Book Review: Celebrating Passover: A Guide to Understanding the Jewish Feast for Latter-day Saints

March 30, 2006 | 25 comments
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Easter celebrations and the lack thereof have been a hot topic recently; if you want to add something to your celebration of this season, I highly recommend this book.

Why would a Latter-day Saint–or any Christian, really–want to celebrate Passover? Because it is an opportunity to participate in a tradition thousands of years old. Because, unlike most of the religious education we inflict on children, it is an ideal (multisensory, interactive) teaching opportunity for young children. But most importantly because it contains powerful symbolism of the Savior and His sacrifice.

The basic element of a Passover celebration is a ritual-rich meal. You could spend the afternoon googling what you would need or you could use Celebrating Passover. Marianne Monson-Burton has put together a book that can be forgiven for being short on the scholarly because it is long on the practical. She traces, briefly, the historical development of Passover and then lists everything that one would need in terms of preparation, meal planning, recipes, table setting (which is more complicated than you might think), narration, explanation, and music for the meal itself.

I initially expected that I wouldn’t like this book because it would make a hash of ancient Judaism(s), modern Judaism(s), Christianity, and the Restoration. But I must admit that I was wrong: Monson-Burton is careful to separate what the ritual would look like and mean to a Jewish audience from what it could symbolize for an LDS one. Consider this example in her script for the meal:

The bitter herbs remind us of the pain and bitterness of slavery. If Israel had not been redeemed, you and I would still be enslaved today. . . . So at Passover we each personally experience the bitterness of bondage and the joy of deliverance.

Then in italics she writes:

In much the same way, the atonement must be personally accepted. We know that the Savior suffered for us as individuals. We must apply its message of freedom to our own lives.

I appreciate the fact that the Christian viewpoint is there, but she doesn’t pretend that it is the Jewish viewpoint. I also appreciate her thoroughness: it is actually possible to put together a complete Passover meal with this book even if you are the type who has to sing the Primary song to remember where to find Exodus in the Bible.

Consider moving beyond chocolate bunnies and egg hunts (not that there is anything wrong with those) and celebrating Passover with your family. If you do, you’ll find this book a welcome resource.

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25 Responses to Book Review: Celebrating Passover: A Guide to Understanding the Jewish Feast for Latter-day Saints

  1. Kimball Hunt on March 30, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Technically the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) celbrates the Torah’s injunction for “meals of remembrance” with its partaking of the sacramental bread and wine (uh water). And early Xtians (which is an OK term since the X or chi stands for Christ) also often celebrated an entire communal meal before this practice became one of just bread and drink (usually at that time wine). Still sedars are just so cool that I hope just lots and lots of Mormons revive versions of this Judeo-Xtian within their religious practice.

    If Orthodox Jews might look a bit askance at the “aping” of their divine rituals, don’t they actually look askance as well at any and all rituals that are not specifically Jewish? As non-Jews are thought by the Orthodox Jews to merely be resposible to Jehovah to in-general legislate laws supporting morality in society and, What? To not eat meat cut from a live animal? (I forget, but there are only a few provisions believed to be a part of the pre-Abrahamic “Noahide” covenant between Jehovah and The Nations of all people.) But still, “non-Jews observing the Passover” would result in there being no additional harm done than in Xians or Muslims, et cetera, observing any other of their non-Othodox Jewish rituals, anyway . . . So, let’s do it!

  2. Wacky Hermit on March 30, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    I’m LDS and I’ve always celebrated Passover, but that’s mostly because my dad was Jewish before he converted. I have orthodox Jewish relatives and they thoroughly approve of us celebrating Passover. They don’t see it as “aping.”

    The kids love best the part about finding the afikomen (a hidden piece of matzoh) and there’s significant rivalry in our house over the fact that my daughter has been the one who found the afikomen for a few years running now.

  3. M.J. Pritchett on March 30, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    My concern about this is that something you and your children might think of as constructive and sympathetic to Jewish people, might be misunderstood by your (and your children’s) Jewish friends as insensitive. Simlilar to the baptism for the dead controversy.

    I think your Jewish friends would be pleased to invite you to share their passover celebration, but feel differently about your celebration of what they might view as a Christianized version of their ritual.

    This is similar to how we might view differently about a Baptist friend coming to Sacrament meeting or a 24th of July party with us, as opposed to holding her own Sacrament meeting or 24th of July party with “bring Mormons to Jesus” overtones.

    In my experience some Jewish people can be highly sensitive on these points. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but no matter how carefully you might separate the Jewish from the Christian viewpoint, prepare to be misunderstood by some of your Jewish friends if they find out about it.

