Most Christians (current and cultural) are all too familiar with the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus hosts his 12 disciples for one last meal before he’s crucified. What’s rarely made clear, though, is that Jesus’ final meal was quite likely a Passover meal. After all, the Jewish holiday of Passover was the reason Jesus had made his entrance into Jerusalem in the first place that year. Even if it wasn’t technically a Seder (pronounced SAY-der and referring to that day’s big feast), I have a hard time believing Jesus wasn’t inspired by the all-too symbolic Passover Seder when he asked his guests to eat bread as though it were his body, and drink wine as though it were his blood. That sort of thing is, as you’ll soon see, so very “Seder-y.”
AKA: “Feast of the Unleavened Bread”
Religion Represented: Judaism
Celebrates: The exodus of the ancient Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.
Date: The 15th to 21st day in the Hebrew month of Nisan. In 2015, the date is April 3 to April 11.
Star of the Show: Moses
Back Story: The Torah’s Book of Exodus recounts the story of the ancient Jews (Israelites) who were living as slaves in Egypt. As the story goes, a cruel Egyptian pharaoh ordered all the Israelite’s eldest sons to be murdered, which infuriated God — who proclaimed that Israel was God’s firstborn son (making the Israelites his “chosen” children). God approached Moses at the legendary burning bush to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses accepted. “Let my people go,” Moses told the pharaoh over and over again. But the pharaoh refused, even after God infected all of Egypt with nine of 10 horrific plagues. The last and worst plague was that God would kill the firstborn sons of all Egyptians. (Nice guy, that Old Testament God.) He warned the Israelites ahead of time to put lamb’s blood in front of their doors, so the angel of death would know to “pass over” those houses and thus spare their sons. It was then that the pharaoh consented to let the Jews leave, and leave they did — so fast, Exodus tells us, that their bread didn’t even have time to rise. (Fortuitous, really, since crackers make much better travelers than bread, anyway.) When the pharoah changed his mind and ordered his army to recapture the Israelities, Moses (again, legendarily) parted the Red Sea with his magical staff, which led his people to freedom and drowned all pursuers in their wake.
The Food: It wouldn’t be Passover without unleavened bread, called matzah. But there are other symbolic foods, too: Bitter herbs (to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon (to symbolize the mortar Jewish slaves used to build Egyptian cities); a roasted egg (perpetual existence); vegetable (new life and hope); salt water (tears shed during slavery); and roasted lamb (the blood over the doorways). Oh, and observers must — must! — consume four glass of wine over the course of the dinner, which represent the four-fold promise of redemption.
The Fun: Specific Seder rituals are all laid out in the Haggadah. (And, yes, in case you were wondering, there is an app for that.) Observers eat and drink in a certain order; recite the Passover story; invite children to ask “four questions” about Passover; sing songs; and hide the afikoman, which is a piece of matzah in a napkin that the kids must find and then share with everyone. Observers also pour an extra glass of wine and leave the door open in case Elijah the prophet arrives. (Spoiler alert: He never does.)
Conveying Meaning to Kids: Because Passover was, in a sense, created to introduce Judaism to children, there are tons of cute Passover children’s books, some that focus on the back story, others that focus on the traditions of the Seder. Both kinds are absolutely worth checking out, although some are more “neutral” than others. I like Passover by Miriam Nerlove (and not just because it has a character called Aunt Maxine); Let my People Go by Tilda Balsley; and Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then by Harriet Ziefert. You can always hold a quasi-Seder, of course, telling your child the Exodus story and then serving the symbolic food and talking about what each means.
Editor’s note: Wendy Thomas Russell’s book, “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious,” came out this week.