 53). Some Sephardic Seders feature the leader trying the difficult feat of breaking this middle matza into the shape of Hebrew letters.
Another tradition not found among the Germans and Eastern Europeans is one that is practiced among Afghani Jews, who fashion whips from scallions or leeks. During the singing of “Dayenu,” Seder celebrants use them to beat each other (gently!) in memory of their ancestors who suffered under the whips of their Egyptian taskmasters.
Making Passover Your Family Tradition
As you can see, Passover is a time when the creative energy of the Jewish people around the world can find full expression as the story of Moses the Deliverer is told and retold. The themes of freedom from bondage and the consecration to God’s will are as relevant today as they ever were.
Passover is a wonderful family celebration from which Jewish and Christian homes alike derive great blessing. Passover is also a wonderful outreach opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish seekers. It is the old story of redemption and liberation made complete through faith in Messiah, the Lamb of God, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead.