The traditional Jewish celebration of the Passover, which started Monday night, can illustrate the rich symbolism found in the Old Testament and show how the symbolism of the Passover points directly to Jesus Christ. Please note that the original Passover observance is described in Exodus, chapters twelve and thirteen. The modern Seder evolved from this Old Testament event.
After the Israelites were instructed by the Lord to prepare for the final plague that would free them from slavery in Egypt and allow their return to the land of their inheritance, the Lord told them to observe the Passover “for an ordinance … forever” (Exodus 12:24).
We know this requirement ended with the atonement of Jesus Christ, which ended the Mosaic law and all its practices. Jewish people throughout the world continue to observe the Passover each year in remembrance of the escape from Egypt.
In actuality, the Passover celebration, which is eight days in length, consists of two feasts-the Feast of the Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. The Feast of the Passover occurs on the first night of the Passover celebration in commemoration of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and the angel of death “passing over” the houses of Israel. The remainder of the seven days is the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the Israelite’s freedom from bondage. Because true observance of the Feast of the Passover requires the actual sacrifice of a paschal lamb, Jews do not actually celebrate the Passover. Sacrifices are no longer permitted due to the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In fact, Jews refrain from eating any roasted meat during their Passover Seder in order “to avoid even the impression that they are partaking of an ‘imitation’” of the sacrifice (Leo Trepp, The Complete Book of Jewish Observance [New York: Simon and Shuster, 1980], pp. 178-79).
THE PASSOVER SEDER
On the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan (formally Abib) of the lunar-based Jewish calendar, Jews throughout the world celebrate the beginning of the eight-day Passover celebration with a service called a Seder, which in Hebrew means “order.” The celebration is observed in the home rather than in the synagogue and is a retelling of the story of the Israelite oppression and deliverance from Egypt. A book called the Haggadah (“the Telling”) is used along with symbolic foods to illustrate the story. The celebration culminates with eating the Passover meal and the afikomen (dessert). Jesus and his disciples ate a Passover meal as the Last Supper.
KEY SYMBOLS OF THE PASSOVER
“And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening” (Exodus 12:3, 5-6).
In the Book, Christ In the Passover, Ceil and Moishe Rosen point out that “the family had to watch it [the lamb] carefully for four days before the Passover to make sure it was healthy and perfect in every way…. It must have won the affection of the entire household” (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978], pp. 25-26).
Killing the lamb truly became a sacrifice. The price that had to be paid foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The scriptures refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God over forty times. Just as Israel was saved by the blood of the paschal lamb, we are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, “our passover [who was] sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is important to point out the following parallels between the paschal lamb and the life of Christ:
1. Both were the firstborn, without blemish (see Exodus 12:5).
2. Both were to have no broken bones; the paschal lamb was to be prepared whole (see Exodus 12:46).
3. Both the paschal lamb’s and Christ’s blood were to be used as a token and sign of redemption (see Exodus 12: 13).
4. Both the paschal lamb’s and Christ’s blood was spilled; the blood of the paschal lamb flowed into the bason (see Exodus 12:22).
At the Seder, an unbroken, roasted shankbone now represents the lamb and its sacrifice.
The Unleavened Bread (Matzah)
Matzah symbolizes the haste in which the Israelites left Egypt; they did not have time to wait for their bread dough to rise. Leaven, referred to in the scriptures and by Church leaders as both a good symbol (as in the parable of the leaven in Matthew 13:33) and a symbol for sin (as in Matthew 16:6), is used to increase the mass of bread dough prior to baking. In Hebrew, the word matzah means sweet. The Hebrew word for leavened bread is chomatz, which also means sour or bitter. The same leavening agents that make bread rise can also spoil it if they ferment too long. Thus, the Apostle Paul said, “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened….
“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
As part of their preparation for the Passover, Jews remove all the leaven (bread and its ingredients) from their homes, they neither eat nor have leavened items in their homes for the entire eight-day period (see Exodus 12:19).
At the beginning of the modem Seder, three pieces of matzah are wrapped in a cloth and set aside for use during the ceremony. Jews have a number of different interpretations of what the three matzot (plural form) represent. Some say the matzot symbolize the three divisions of Judaism-priests, Levites, and Israelites-united as one. Others say they represent the three great patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We may see allusions to the three personages of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This last interpretation is compelling as we see how these three matzot are used.
After the first cup of wine and the washing of the hands (see John 13:4-5), the middle of the three matzot (the Son) is broken into two pieces, a large piece and a smaller one. The large piece, called the afikomen (the dessert), is wrapped in a napkin and hidden in the room for later use, after the meal is consumed, the children search the room for the missing afikomen. When the children find the afikomen, the leader of the Seder must pay a ransom to the child who found it. After the leader pays the ransom, the afikomen can be eaten by all. It is the last thing eaten at the Seder. At this point in the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the sacrament. Jesus and his disciples ate the afikomen, which represented his body, and drank the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, which represented his blood (see Luke 22:19-20).
In Exodus 12:22, the Lord, through Moses, commanded the Israelites to mark their doors with the blood of the paschal lamb and to stay inside the entire night: “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop [an herb], and dip it in the blood that is in the bason [a ditch running alongside the house], and strike the lintel [top] and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.”
The action of marking the door from bottom to top and from side to side is symbolic of the sign of the cross on which Jesus would be crucified. The bloody spots also point to the wounds in Jesus’ head, hands, feet, and side, as well as the drops of blood the Lord would shed in Gethsemane (see Rosen, Christ in the Passover, pp. 30-32).
The door through which the Israelites were told not to pass represents their path to redemption from bondage following the night of terror. The door can be seen to represent Jesus himself: “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Elijah the Prophet
To represent their ongoing hope for the coming of the Messiah, Jews await the arrival of the prophet Elijah on Passover night. All families set a place at their tables for him and near the end of the Seder, they pause to open their doors in hopes that he will enter.
Doctrine and Covenants 110: 13-16 chronicles the return of the prophet Elijah and his appearance to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836. It is interesting to note that that date was during the time of the Jewish Passover.
Other Symbols and Their Meaning
Other foods traditionally eaten during the modern seder as well as their significance are listed below:
- Bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery or the bitterness of sin in our lives.
- Roasted eggs represent the second offering, known as the “festival or pilgrim offering.” The egg may also represent new life or the resurrection.
- Haroset is a mixture of apples, dates, nuts, and grapes that represents the mortar used with bricks to build the Egyptian cities.
- Greens dipped in salt water (to represent tears) symbolize the arrival of spring or the newness of life out of bondage.
The rich symbolism of the first Passover and the Jewish observance can be used to teach about the Lord’s use of types and symbols, particularly in the Old Testament, and to help better understand the scriptures.
Nephi taught: “Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him” (2 Nephi l1:4). All things point to Jesus Christ, his coming, his life and mission, and his sacrifice that enables us to fulfill our Heavenly Father’s plan.
Originally posted on Mormon Matters on April 11, 2009 from a presentation given at the Seminary and Institute Symposium at BYU Summer 1995.