Light from the Sidra

Pesach 1

Torah: Exodus 12:21-51;Numbers 28:16-25.Haftarah:Joshua 5:4-6:1

Guess who’s coming to Seder?

The Seder has come a long way since Moses instituted the original simple meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Over the centuries, the introduction of food, songs, games and symbolic acts have made the Seder a multi-sensory experience for inculcating the lessons of Israel’s redemption into the hearts and minds of each generation of Jews.

Clearly, there are innovations in the Seder but what is not so clear is when, how or why certain elements were introduced. The most mysterious of these innovations must surely be the ritual that takes place early in the Seder when the middle three piece of three matzot is broken in two and the larger half (the afikomen) hidden away, to be recovered at the end of the evening.  

Some say the three matzot are symbolic of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Others believe they represent the three divisions of the Jewish people: the priests, the Levites and the people. Another opinion is that the three unleavened wafers represent the three measures of fine meal with which Sarah baked bread for the three angelic visitors who, according to Jewish tradition, arrived at Abraham’s tent on Passover night. But none of these theories explains why the middle matzah is broken, hidden and, at the end of the evening, is found and brought back.

Neither is there a unanimous explanation for what the name given to the broken matzah – the afikomen – means. The earliest occurrence of the word is in Tractate Pesahim 10:8 in The Mishnah, compiled at the beginning of the third century C.E.: ‘… no food may be eaten after the [matzah afikomen]’.  

Some Jewish wit has said that where there are two Jews there will be at least three opinions, and nowhere is that so than when trying to determine the meaning of afikomen. The word is Greek and, depending on who you ask, you may be told afikomen comes from epikōmoi, meaning ‘a dessert’. You may be told it derives from epi kōmon, an after-dinner entertainment, or from epikōmion, a ‘festival song’.

There is, however, a fourth explanation which is far more plausible and has a great deal more evidence to support it. In 1925, the German scholar Robert Eisler theorised that the afikomen was part of the Passover observed in the Second Temple era and that the broken matzah represented the Messiah. Eisler’s hypothesis was initially rejected by both Jewish and Christian scholars until in 1966 the Jewish scholar David Daube resuscitated the idea in a lecture he gave at St Paul’s Cathedral to the London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding. The Greek word afikōmenos, according to Eisler and Daube, means ‘the Coming One,’ the Messiah.

Daube never explained how or when a symbol of the Messiah was introduced into the Seder but a possible explanation occurred to me when a Hasidic friend and I were debating Messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. During our disputation, Eliyohu demanded to know ‘what happened to Daniel 2:44?’ 

Daniel 2:44 is a prophecy that ‘the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever’.

Eliyohu, like all Hasidic Jews, believes the indestructible heavenly kingdom to which Daniel refers will be established by the Messiah. Therefore, according to Eliyohu, if Jesus was the Messiah he should have established the kingdom of heaven. Since, as he saw it, Jesus failed in fulfilling that essential task, he could not be the Messiah.

Eliyohu, however, was unaware of the context of the prophecy. Written in the sixth century B.C.E. at the time of the Babylonian captivity, Daniel 2 relates a dream of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon in which he saw a colossal statue made of gold, silver, bronze and iron. According to Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, the four metals represented four kingdoms of which Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon was the first and finest.

In verse 44, Daniel revealed that in the days of those kingdoms ‘the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.’

It is not difficult to identify the four kingdoms because they followed each other in succession; they were Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome and according to Rashi’s comment on Daniel 2:44: ‘When the kingdom of Rome is still in existence … The kingdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, which will never be destroyed … will crumble and destroy all these kingdoms.’

In the first century of the Common Era, there was great Messianic expectation in the land of Israel because the fourth kingdom was in power. The kingdoms of Babylon, Persia and Greece has passed away, the fourth and final kingdom was now in place. The kingdom of heaven was to be established while this fourth kingdom was in existence. As a consequence, a number of insurrections against Rome took place in Israel. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus and the New Testament book of Acts both record the failed careers of two messianic pretenders, Theudas and Judas.

Although the book of Daniel is clearly prophetic, in the Tanakh it is not included in the section Nevi’im (Prophets) but in Ketuvim (Writings), nor is Daniel included in the annual cycle of synagogue readings. Furthermore, there is a Targum, or ‘interpretation’, on every book of the Ketuvim except Daniel because, according to the Talmud, the book reveals the date of the coming of Messiah.

Tractate Megillah 3a in the Talmud states that ‘the Targum of the Prophets was composed by Jonathan ben Uzziel under the guidance of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi’ and that ben Uzziel sought to reveal the inner meaning of the Ketuvim, the section of the Tanakh that contains the book of Daniel. However, a Bath Kol, a voice from heaven, forbade him to reveal the inner meaning of the Ketuvim because in it ‘the date of the Messiah is foretold’!

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus says, ‘We believe that Daniel conversed with God; for he did not only prophecy of future events, as did the other prophets, but also determined the time of their accomplishment.’

To this day, Passover is linked in Jewish thinking to the coming of the Messiah because, according to the Prophets, Messiah will inaugurate an even greater redemption than the exodus from Egypt. At every Passover Seder, a place is set at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah, and at the end of the meal, after the afikomen has been eaten, the children are sent to the door to see if Elijah is coming.

In first century Israel, Messianic expectation ran at fever pitch. Daniel had foretold the coming of four kingdoms in the days of which Messiah would establish the eternal kingdom of God. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold a second Exodus that would be even greater than the deliverance from Egypt. In Isaiah chapters 40-55, for example, the prophet reveals that as God redeemed his people from Egypt, leading them through the desert by the hand of His servant Moses, he would lead them again through the desert by the hand of an even greater Servant.

Would it not be natural for Jewish thinkers to link the second exodus and the Passover to the establishment of the kingdom of God? And would that not increase the longing for Messiah at the festival that commemorated the deliverance from Egypt?

At Passover, anti-Roman feeling ran higher than usual among the people of Jerusalem and the Romans always had a full contingent of soldiers present to quell any riots. With the great groundswell of Messianic hope, it was the ideal time for a Messianic symbol to be introduced into the Seder and, according to David Daube, the matzah Jesus broke at the final Seder he kept with his disciples was the afikomen. When Jesus announced, ‘This is my body’, said Daube, he was making use of an existing prophetic tradition to reveal himself as the Messiah.

The Messianic significance was eventually lost, deliberately distorted or possibly suppressed by rabbinic authorities, giving rise to the later interpretations of the word as a ‘dessert’ or an ‘after-dinner entertainment’. And as the Christian church became increasingly Gentile and lost sight of its Jewish roots, the Passover elements of the ‘Lord’s Supper’ became submerged under heated discussions about transubstantiation, the ‘Real Presence’ and the efficacy of the sacrament.

Christianity is Jewish. In Jesus the prophecies of Daniel find their fulfilment. The time of the coming of Messiah is long past. There is no need for Jewish people to wait for the coming of Messiah; he has already come and initiated the kingdom that will never pass away. If Jews and Gentiles can’t see that kingdom, the fault is not with God.

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