  4. John David Payne on March 30, 2006 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks for the review! I have often thought it might be nice to have a passover feast, but I don’t really know how to do it. I have been to a Hannukah dinner with some Jewish friends, and that was really cool. My two favorite parts were wearing a yarmulke and eating gelt.

  5. Julie M. Smith on March 30, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    M.J.,

    I appreciate your point and get rather nuts myself when Saints do things that I perceive to be anti-Jewish (some comments in Sunday School come to mind . . .), but I’m not sure why a Jewish friend would be more irritated about my appropriating Passover than about my appropriating the Torah, the idea of a Messiah, the Ten Commandments, children’s flannel board stories about Noah, etc., etc. We’re already so ‘guilty’ of ‘borrowing’, I cannot understand why this particular instance should be viewed differently.

  6. M.J. Pritchett on March 30, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Julie:

    My other question about “celebrating” our own passover ritual annually, as opposed to an occasional educational experience, is the questions it raises about which parts of the old law have been done away with by the higher law.

    Should we encourage our sons to think of their circumcision (if they are circumsed) as a token of the Abrahamic covenant? Should we encourage our daughters and wives to participate in monthly ritual purification? Should we adopt certain aspects of dietary laws? What about the the other Jewish feasts?

    This is an area about which I think Mormonism is unclear, if not confused. Many Christians view the O.T. as totally done away with. Mormons of my generation (relying on McConkie) tend to try to view the Old and New Testament as a seamless web, but have a hard time deciding what from the Old has been done away with and what, if anything, is still “live”.

    I’m no O.T. scholar, so I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

  7. M.J. Pritchett on March 30, 2006 at 5:41 pm

    Julie:

    Some are mad about the Torah, the messiah, Noah and the rest, but they don’t blame you for it, it wasn’t your idea. However, you are the one that is deciding to appropriate passover, which is much more unusual and specific to you.

  8. Kimball Hunt on March 30, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    I’d suggest to avoid adaptation of any aspects the seder’s orthodox form in favor of the best efforts to fulfill them: having Yom Tov candles (perhaps even lit the proper number of minutes as prescribed before sundown), the proper individuals reading the appropriate portions of text, et cetera. And—as Julie and Monson-Burton seem to recommend–I wouldn’t specifically Christianize in any way more than to silently hope that the “Israel” thus being remembered and honored might include those otherwise gentiles who feel adopted into her convenants through Christ?

  9. Wacky Hermit on March 30, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    Kimball: “I’d suggest to avoid adaptation of any aspects the seder’s orthodox form…”

    There’s an “orthodox form” of the Seder? First I’d heard of it. There are tons of different Haggadahs (seder scripts) out there, and you can get one in any flavor you like, from feminist to ultra-boring, all of which are used by actual Jews. One that we got (I think it’s called “The Family Haggadah”) even added a ritual, Miriam’s Cup, so that we aren’t sexist in having a cup only for the (male) Elijah.

  10. Wacky Hermit on March 30, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    M.J. Pritchett: “This is similar to how we might view differently about a Baptist friend coming to Sacrament meeting or a 24th of July party with us, as opposed to holding her own Sacrament meeting or 24th of July party with “bring Mormons to Jesusâ€? overtones.”

    I don’t mean to be adversarial, I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate here: I’m curious how you feel about the Catholics having Eucharist with wine and wafers, then. Since we LDS lay claim to the restoration of the original ancient ritual, arguably the Eucharist is a corruption of our tradition.

    Also I bet Baptists in Utah have parties on the 24th of July as well, since they have it off from work, and it’s never bothered me that they do. Barbecue ribs for all!

  11. Julie M. Smith on March 30, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    M.J.,

    You ask good questions. First, though, you seem to assume that an educational experience would be less offensive than a reenactment, but I’m not sure.

    As far as what is done away in the higher law, Monson-Burton makes it very clear that we shouldn’t imply that the passover is a necessary observance, and I, of course, agree. I think we need to assume that every aspect of OT law has been done away unless we hear otherwise from our leaders today (as is the case with sabbath observance, for example), otherwise people are going to start nailing the ears of their household help to the doorframe “just to be on the safe side” (as Ned Flanders would put it).

    You write, “Some are mad about the Torah, the messiah, Noah and the rest, but they don’t blame you for it, it wasn’t your idea. However, you are the one that is deciding to appropriate passover, which is much more unusual and specific to you.”

    But inasmuch as I choose to be a Christian, I’m choosing the Torah etc. If perhaps you were thinking of me as someone leading the charge to appropriate passover (as opposed to someone following the herd on the Torah), maybe I’m a little guilty there.

    Wacky Hermit, there is a lovely children’s book called Miriam’s Cup. I think the tradition is catching on.

