Catholics Doing Seder Meals

As we approach Holy Week, it is not unusual to see Catholic parishes, often the religious education programs, hosting a Seder Meal – the ritual meal that Jews celebrate to mark Passover. The intention, it would seem, is to show the connection between Eucharist and Passover.

It is true that there is an intimate connection between the Eucharist and the Passover. I would venture to say that one cannot fully grasp the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist without a basic understanding of the Exodus/Passover experience. It is no accident that on Holy Thursday, when we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the first reading is about the Exodus/Passover event. It is also no coincidence that on Holy Saturday, in the Easter Proclamation (The Exsultet), we hear the words, “THIS is our Passover feast!”

Having said all that, however, there are some serious concerns about Catholics re-enacting the Seder Meal.

First and foremost, the Seder Meal is a sacred Jewish ritual. For Catholics to re-enact this sacred ritual is disrespectful of the Jewish tradition. (imagine Jewish or Muslim children re-enacting a Catholic Mass, complete with the giggling and awkward moments that are part of any childrens’ production). The Seder Meal is a Jewish tradition that Catholics should enjoy only if we are privileged to be welcomed to a Jewish Passover table.

Second, we do not know for sure that Jesus was celebrating a Seder Meal with his disciples on the night before he died. The synoptic Gospels indicate that Jesus was celebrating Passover with his disciples, but we do not know for sure how Jews celebrated Passover in the First Century. To teach that Jesus ate a Seder Meal at the Last Supper can be misleading.

Third, hosting a Seder meal on Church property can be tricky. The Catholic Church has not approved of Seder meals as a public ritual or devotion. For a parish to host a Seder Meal may give the impression that Church approval exists for such functions where it does not.

If Catholics wish to learn more about the Seder Meal or participate in one, I recommend the following:

  • Catholics can work with the Jewish community to invite speakers to come and explain the Seder Meal to a group of Catholics at the parish
  • Catholics can arrange to join members of the Jewish community as they celebrate the Seder Meal.
  • Since the Church has not expressly forbidden Catholic reenactments of the Seder Meal, Catholics are free to use their judgment as to whether it is appropriate to take part in a Seder Meal and, if they choose to do so, it would be more appropriate to do so in the privacy of their own homes with several families attending.

Here’s a link to what the U.S. bishops have to say on the matter: God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (1988)

Closing thought: It is encouraging that Catholics wish to learn more about our Jewish roots and such education will continue to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. I affirm this desire in all those who have been seeking to do Seder Meals. I encourage you to move forward, however, in a manner that is most deeply respectful to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

About Joe Paprocki

Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press. He has more than 30 years of experience in ministry and has taught at many different levels. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestseller The Catechist’s Toolbox and Under the Influence of Jesus.

Comments

  1. Nick, thanks for posting my comments on your blog: TeamRCIA.com

  2. Joyce Magras says:

    I understand exactly where Joe is coming from and believe it would be prudent to refrain from any re-enactment of the Seder. We can share with our students what may have been part of Jesus’ early Jewish up-bringing but it is not our Euchrist nor does the Seder take place at our Mass.

    Thank you.
    Joyce

  3. Joyce, thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Jim Hynes says:

    The link to “God’s Mercy Endures Forever” doe snot seem to work.

    I would like to see that document to read what the Bishops have to say.

  5. Eric Ewanco says:

    With respect to imitating someone else’s worship ceremony, we already did that years ago. It’s called the Mass. It’s a Passover sacrifice imitating (or fulfilling) what the Jews did. It mirrors the synagogue services. We even, after Vatican II, borrowed a prayer from the Haggadah (“Blessed are you, Lord our God…”) Second, other people borrow from us and we don’t care. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Old Catholics, National Catholics, what have you. Third, I don’t hear any Jews complaining. I hear someone claiming it’s offensive but I don’t hear anyone offended. If hordes of Jews were protesting in front of churches on account of the Seder then maybe. Fourth, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We’re not mocking it, we are honoring the rite.

