Passover and Easter: similarities and differences

                                            Passover and Easter: similarities and differences

           by Meir Waintrater, coordinator of the project " Know the religion of thy neighbors" 


The Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian Easter both take place in early spring. The Christian holiday, as we shall see, has a historical link with the Jewish one; but their meanings have become profoundly different.



Passover (Hebrew Pessah) commemorates the day when the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt. This is a crucial event which resulted in the crossing of the desert, the reception of the Divine Law (Hebrew Torah) and the entry into the Land of Israel.

The holiday lasts for seven days in the Land of Israel, and eight days within the Diaspora. During this period, Jews abstain from bread and, more generally, from any product derived from cereals which have been undergoing fermentation. Instead, they eat unleavened bread (Hebrew: Masta - plural, Matsot), recalling the patties the Hebrews cooked in haste during the Exodus.

Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, Passover was celebrated with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Jewish people sacrificed a lamb there in memory of the one which had been sacrificed by their ancestors, on the eve of the Exodus, and the meal of the day before Passover was organized around the "paschal lamb". But since the destruction of the Temple by Roman troops, there is no sacrifice or pilgrimage, and the holiday has essentially become a family holiday.

On the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night only), families gather together to read and comment on the Hagada, the text based on the Bible and the Talmud explaining the meaning of the holiday. This evening, called Séder in Hebrew (literally "order"), is the key moment of Passover. A vigil of study and prayer, the Séder is also a convivial evening during which once eats traditional food, drinks four cups of wine - each one corresponding to a specific part of the story, and sings songs from the Hagada with the active participation of children. The reading of the Hagada ends with the famous words: "Next year in Jerusalem."

The Christian holiday of Easter

The Christian holiday of Easter - the Western Churches and Orthodox churches celebrate it on different days, because of the discrepancy between the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar - commemorates the resurrection of Christ and is the main holiday of the Christians.

First is Palm Sunday: it celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The worshippers have twigs blessed evoking fins with which, according to the narrative of the Gospels, Jesus was welcomed triumphantly by the people. This is the beginning of the Holy Week, which ends with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

The Last Supper, the last meal Jesus took with his twelve disciples, is the evening of Holy Thursday. During the meal, which is none other than the Séder of Passover according to the ritual in use before the destruction of the Temple, Jesus instituted the Eucharist by sharing with his disciples Matsot and wine and by saying, "This is my body, this is my blood". From this crucial moment, when a Jewish ritual arises a fundamental sacrament of the Church, Christianity retains the trademark by the Hebrew word Pesach which became - through Greek and Latin - the French word "Pâques".

The next day, Good Friday is a day of recollection when Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Then comes the Holy Saturday, the day of silence and waiting. After the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening comes Easter Sunday which is dedicated to the resurrection of Jesus.

The link between Passover and Easter stops there. Christianity continues to borrow symbols of Judaism, but gives them an entirely different meaning. The Christian paschal lamb is not the sacrificial lamb of the Exodus, it is Jesus being sacrificed to atone the sins of men. The promises made by God to his people during the Gift of the Law on Mount Sinai, are supposed to have been completed by the coming of Christ. Christianity separated itself from Judaism and opposed itself to it for a long time before the time of dialogue came. But this is another story.