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    The last supper – a Passover Seder?

    April 16th, 2014

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 13 April, 2014.

    sederWas Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover Seder? From the New Testament gospel accounts we cannot be certain. The main sources are Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-31, Luke 22:1-19 and John 13:1-30. All are aware of what time of the year it is. All speak about preparing for Pesach, but none conclusively identifies the occasion. The “Synoptic” gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – suggest a Seder connection, even though some Seder items are missing or incorrectly identified. The fourth gospel, John, is less likely to be describing a Seder and says that the occasion was 24 hours earlier – Thursday as against Friday.

    Seder elements lacking in the Synoptic gospels are the preparation of the paschal sacrifice; explicit reference to matzah, maror and charoset; the Mah Nishtanah questions; and the father’s narration of the story. Wine is mentioned, but not four cups. How can it be a Seder when so much is missing, and the event lacks even a rudimentary Haggadah?

    There is confusion about the timing of the Supper: Luke thinks it was “the day of unleavened bread”; Mark and Matthew speak of “the first day of unleavened bread”. In fact in Temple times the paschal sacrifice took place a day earlier. All three use the phrase, “prepare for our (or ‘your’) Passover supper”.

    The truth may be that though the Last Supper took place shortly before Pesach, it was not a Seder at all but a talk-feast, a meeting of the fellowship – the chavurah – which Jesus constituted with his disciples. The participants would have said the regular blessings over bread and wine, as well as the grace after meals, like devout Jews at any meal: important elements, to be sure, but on their own they do not add up to a Seder.

    How about the divergence between John, who places the meal on Thursday evening, presumably a day before the festival, and the others, who make it the actual eve of Pesach, Friday night? How can the sources be so unsure? Wouldn’t the participants have remembered which night it was?

    It cannot just be that the gospels were not meant as a historical record, or that memories might have been faulty. Even though the narrative was written after the event when some Christians no longer kept Jewish law, others would have objected if the basic data were wrong (though there may have been several types of calendar at that period).

    The decisive point is that the Supper story was not history but theology. Seder time was simply a general backdrop. The crucial message was the claim that Jesus was redeemer and saviour. John emphasised the previous day in order to present Jesus as the willing sacrifice.

    When the Temple was destroyed and animal sacrifices were suspended, Jews underwent a profound inner crisis. Unable to mark Pesach by a Temple offering, they took the radical step of replacing the paschal lamb as the top ranking item by upgrading the matzah. Christianity saw a continued possibility of a korban Pesach with Jesus as the “lamb of God” whose sacrifice was a redemptive offering. Christianity thought it more important to link Jesus and Passover than to document the details of a Jewish festival ritual, and it told the story of the Last Supper from a theological rather than a historical stance.

    For Christianity the Last Supper may or may not have been a Seder. The question is not important for Christians. For Jews, interested in the history of one of their major festivals, the problem remains. Was the Last Supper, at least in the hands of the Synoptic gospels, a Seder?

    In 1984 the University of California Press published a major work, “The Origins of the Seder: The Passover Rite and Early Rabbinic Judaism”, by Baruch Bokser, which reports that the scholars do not agree on the answer. It continues with the statement, “The current state of scholarship tends to argue against the identification of the Last Supper as a Seder.” The best we can do is to say that both events, Pesach and the Last Supper, share certain Passover-type concepts but interpret them differently.

    However, the real question is not whether the evening meal was a Seder but whether the Passover that Jews continued to celebrate was what it ought to have been. Quoting the view of Justin Martyr in the strange “Dialogue with Trypho”, Bokser says, “Justin’s polemical implication is that Jews can no longer partake of the Passover offering though Christians can, through the body of Christ.” Jews profoundly disagree.

    Visit the “interfaith” section of the OzTorah website for more of Rabbi Apple’s insights on Jewish-Christian issues.

    Heralding the spring

    April 13th, 2014

    SpringIn Israel and the northern hemisphere, Pesach is the festival of spring. It falls in the month of Nisan which the Torah calls Chodesh HaAviv, the Spring Month.

    The slumbers of Nature are over: “Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the sound of the turtle-dove is heard…” (Shir HaShirim 2:11-12). The spring-like atmosphere calls for a reading which envisions the same spirit of renewal, hence the choice of Shir HaShirim.

    But this is not all. Pesach is the end of the darkness of the Egyptian bondage, the emergence of the people of Israel into the springtime of national renewal and hope.

