The most well-known ritual that Jewish people do during Passover is to gather together for a ceremonial festive meal called a seder. So, what is a Passover seder meal? Seder is the Hebrew word meaning “order,” as in “order of events.” A Passover seder is the ritual meal that people celebrate on the first and in some cases, also the second, nights of Passover. (Why do some celebrate the seder just on the first night and some on the first two nights? We’ll get to that later, we promise!)
The main thing to understand about a seder is that it combines a delicious meal, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and a lot of symbolic foods and rituals tied to the Exodus story. Whether you’re hosting a seder meal at your home or you are a guest at someone else’s, a typical seder is set up like a dinner party with a script. There’s a book, called a Haggadah in Hebrew, which contains the ritual order of the seder meal – traditionally comprised of 15 steps, or ritual units. Usually, every guest gets a copy, though sometimes people have to share if there aren’t enough copies for all the guests. The Haggadah functions as the “script” for the Passover meal, and often everyone attending is invited to take turns doing the readings contained throughout the book.
The seder and the Haggadah were developed by a group of ancient rabbis who lived in the Land of Israel under Greco-Roman cultural influence. They did some cultural borrowing in crafting the Haggadah, using the Greco-Roman concept of a symposium as a blueprint and filling in that structure with Jewish content. A symposium was a seder meal with guests during which an important subject would be discussed and explored, and a specific number of cups of wine would be served. The hosts would issue invitations for the Passover dinner, which would state the topic for the evening’s discussion and the number of cups of wine that would be served. (The more potent the wine that a particular host served, the more he or she would be admired in community gossip). At the beginning of the evening, guests would get comfortable prior to the seder meal – reclining on pillows and cushions and preparing to eat and drink, talk and argue deep into the night.
What the ancient rabbis did in crafting the seder was to create a very Jewish version of the symposium. The topic for the evening’s discussion: the Exodus from Egypt and the meaning of liberation for our times. The number of cups of wine to be served: four. The seder meal: sumptuous, with symbolic foods representing different parts of the Exodus story. The rabbis who originated the Passover dinner envisioned the food, drink, and discussion continuing on as late as people would like – even until dawn. Passover is the ultimate dinner-party-Jewish-holiday.
Did Jesus of Nazareth participate in seder dinners, with matzah and a Haggadah, similar to the one Jews use today?
The short answer is “well, sort of but not exactly.”
As a 1st Century Jew living in Judea, Jesus assuredly celebrated Passover, and some New Testament scholars think that the Last Supper was probably a Passover ritual meal. However, during the time that Jesus lived, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, and Jews primarily celebrated the holiday in a different manner than the seder as we know it.
The Passover ritual, in the Holy Land during Temple times, was above all a pilgrimage festival. Jews would bring offerings from wherever they lived to the Temple in Jerusalem, and they would celebrate over a seder dinner including lamb (important to the Exodus story) and matzah (unleavened bread – we’ll explore the meaning of this ritual Passover food later). It’s very unlikely that Jews during Jesus’ lifetime had the Haggadah and ritual seder meal that we are familiar with today, because many of the rabbis who crafted it lived after Jesus’ lifetime, and after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
The rabbis who developed the Haggadah were trying to find a meaningful way for Jews to celebrate the Passover dinner in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of most of the Jews by the Romans, several decades after the life and times of Jesus. Jews could no longer go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and bring lambs and other offerings to the Temple, so the ancient rabbis reconstructed the ceremonial aspects of the holiday so that they could function for Jews living in exile.
Many Christians have a deep interest in Passover, and some churches hold seders of their own. Because Passover, the Exodus story, and the themes of liberation and redemption were very important to Jesus, and because many Christian readings of the Gospels interpret the texts to mean that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover holiday, it’s not surprising that some Christians find it meaningful to incorporate some form of the seder into their own religious life. Easter and Passover always take place during the same season, and sometimes they even overlap. As with the December holiday season, there are many opportunities for Jewish and Christian families and congregations to share traditions, stories and fun activities when Passover and Easter arrive in the spring.
One note on the subject of churches that hold their own seders: Interfaith families may want to be aware that some Jews feel conflicted or negative toward church seders, whereas other Jews feel good about them and are willing to be guests at them or even help lead them. If you or your family get invited to a church seder dinner, our advice is to check in with one another about your feelings, feel free to ask the organizers of the event anything you want to know in advance and decide what you want to do based on your own comfort level.
There are also some interfaith seders or secular seders tying the Exodus story to the struggles other communities have had for their own liberation and dignity. More on that later.