    As for whether the Last Supper was a Passover, it seems fairly clear. While I won’t claim that today’s Haggadahs (Haggadim?) correspond exactly to those of the first century, it was Exodus that commanded the Jews to celebrate the Seder, so it wasn’t invented in the middle ages. Jesus mentions several of the requisite cups of wine, plus the bread, plus various rituals in the seder, plus the hymns in the right place, plus the theological ties — it all falls roughly into place. To claim it is “wrong” because, well, we’re not “100% certain” it was a seder of precisely the right form is just being pedantic.

    • Eric, I appreciate you offering your opinion. Allow me to respond to some of your points. The main problem with your objections is that they are voiced exclusively from the Christian viewpoint without any attempt to show respect for the Jewish point of view. Try telling a Jewish person that the Mass “imitates” the Passover and “mirrors” the synagogue service, and I assure you, you will soon need to begin your own peace process. Those comments would be considered highly insulting to a Jew. Not to mention that they are inadequate and misleading for Catholics. While the Mass can trace its origins to the Passover meal and contains elements similar to the synagogue service, it does not imitate or mirror either. Secondly, you move from imitating to borrowing which is a totally different point. There is a big difference between non-Catholics borrowing elements of Catholic worship and non-Catholics using grape juice and wafers to reenact how Catholics celebrate the Eucharist…we would find that insulting. Third, the reason you haven’t heard any Jews complaining is because you haven’t been listening. This took me all of 3 minutes to find…I suggest you take a look: http://www.jcrelations.net/en/?item=946. Also: http://rabbibarry.wordpress.com/2007/04/01/the-passover-and-the-last-supper/. Likewise, to make any claims at all about the correspondence of today’s Seder meals with the original Passover celebration described in Exodus is reckless without some sound research, again, from a Jewish source such as the following that I was able to quickly locate: http://www.angelfire.com/pa2/passover/passover-seder-meal.html. Likewise, take a look at: http://www.kings.uwo.ca/ccjl/academic_resources/researchers_students/articles/seders/. For a scholarly review of whether the Last Supper was a Passover Meal, see http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/jesus-last-supper.asp#location1.

      I’m all for us Christians learning more about our Jewish heritage and Jewish worship. However, to reenact their sacred ritual is not the way to do it. It is better for us to invite a Jew to explain the meal to us or to be invited to a Jewish celebration of the Seder meal.

  6. Actually, saying the re-enactment of the Seder is “disrespectful of the Jewish Tradition” is the same as saying that the reading of passages from the Old Testament during a Catholic mass is “disrespectful of the Jewish Tradition” because the Old Testament is a modified version of the Torah.

    The Catholic faith sprang from Judaism and we’re free to adopt and adapt traditional Jewish ritual into our faith as we feel appropriate to give weight to what we view are the important events in our collective history. I doubt that early Catholics molded our beliefs to fit the needs of cynical members of the Jewish faith and I really do not see the need to do so now.

    On a separate note, I’m really not being hypocritical. My father’s family are largely Lutheran and I’ve had several Jewish and Protestant business partners. Out of the dozens of Lutheran and other Protestant services I’ve been to, I’ve never felt “disrespected” by the various adaptations and modifications of the Catholic Mass which these religions have adopted to suit their beliefs. Since the Jewish and Muslim faiths did not arise from Catholicism, I would be curious as to why they would incorporate a Catholic Mass into a children’s production. I would assume it’s been done before as part of a production on various religions and religious tolerance, but I would also assume it hasn’t been done in those contexts to poke fun at the Catholic Mass. Although, I guess I could also assume that there are more “fringe” factions out there that may have put on such a production to poke fun at the Catholic Mass, I also wouldn’t waste time trying to appease these factions in our religious beliefs or celebrations.

    I for one feel that the combining a traditional Seder meal with our celebration of the last supper provides an excellent opportunity to teach our children about the historical connection between Catholicism and Judaism so as to inspire greater tolerance and respect for other faiths.