    This is the mood of Pesach – not just the Pesach of the past, Pesach Mitzrayim, but the Pesach of the future, Pesach L’Atid, when the people of Israel and the entire world will emerge into the messianic redemption in which all the Universe will see the flowers appear and the birds sing.

    Song of Songs on Friday night

    April 13th, 2014

    Shir hashirim textAmong the Sephardim and some Ashkenazim, Shir HaShirim is chanted through on Erev Shabbat. The reason is linked with the Shabbat hymn, L’cha Dodi. The hymn calls upon the Beloved to join in welcoming the Shabbat Bride.

    The link is not merely that both focus on the word dodi, “My Beloved”. It goes deeper.

    If taken allegorically, the sometimes daring imagery of Shir HaShirim depicts the yearning of the spirit for the ecstasy of spiritual union – with Shabbat, with the Torah, with the Land of Israel, with God Himself.

    In the M’chilta, Rabbi Akiva says, “I speak of the beauty and praise of God before all the nations”. They ask Israel, ‘What is your Beloved more than any other beloved one?’” An answer is given in Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba, “Rabbi Yehudah bar Illai said, ’He sings of me, and I sing of Him’…The congregation of Israel say to God, “Lord of the Universe, all the ills that You bring upon me are only in order to make me love You more.”

    On Friday night, being the climax of the week, all the loves in a Jew’s heart come together.

    The Book of Solomon

    April 13th, 2014

    shir hashirim

    The first verse of Shir HaShirim calls the Book LiSh’lomo, “Solomon’s”. Without going into the historical question of the authorship of the Book, the Midrash reads Shlomo as a reference to God, Mi shehashalom shelo – “The One to whom peace belongs”.

    Shalom – here and elsewhere in Hebrew usage – is more than the absence of conflict. It is from a root that means completeness or perfection. God is the One who is complete and perfect, and He creates and engages the people of Israel to bring about perfection upon earth.

    The connection with Shir HaShirim? If human beings earnestly, zealously, lovingly, work on bringing about a climate in which there are no jagged edges or deficiencies, the world will (in the words of the prayers) be “established as the Kingdom of the Almighty”.

    I’ve got my rights

    April 13th, 2014

    freedomThe Festival of Freedom has its downside. It’s a great thing to cherish the hope of freedom, an even greater thing to find the dream come true. But freedom can be taken too far. To claim that I ought to be free to be or do whatever I want is an unwarranted extension of the concept.

    “I want to be free to worship God!” is what Moses told Pharaoh. What he didn’t say was what we constantly hear around us, “I want to be free to take drugs, I want to be free to hate whoever I choose, I want to be free to hurt you, rob you, run you over, force you into my opinions”.

    If all that I say is that I want these things, I am making a revealing statement about my personal psychology, my emotions, my appetites and priorities. But when l say I have a right to be or to do something, that’s a worse problem.

    There are three issues:
    • What is the content of the “right”?
    • What is the source of the “right”?
    • Who, if anyone, recognises and/or protects the “right”?

    The three are intertwined. If I decide on my own that I have a “right”, why should anyone else approve? If a particular group or class of which I am a member decides that a certain “right” exists, why should any other group or class, or society as a whole, recognise or protect it?

    So we come back to the issue of the source of a supposed “right”. How did I get the “right”? Did God give it to me? Did society? Did any outside power or authority? If I have to say in the final analysis that I or my group or class invented the right, what “right” do I or we have to create “rights”?

    • If neither God, nor society, nor the State, is prepared to protect your “rights”, do your “rights” have any legal or moral foundation?
    • If you tell me that you are competent to invent rights, and that you can claim a right to do X, then I can claim an exactly opposite right to do Y, and we will end up killing each other in the name of rights.

    There is a further problem: the partnership of rights and duties. Lord Jakobovits marked the beginning of his chief rabbinate of Britain by an address to the Institute of Directors in which he emphasised that the Bible does not speak of rights but of duties. Not, “I have a right!” but “I have a duty!”

    On this basis the whole discussion may be using the wrong word. Note what the Ten Commandments do: they do not establish Ten Rights, though rights are able to be inferred (when they say, “Do not kill”, they imply that every human has a right to live): what they establish above all is duties.

    Paraphrasing an American President, the question we have to ask on Pesach and at all times is not, “What can my community/society/country do for me?” but “What can I do for them?”

    There are of course broader theological implications: as religious people our question should be, not so much “What can God do for me?” but “What can I do for God?”