Sacred Days for Jews and Christians
Tomorrow night (27 March 2021), Jewish communities commence the Passover Festival. Meanwhile, Catholics enter Holy Week, and prepare to celebrate Easter (4 April). May we all, Christians and Jews, be strengthened at this time of year through our respective journeys of remembrance and festivities of freedom and redemption!
So much of Christian liturgy is grounded in Jewish story and ritual. For example, when I gather with my Catholic community on Holy Thursday, we will be drawing sustenance from the same chapter of the Book of Exodus (ch 12) read in Jewish communities on the first day of Passover. Whilst the selection of verses differs, we draw from the same sacred story.
The following reflection explores parts of Exodus 12 through the lens of traditional Jewish commentary. Perhaps it can bring an added layer of appreciation to our experience of Holy Week.
Exodus 12:1-28 | Ritual action shapes us
In Exodus 12 we find the story of a momentous event that shapes Israel as a people and is told and retold through generations to this very day. The Passover. The ritual meal that the Hebrews shared on the night of their exodus from Egypt. With this story comes the first comprehensive list of religious precepts that we find in the Bible. Many more will follow, especially in Leviticus. But here, at the critical turning point that is the Passover, we find the first. Read this passage in Exodus 12:1-28, then let’s revisit verse 14.
“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance" (Exodus 12:14).
Note all the instructions detailing how this festival is to be remembered (in Exodus 12:1-28).
Why does the sacred text interrupt the exodus story with a list of seemingly tedious domestic duties and laborious legalities? Doesn’t this contradict the essence of the narrative which is all about liberation?
The Jewish sages have pondered this question over the centuries, and so can we. What insights might we glean from Jewish interpreters?
A key insight is found in the Sefer Ha-Hinukh: 
“Consider well therefore your occupations and pursuits; for you will be influenced by them and not vice versa. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security as if to say: ‘seeing that my heart is perfect and unimpaired by its belief in God, what harm is there if I occasionally indulge in worldly pleasures, in idling in the streets...engaging in vain and boastful talk with the scorners...Why should they influence me?’”
The text goes on to say that “actions shape character.” How fitting, say Jewish commentators, that Israel should commemorate its central salvific event by not only telling the story but performing an elaborate set of ritual actions. “Now that you know this, do not be puzzled by the large number of precepts connected with the commemoration of the miracles of Egypt.”
We are led to ponder the nature and value of ritual, how over time it shapes our very being, and our collective identity. In the Church's ancient tradition there is a Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith; the Church believes as she prays. Ritual worship is not something separate from our stated creedal convictions but profoundly integrated in the one movement of living faith.
As Catholics, we can appreciate, too, how Jewish practices of remembrance, prayer, thanksgiving and blessing (especially over bread and wine), and the public reading of Torah, have inspired and shaped our central ritual act of worship: the Eucharist. We don’t just tell the salvific story of Christ’s death and resurrection, we also perform an elaborate multi-faceted ritual which we call the Mass.
But wait! Didn’t Jesus warn against ritual excess, where worship becomes mere lipservice? Indeed, yes. And from where might Jesus the Jew have gleaned such ideas? Again, from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Jewish prophetic tradition such as we hear in Isaiah:
“Their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (29:13).
The prophets of Israel warned against distortions of ritual excess, and they also warned against lack of practice. Convictions of the heart are expressed in concrete action, while our actions form and strengthen the convictions of the heart. What we believe and what we do, ritually and ethically, go hand in hand as we seek to love and worship and serve God. This delicate interplay is core to Christian discipleship, and we find it in the Scriptures and traditions of the Jewish people.
Ponder your experience of religious ritual. For example, which ritual details of the eucharistic celebration are especially formative of your character, your attitudes and response to life and faith? Do you experience the Eucharist as an “action that shapes character”? •
1. Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 in the Roman Catholic Lectionary; Exodus 12:21-51 in the Jewish cycle of readings.
2. Ha-Hinukh: first book of religious instruction among Jews of the Middle Ages. Cited by Leibowitz, 179-180.
Sources: Leibowitz, New studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996). Scripture: NRSV.
© Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website.
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More about the Jewish Festival of Passover
Jewish communities celebrate Passover 28 March - 4 April 2021, beginning at sundown on 27 March. Two online starting points for basic information about Passover: Judaism 101 and Etz-Hayim – Tree of Life. And more here at Aish.com… “Five powerful ideas at the heart of Passover and its message: memory, optimism, faith, family and responsibility.”