    I am sure, as pointed out in a follow-up post, that there are several blogs by members of the Jewish community who feel this is disrespectful. I also see that there is a book on Amazon entitled “The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism” which can be purchased in hard-cover here …
    http://www.amazon.com/Popes-Against-Jews-Vaticans-Anti-Semitism/dp/ 0375406239. Yet, I still listen to what the Pope has to say from time to time.

    • Thanks for your comments Steve. I respectfully disagree with your analogy of the Old Testament being used at Mass. The Old Testament is embraced by Catholics as part of divine revelation. The Seder Meal is the sacred meal of the Jewish people and is not part of our tradition (although as you rightly point out, the Eucharist has roots in the Passover meal). For us to re-enact it, even with the greatest respect, is to mimic the sacred ritual of another people. As far as I know, people in other religions do not re-enact the Catholic Mass in order to familiarize people with Catholicism.

  7. Mary Kate says:

    Hi Joe.
    I thought a Seder meal was a ritual meal which commemorates the events of the Exodus, and that the primary aim of the Seder is to transmit to future generations the story of the Exodus, the central event in Jewish history. Ideally, a family gathers around a table in its own home to celebrate the Seder, sharing in a meal which symbolizes their consciousness as a people and their faith in the future. Passover is the great Jewish feast of redemption and liberation, the memorial of the Israelites’ deliverance from their bondage in Egypt. The word Passover means “deliverance,” since in the story of the Exodus Yahweh “passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt” (Ex. 12:27). Passover is also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, since in their haste to flee Egypt, “the people carried off their dough, still unleavened” (Ex. 12:34). The lamb offered at each paschal meal recalls the first Passover sacrifice, whose blood protected the Israelites from the avenging angel of Yahweh (cf. Ex. 12:21-33). Passover is a festival of great rejoicing, which reveals how God “led us from captivity to freedom, from sadness to joy, from mourning to feasting, from servitude to redemption, from darkness to brilliant light.”

    As you had stated above, “The Old Testament is embraced by Catholics as part of divine revelation.” Through our translation of the Old Testament, it is widely held by Christians that the Passover Seder is when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Gathered around the supper table with his disciples, Jesus told them, “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; because, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Then, taking a cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and share it among you, because from now on, I tell you, I shall not drink wine until the kingdom of God comes’. Then he took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which will be given for you; do this as a memorial of me’. He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.'” (Luke 22:15-20)

    This Christian observance of this ritual meal celebrates not only our tradition of Christ’s last supper but our own beliefs through the Pentateuch/ Torah and relationship to God rooted in Jewish heritage which provided the context for Jesus’ institution at the last supper. Christians believe the Exodus story pertains to all persons, since it tells of the right of all persons to be free. Jesus did not preach that Jewish Laws were wrong or to be thrown out, but that his teachings were an extension of Jewish Laws. Not all Catholics have studied the roots and history of their faith as deeply as other faiths perhaps, but those who are well studied have a tremendous respect and understanding of the Jewish faith as they feel it is the truth basis of their own faith.

    • Mary Kate, thanks for your excellent and well-thought out comments. All of your points are well-taken and reiterate the importance of the Seder meal for the Jewish people and the respect that Christians are called to have for it. The one point I would take issue with is the use of the phrase “Christian observance of this ritual meal.” As Christians, we do not have an observance of this meal. We can and should study it and respect it and learn from it but we have our own Passover that we “observe”…the Eucharist. While the story of the Exodus pertains to all persons, the observance of the Passover ritual/Seder meal belongs to the Jewish people.

  8. I would like to recommend the recently published, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” by Dr. Brant Pitre. Dr. Pitre’s background is in Second Temple Judaism as well as in Jewish writings through the Babylonian Talmud.

  9. Tom Carroll says:

    Joe–I respectfully disagree with your comments.

    “First and foremost, the Seder Meal is a sacred Jewish ritual. For Catholics to re-enact this sacred ritual is disrespectful of the Jewish tradition. (imagine Jewish or Muslim children re-enacting a Catholic Mass, complete with the giggling and awkward moments that are part of any childrens’ production). The Seder Meal is a Jewish tradition that Catholics should enjoy only if we are privileged to be welcomed to a Jewish Passover table.”