  12. M.J. Pritchett on March 30, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    Wacky:

    First, I’m not sure that the words of our sacrament prayer necessarily match exactly to the early Christian ritual, even allowing for translation issues, though they might. Second, the secondary elements of our current ritual: white bread, water in little cups, 12 year olds in white shirts passing to the congregation using silver or plastic trays, two 16 year old priests kneeling at a table, are almost certainly not the same as the early Christian ritual. More importantly, I’m not offended by the form of the Catholic Eucharist, since they have no intent to appropriate or immitate our current ritual.

    And I have no problem with 24th of July parties in Utah where it is a state holiday. But in California or Texas, it would seem a little odd!

  13. Julie M. Smith on March 30, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    “Second, the secondary elements of our current ritual: white bread, water in little cups, 12 year olds in white shirts passing to the congregation using silver or plastic trays, two 16 year old priests kneeling at a table, are almost certainly not the same as the early Christian ritual.”

    And the Niblet for understatement of the year goes to . . .

    This reminds me of the painting found in the catacombs of St. Priscilla (I think) that date from the first century) and have an all-female administration of the sacrament (to use our terminology)–with beards painted on their obviously feminine features at a later date.

  14. Kimball Hunt on March 30, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Miriam’s cup sounds great.

    The feast though that I’m hoping the Saints revive is Purim. The costumes are are fun yeast could be put in some grape juice a few weeks in advance and the resulting virtuous beverage could be partaken of on an empty stomach, that is, if keeping a halachic mitsvot such as this wouldn’t contravene the Word of Wisdom.

  15. M.J. Pritchett on March 30, 2006 at 7:40 pm

    Julie:

    I’m interested in other examples you think today’s leaders have said are not done away with. Are the leaders limited to those items that Christ and the early apostles chose to incorporate?

    Is the OT law of the Sabbath still binding or is there a new Christian celebration which incoroprated some of the elements of the old? At least the day has changed, which seems like a pretty significant difference from an OT point of view.

    By analogy, the US constitution incorporates ideas from earlier English constitutions, but the earlier English documents are not binding on Americans. Are we bound by any of the old law, or only by the new, which incorporates some ideas from the old.

    This is really more of a new testament question, where you really are the expert.

  16. Kevin Barney on March 30, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    When I was at BYU in the early 80s, the Universe ran an article about Victor Ludlow leading a seder for some of his students, and giving explicitly Christian interpretations of the elements.

    A while later, a Jewish student at the Y wrote a letter to the editor, complaining about the appropriation. My impression is that her concern was the conveyance of these Christian interpretations as *the* meaning of the ritual.

    So I think the care Monson-Burton takes to draw distinctions on this point is very important, as Julie rightly emphasizes.

    We had a CES guy here some years ago who went through the elemenst of a seder explaining it all for a “Super Saturday” event of young people. He conned me into singing. So I found some traditional Passover songs and learned them and sang them for this very large group a capella. It actually turned out great, and it was a fun experience for me.

  17. Julie M. Smith on March 30, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    M.J.,

    I don’t know about being an expert, but . . .

    “I’m interested in other examples you think today’s leaders have said are not done away with.”

    Well, we’re all still pretty big on the Ten Commandments, but darn if I can figure out how to make #1 and #2 relevant to the Sunbeams during Sharing Time. I suspect that Pres. Hinckley is reinterpreting the idea of the Jubilee; at least, that’s what our huge pre-San Antonio Temple-dedication was called.

    “Are the leaders limited to those items that Christ and the early apostles chose to incorporate?”

    Presumably no: modern revelation would trump the NT record, I would think. Let’s just say that I won’t complain if the Church decided to reinstitute a five-day monthly vacation for women :).

    “Is the OT law of the Sabbath still binding or is there a new Christian celebration which incoroprated some of the elements of the old? . . . Are we bound by any of the old law, or only by the new, which incorporates some ideas from the old.”

    A fabulous question, but I have no idea how we would go about answering it. Are there concrete sitations where it would make a difference, or is it only philosophical? One topic I have been thinking about lately is that it seems (although I may have missed something), that OT fasting isn’t primarily about “becoming more spiritual” or “drawing on the powers of heaven” or the other things we usually think about, but is mostly about expressing repentence, mourning, etc. If I am right about this (and I may not be–does Ben S. or Melissa have an opinion here?), would we then say that fasting is the same now as it was then when the purposes for a fast are so different? I have no idea.

  18. Kimball Hunt on March 30, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    I googled Haggadah, Whacky Hermit, and yeah there’s really no orthodox rule per se as to the order of things as given in the Mishnah–merely a tradition only that it’s to be the youngest child able to recite (for the Orthodox this would mean in Hebrew) “Why is this night is special?” and then what proceeds is a story teaching of the meaning of Passover and the birth of a Judaism redeemed from slavery.

