A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Against Christian Seder Meals during Holy Week

It’s becoming relatively common for Christian churches to observe a seder meal on Maundy Thursday, followed by Holy Communion. Since the gospels describe Jesus’ last meal as held during Passover, these churches attempt to honor the occasion by teaching about Passover.  Some believe they are honoring Jesus’ Jewish roots and seek out Jewish texts and rabbis for help in making the meal feel “authentic.”

But Passover meals don’t belong in the Christian Holy Week.

One reason is historical.  The Passover seder had not reached its current form at the time of Jesus.  It was substantially shaped in later centuries under the direction of rabbinic thought.  Jesus may have eaten a meal at Passover, but it didn’t look or sound just like today’s seder.  Using modern haggadahs (the texts for Passover) as a window into an ancient practice isn’t “authentic.”

Another, more important, dimension of this issue is interfaith sensitivity.  Many Jews find Christian use of the seder during Holy Week offensive–yet one more case of taking a distinctively Jewish observance and superimposing a Christian meaning on it.  If Christians are truly interested in Jewish practices, they should separate the seder from their own liturgical practices. Pay attention to Passover sometime other than Holy Week.  Ask what it means to Jews.  Learn when and why the haggadah was formulated.

This sensitivity is especially important during Holy Week, historically the time of greatest anti-Jewish violence by Christians. For hundreds of years, Christians in their fervent reenactment of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion have made the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the gospel of John their own–to disastrous results.

Assuming that modern Judaism is exactly like the Judaism of the first century doesn’t honor Judaism as the living, rich tradition that it is.  Nor does it help Christians think clearly about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Many Christians give uncritical support of all policies of the modern state of Israel simply because “Jesus was a Jew.”  Such thinking denies the role that politics has played in creating modern Israel and in determining its policies toward Palestinians.  Indeed, many Palestinian Christians believe that Christian Zionism remains the greatest obstacle to just peace in the Middle East.

So, Christians, let’s celebrate and honor our own story and traditions rather than taking others’ as our own.


8 Responses to Against Christian Seder Meals during Holy Week

  • This is a great article, Julia. It makes a lot of sense. I have recently been reflecting on this myself, so I am grateful you wrote this article.

    As much as many of us Christians want to show sensitivity and seek ways in which we can honor other traditions through our own festivals, we have had a history of supersessionism with the Jewish faith. It would be wholly insensitive and wrong for us to “take” a Jewish tradition, such as the Seder, and ultimately try and make it our own.

    Thank you for pointing out the Seder as we know it now was not celebrated back in Jesus’ time. These are very important facts that we should be aware of.

  • Thanks Julia for the interesting information. Every year for about ten years now my family and I have participated in the seder meal with my boss and his family. Every year I learn a little more about the haggadah. My husband and I have been very respectful, asking questions. This year I stumbled over words, paused, shed a few tears, and did some sighing when it was my turn to read. “Next year in Jerusalem….” Can’t say it–can’t mean it. I think at least two people recognized my thoughts and emotions. I wanted to say, “All of these words about not oppressing others as the Jews had been, respecting others–so when I read, “Next year in Jerusalem,” my vocal expression told my story and I could not look up. They knew–and they respected my feelings. I am always honored to be included in this celebration, to be part of this family–but it’s their celebration. Other years I incorporated myself into the dynamics of the seder with the thoughts of, “this is history.” This year, I could still appreciate the history; however, the culminating aspect of the seder meal accompanied by its reading, was very hypocritical with respect to what I saw and heard on our trip to Israel. I’m interested to see if anyone confronts me tomorrow (which is the first time I will see them since the seder) with respect to my reactions. Thanks again Julia.

  • I hear what you’re saying. What about Messianic Jews?

  • As someone who has presented Seders to churches about two dozen times, I am curious what are the differences you have found in the modern vs. 1st century Hagaddahs? I know the roasted egg was added after 70AD and the destruction of the Temple, and the roasted shankbone is in lieu of the whole lamb (again due to the current day lack of a Temple), and the Hillel sandwich was obviously added after Hillel, so maybe after his death in the early 1st century? But other than those (which I already address when I do the Seders), is there anything you have found different about the matzoh or maror or afikomen or parsley or cups of wine or reclining or hand-washing or charoseth or Elijah-place-setting or Four Questions?

  • We celebrate a Seder in our congregation each year. Its purpose is to promote Jewish-Christian Dialogue, motivate people to explore the historical Jesus Jewishness and his Pharisee religious background (he may have been a Pharisee), and educate our community on biblical principles of social justice from a biblical perspective. The Exodus celebration is full of principles of social justice. At the same time we remember Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teachings, “a prophet like Moses.” Yes, the modern Seder may not be 100% the same celebrated in Jesus’ days, but the Haggadot that follow close the Rabbinical Orthodox interpretation seem to be closer or at least give us an idea of how it may have been celebrated. Of course, some Orthodox Jews would argue that it is 100% the same. We should respect this tradition too, regardless that a critical study of the Haggadot shows other possibilities. We celebrate this Seder during the second day of Pesach. We often encourage people to visit an Orthodox or Reform Seder at a local synagogue if available and open to the public. In our celebration we do not pretend it to be perfect and less to think it was the exact way Jesus celebrated Passover, but we have seen how many people have changed their antisemitic attitudes and views while at the same time learning to seek justice for anyone, including Israeli citizens (Jews, Arabs, Druzes, Muslim, Domari, Samaritans, et al) and Palestinians (Samaritans, Muslim, Jewish, et al). Of course the subject is more complex. I will welcome your thoughts as we seek to do justice, love mercy and be humble before the Eternal One, who is blessed forever amen.

  • My primary point was one that your group seems to honor: that Christian seders need to be about more than providing the “background” to Jesus.

  • Thank you for this! In addition to your above, excellent and succinct remarks, I think it is gimmicky, lazy, and manipulative for Christian pastors to lead such rituals.

  • Since this is my photo, I thought I’d weigh in on this discussion.

    I am Catholic. I know very little about the Jewish faith. This Seder was intended as an opportunity to teach people of the Jewish faith. It was never intended to have a Christian faith take over a Jewish tradition. This was a part of a Jaycees project to teach people about other people’s religions and to respect them. I’ve not been happy that my photo has been used as an Anti-Christian/Jewish community view. I realize I allow that by having the Creative Commons license on my photos.

    I enjoyed the Seder and learned quite a bit from it. I have no intention of claiming it as a Christian tradition.

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