Apr 12, 2011

Mysterious Passover Symbols

David BricknerBy David Brickner
Jews for Jesus

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Passover is a beautiful, often mysterious, celebration. More than any other festival it has been at the heart of the universal Jewish experience, helping to form the core of spiritual identity and pointing inexorably toward the hope of Israel's salvation. Two especially mysterious items on the Passover table were not part of the original celebration; their names and significance are shrouded in the past. These symbols point to a surprising and intriguing indication of God's supernatural hand in developing the Passover observance through the ages.

The first and best known of these symbols is called the afikomen According to the late Jewish scholar David Daube and others, afikomen is actually a Greek word meaning "the coming one" (habba' in Hebrew) and is a clear reference to the Messiah. [1]

The afikomen is a piece of matzah, (unleavened bread) that is broken before the Passover meal. Part of it is wrapped in a cloth and hidden. At the end of the meal it is brought back, distributed to the participants and eaten as the final morsel.

In today's Jewish celebration, the second or middle of three pieces of unleavened bread is taken from a special bag called the matzah tosh. The bread is removed, broken, and the portion that is wrapped in the cloth becomes the afikomen that is then hidden from view.

After dinner, the tradition turns into a fun game for the children who search for the afikomen and are rewarded when they find it. The bread is then broken and distributed among the participants who all eat it together. Does this bring anything to mind?

When Jesus celebrated Passover with His disciples in the upper room, He broke the bread we know as the afikomen and distributed it to His disciples saying, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." (1 Corinthians 11:24)

We know that our Messiah's sinless body was "broken" in death, wrapped in a cloth and hidden as in burial, then brought back; resurrected by the power of God. It is truly a reward to those who find and partake in the life He offers. Yet the amazing parallels we see in the traditions of the afikomen remain hidden to those who reject Jesus claims.

The afikomen was not part of the original Passover described in the book of Exodus. We are often asked when it was introduced to the service; a very good question to which there is no definitive answer. The entire interplay of the afikomen and the matzah tosh (which came into use some time after the afikomen) appears so messianic that some skeptical scholars will accuse Jesus or His disciples of inventing symbols and traditions to amplify His claims. But if Jesus or His followers (a minority among Jewish people) fabricated these things, how is it that it is practiced so widely among Jewish people around the world? Or, as David Daube observed, "If there was no previously established symbolism relating to the unleavened bread, then what were his disciples to make of it when he ‘gave to them and said, “Take, eat, this is my body"?” [2]

In fact, Jesus' action and declaration concerning that bread had a historical context.

Rabbi Hillel (who was most active between 30 BC-10 AD [3]) drew special attention to the afikomen as he led people through Passover celebrations. And, in the first century, Rabbi Gamaliel said that the bread pointed to the speed at which salvation came to Israel in Egypt. Further, we know that by the first century, some Jewish people viewed the bread as symbolic of the people of Israel and the hidden piece, the afikomen, as a symbol of the Messiah, who remained hidden from view. [4]

We can't be certain when the entire afikomen/matzah tosh ceremony was instituted in the Jewish Passover observance; however, we do know there was already messianic significance associated with that bread by the time Jesus made the startling claim that it pointed to Him.

Daube likewise points out the strange reality that while the afikomen ceremony continues to play a prominent role in contemporary Passover seders (seder is the word used to refer to the songs, liturgy and celebratory Passover meal), very little effort is made to explain it. While so many things are explained at length in the Haggadah, [5] the ceremony of the afikomen is left without interpretation. It would seem there is a general fear of messianic speculation, or even a more particular wish on the part of Jewish sages to avoid questions about a possible connection to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (In a similar way, Isaiah 53 is omitted from the cycle of Scripture readings in synagogue.) For those of us who do believe, the tradition of the afikomen confirms the messianic symbolism of the bread that has become part of the church's observance of the Lord's Supper.

Another mysterious symbol that is part of the Passover seder is the zeroa, the shank bone from a lamb that has been roasted. It too receives little explanation during the Passover. In the original Passover in Egypt it was the entire lamb that was central to the observance. We were commanded, "Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year… nor shall you break one of its bones" (Exodus 12:5, 46). We were to take the lamb, sacrifice it and place the blood of the sacrifice on the lintel and doorpost of our homes in Egypt. Then we were to eat the entire lamb as the main course of the meal.

When the final plague — the tragic death of the first born son — passed though Egypt, death only "passed over" those homes marked by the blood on the door. And so, by the blood of the lamb, Israel was spared from that terrible plague and finally released from bondage in Egypt.

Lamb's blood is no longer used in observing the Passover. In fact, the majority of Jewish households no longer serve lamb for the meal, unlike that first observance in Egypt. The only remnant of that lamb is this zeroa, the roasted shank bone.

It is significant that the same word, zeroa, is used to pose a question in the key Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53: "Who has believed our report? And to whom has the zeroa, [in English "arm"] of the LORD been revealed?" (v.1). Then Isaiah continues in verse 2, "for He ..." (seemingly now speaking of the arm as a person). Isaiah then goes on to describe the servant who would suffer and die for the sin of his people "led as a lamb to the slaughter" (v.7).

No clearer picture of Jesus exists in all of Hebrew Scriptures; time and time again, this passage has opened people's eyes to how Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies through His own life, death and resurrection. Certainly John the Baptist saw it. How poignant were his words when he pointed to Jesus and declared, "Behold! the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John1:29).

Yet we know that most Jewish people will continue to celebrate Passover without understanding how the zeroa points to the meaning and fulfillment of Isaiah 53, or how the afikomen ceremony points so clearly to the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. May God grant us opportunities to ask our Jewish friends this year what their understanding is of the afikomen and of the zeroa on their Passover tables. Perhaps just a little question like that may begin a search for the true meaning behind these mysterious symbols.


[1] Traditionally, the word is explained as "dessert" or "that which comes later." The late Jewish scholar David Daube, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and others have more recently defended the explanation that it derives from the Greek afikomenos, "the coming one." See David Daube, Collected Works of David Daube, vol. 2: New Testament Judaism, ed. Calum Carmichael (Berkeley: The Robbins Collection. 1992–), p. 425; Deborah Bleicher Carmichael, "David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (1991), pp. 45-67.
[2] See Daube, p. 425, note 2: "Mark 14:22. In the Aramaic it may well have been 'this is me.' For the order to commemorate, see Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24."
[3] Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. "Hillel".
[4] For this paragraph, see Daube, p. 425-426
[5] Haggadah means "the telling" and is the book of service for the Passover celebration.