    I do not agree that Catholics celebrating the Seder is “disrespectful of the Jewish tradition”. I believe it shows respect for our common Judeo-Christian heritage–Jesus our Lord and Savior was a Jew. If Jews or Muslims want to celebrate our Christian traditions, I welcome it! Your thinking is exactly what creates divisions between our faiths.

    I look forward to celebrating the Seder with my Christian and Jewish sisters and brothers again this year!

  10. Connie Clark says:

    Hi Joe,
    For years folks have been suggesting I re-enact a Seder meal with the middle school students in our parish faith program. One of my predecessors had led this meal and everyone said it was a great experience. But something has always bothered me about it, and I could never quite put my finger on what it was. At any rate, I never had time in the schedule to include a Seder meal re-enactment in our classes. Now after reading your posts and the referenced articles and documents, I have something to substantiate the unease I have always felt. Instead of a Seder meal, I will invite a Jewish friend of mine, who happens to be in cantorial school, to speak to our class about his faith. I can’t speak for others, but for our parish program,I think this is a better alternative to help our students understand and respect the Jewish faith.

    • Connie thanks for your comments. Sounds like a great idea to invite your friend. You can certainly have him demonstrate how a Seder is celebrated and can even have a Seder meal with him as the head. Good luck!

  11. solomonthewise says:

    Well spoken Joe – you accurately describe how I feel as a Jew about the mimicry of our
    Jewish festival.
    Imagine the protests that Muslims would make if Ramadan or Eid
    was replicated with some Christian twist under the disguise of establishing
    a deeper understanding of Islam

    • Good catch, Matt. I have contacted them to give credit to me or to remove Fr. Rosica’s post. Thanks for the heads up.

  12. Hi Joe

    Thanks very much for the insightful information. Your piece made a lot of sense and really helped me out. I greatly appreciate it.

    And thank you for all that you do in the name of our Lord Jesus and His Holy Church.

    God bless,

    Matt

  13. Fr. Ron Schmit says:

    Liturgy training publications has a Haggadah for Christians used in parishes. It was developed by the Rabbi who headed the Jewish Anti-defamation League and the Archdiocese of Chicago. We use it in our parish. Just as among Catholics and Christians there are many opinions so too among Jewish people.
    When I was an associate at another parish leaders of the conservative synagogue lead the ritual for the Catholics that attended.

    And the argument that we would be offended if someone were using our rituals I find unbiblical and unconvincing. Remember in the Gospel when the disciples are upset, because “someone not of our number” was using Jesus’ name to heal? And Jesus responds to leave them alone if they are not against us then they are with us. ” No one can use my name and at the same time speak ill of me.”

    Personally I would be amazed if someone not christian were to respectfully imitate our ritual. If we truly believe in the power of symbol it would bring them into contact with the mystery of Christ, would it not? Or do we believe that grace only works when we control it?

    There is a legitimate variance in opinion, so we must learn to accept the differences without righteous indignation.

    I will bring this question to Rabbi Michael Lerner who is here in the San Francisco Bay Area and publishes Tikkun. He does a lot of inter-faith work. If he finds our Seder offensive then we will reconsider our parish celebration. His congregation is rather liberal and open so I suspect that they will not take offense.

    • Fr. Ron, thanks so much for adding to this conversation. I look forward to hearing Rabbi Michael’s take. The key is “respectful.” I never felt comfortable watching a group of kids present it as a “pageant” with no adult leading them. I think it’s different when adults gather together (with kids present as well) to enter into the experience respectfully and as an opportunity to learn not just to mimic.

    • Stephanie Moore says:

      Thank you Fr. Ron for your thoughtful and respectful response to this article as it did bother me. I have always appreciated the Seder we experience at St. Anne every year that is well attended by our parish community as well as our ecumenical neighboring churches in addition to numerous individuals from our wonderful Jewish community. I have always found the experience extremely respectful of the Jewish tradition and the comments from the Jewish community confirm that. So while I appreciate the difference of opinion, I want to say I feel honored to be part of an amazing experience.

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