    Still, for me the whole idea of with whom to be allowed by ritual law to break bread is so very interesting. And the underlying rule seems to be that people believe themselves to partake of it in order to symbolically affirm their membership in the spiritual community and their intention to abide by its precepts.

    Whereas in the Christian tradition this is the eucharist, with of course the bread representing the sacrificed body of Christ, in Judaism and in the case of the Passover, it’s that certain dishes represent the Passover lamb–which, when there was a temple still in Jerusalem, was a lamb that had been offered there in sacrifice. And similarly to the bread of the eucharist, the Pashal lamb could only be partaken of by professed members of the Jewish community of faith and not by either merely hired help or by apostates. But there is also commands in the Torah which commands the Jews to invite those living with them to abide by their laws and become Jews. So if someone comes up and asks to partake of Jewish rituals and practice, how can then such a person be denied?

    And something similar is in effect in Christianity. For example, on the few occasions I’ve ever visited a mass I’ve not gone up to the altar to partake of the host; but to all who do go up to partake of it, the priest will simply offer it, he doesn’t–‘she’ doesn’t, in the Episcopal faith and other faiths–specifically ask if that particular individual is in communion with the Church.

    So what of a Mormon family that wants a communal meal representative of both their belief in Yeshuah as a ransomed and sacrificed messiah? Sure they have no priests–as before there even were Christian priests[?], there was yet a communal meal as was sponsored by believers and those I suppose who self-identied themselves to be saints would partake of it–upon which precedent Baptists, who reject ordinations yet elect overseers who perform their occasional and limited rituals such as on occasion the offering of bread and grape juice representative of the Last Supper. So to such a family I’d say, Why not! Go ahead! Still, as Kevin recommends immediately above, I’d retain distinctions between elements and their meanings as reflected from the Mishnah and auxiliary meanings as have been garnered from Christianity and the Restoration.

  19. BrianJ on March 30, 2006 at 11:26 pm

    I attended two of the seders hosted by Victor Ludlow at BYU. The first time, I was still in high school and I thought the whole thing was amazing and a great experience.

    By the second time I was in college. It was the same presentation but my experience was quite different. I felt awkward during and after, like I was treading on someone else’s sacred ground. I didn’t know – and still don’t – if this was because I was “older and wiser” or something else. I still feel uncomfortable about “re-creation” events, and I am much more dubious of my own wisdom.

    I feel the same way when I see ordinances portrayed on television, regardless of who is acting them. I’m okay with viewing an actual ordinance or celebration, like when the PBS Kids show “Buster” filmed an LDS family’s FHE. The difference there was that the family was inviting viewers to join them in their religious celebration. But I don’t like sacred things – mine or anyone else’s – turned into pretend, even if it is for educational purposes.

    I can see, however, some beauty in Monson-Burton’s approach. A different approach, which I despise, is to present the OT in general as, “Here’s the symbolism that the Jews just didn’t understand.” I prefer, rather, the approach Julie has described: “Here is something good that the Jews learned from this scripture and here is how we might read it from a Christian viewpoint. Learn from both interpretations.” And I know that my kids and I can learn a lot from the way the Jews celebrate Passover.

    So I might offer a compromise: ask my Jewish friend if it would be possible to join him for part of his seder. (I realize this is not an option that is open to everyone.)

  20. Anita on March 30, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    As a Biblical Hebrew student, I was enamored of Jewish traditions but have since found a way to continue one in our family that mixes it with LDS heritage–on July 24 each year we do a “Pioneer Passover” meal at our house. It’s a similar concept to the Jewish Passover, except we read ancestral pioneer stories and relevant scriptures and sing pioneer songs. On the “passover plate” we have salt water and bitter herbs for their sufferings and tears, ice to remember Winter Quarters, nuts and berries, and honey for the sweetness of Deseret. It’s a favorite family event.

  21. Miranda Park-Jones on March 31, 2006 at 6:29 am

    Wow, this is the first time I have ever seen T&S poach the Snarker.

  22. Steven B on March 31, 2006 at 10:04 am

    Anita, The Pioneer Passover is a wonderful, sublime idea. And sure not to offend those of the Jewish heritage.

  23. Patriot on March 31, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    When I tell LDS members that the Passover is compatible with the LDS faith it’s as though I said something evil.

  24. KathrynL on April 1, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Passover was established to be a memoriam for ALL the House of Israel. Last time I checked, the House of Israel included the tribes of Ephraim, Joseph and Manasseh, (and their descendants—largely ‘the Mormons.’)

  25. KathrynL on April 1, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    P.S. We sit Passover Seder every year. If it were NOT for the Almighty and OUR ancestors’ faith, we WOULD have remained slaves in Egypt.