Easter commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christianity, the fact that Jesus was Jewish is often not emphasized. However, the origin of the two religions has the same roots, and many Christian customs stem from Judaism. For Christians married to Jews, they have a lot in common, which can make Easter work for an interfaith marriage.
For example, the Last Supper was a Seder meal during Passover. When Jesus says of the wine, “This is my blood” and of the bread, “This is my body” the bread is, in fact, matzo, which is also referred to in Judaism as the bread of affliction. During the Passover meal, four glasses of wine are drunk, which are said to represent Jews’ redemption from slavery. In Exodus 6:6 there are four verses describing the redemption, when God says, “I will take you out,” “I will rescue you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will bring you.”
For Jews, Passover is the one of the most important holidays in the tradition, as Easter is for Christians – not because of secular observances, but religiously. Theologically, Easter has been the most important Christian holiday, and has been at the center of the liturgical year since at least the fourth century.
Sometimes the lines between Christianity and Judaism are blurred, as in the term Judeo-Christian, as if they are one and the same. Judaism provides Christianity’s origins, which began 2014 years ago, at the death of Christ, but Judaism has continued with minor changes for nearly 6,000 years. Christians make up 32 percent of the world’s population. Jews form less than 0.2 percent.
For Jews who have intermarried with Christians, the springtime holidays can complement or compete with one another. Jewish holidays go according to the moon, and can vary by as much as four to five weeks. Easter is set on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the spring equinox. Passover lasts for eight days. Many times the two holidays are one week apart. When there is an overlap, there are decisions to be made not only in terms of whose family to visit and which traditions to observe, but also what foods to eat.
During Passover, Jews who are observant eat only unleavened bread or matzo, and for many, they can only eat foods that are marked Kosher for Pesach. Because they sprout, beans and grains other than matzo are not permitted. This means no cake or Easter bread, no green beans, rice or corn, among other foods. In planning Easter dinner, interfaith families need to decide if they will observe one set of traditions or the other.
This concern is a worldwide dilemma. There are intermarried Jews and Christians around the globe. In most instances, because of the lack of safety for Jews to be openly identified, it is common to subsume practices and follow the societal majority.
The greatest challenge, however, is when children are introduced into an interfaith marriage. Having children exaggerates differences between a couple and forces them to make hard choices. For example, Judaism does not even mention Jesus in the Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). With religion there is no middle ground. One religion will be dominant or neither will be.
There are a number of similarities between Christian and Jewish traditions. Both Easter and Passover begin on the night before. All Jewish holidays are from sundown to sundown, thereby beginning on the evening before the day it is written on Gregorian calendars. In Judaism, the night before a holiday is called erev. For example, Passover begins the night before the first day with the first Seder.
For Easter, the night before is called “Vigil” because historically the good women waited by the tomb of Jesus to prevent grave robbers from taking the body. Until the Middle Ages, this was a veritable vigil from Friday until Sunday, which also stems from Jewish tradition. When a person dies, it is customary in Judaism for a guardian, called a shomer, to remain with the body from the moment of death until burial (usually 24 hours).
Other similarities between the two traditions are at both Passover and Easter there is the telling or reciting of the story. For Passover, the story is told by reading the Haggadah at the Seder. The word Haggadah means telling and includes a reliving. The retelling comes from the Biblical command to tell one’s child about the miracles that God did for us when they left Egypt (Exodus 13:8). As part of the Easter service, Christians, too, retell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection (John 20:1-18).
Both Jews and Christians light candles, in church or synagogue, and in the home, to usher in a holiday. For Christians, candles represent Jesus as the light of the world, or the presence and power of God, like the pillar of fire that communicated the presence of God to the Israelites from the point of Sinai in the exodus.
The washing of hands to make them ritually clean at the Passover Seder, called urchatz, is similar to that in some churches, where the washing of the feet to commemorate Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (John 13:12-15) has been replaced by washing hands.
Other similarities, as mentioned earlier, include matzo (communion), wine (Kiddush cup/communion), and the word Hallelujah, said on Passover as Jews recount the journey from servitude to redemption. This translates to Alleluia in Christian tradition, said on Sunday, after Christ was resurrected according to Christian doctrine.
In secular Christian tradition, the egg, so prevalent at Easter time, too comes from Judaism. On the Seder plate, an egg, called beitzah, is placed as a symbol of fertility and the cycle of life.
Jews may feel trepidation entering a church, due to centuries of persecution, where they were told that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, when in fact, it was the Romans who killed Jesus. In addition, several significant conflicts occurred directly on Passover without regard for Jewish observance – or maybe because of it: Jews were taken to the Nyíregyháza (Hungary) ghetto on April 25, 1944 which was during Pesach. And, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place on April 19, 1943, also during Passover.
Despite this history, there are many reasons – personal and community-based – for Jews and Christians to support one another in celebrating their holidays. Jews are taught that it is a commandment, a mitzvah, to be kind to others. This translates in Christianity as Jesus’ words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34, to love the stranger as thyself. This is demonstrated in the Christian service when congregants greet one another with “the peace.” Christians can greet the Jewish visitors in their midst with the utterance of “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew.
When Jews attend an Easter service, they may see connections to their own traditions. For example, the song Judas Maccabeus, from Handel is played at Easter, but is traditionally sung in many synagogues at Passover (with different words, of course).
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Malden, Massachusetts, during Communion, Jews can mount to the altar whereupon they cross their arms over their chest. The priest then offers a blessing in the name of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rather than issuing the bread and the wine.
Holiday meals, too, can be prepared together by intermarried families, so that both traditions can (at the appropriate times) be observed. In addition, spending time with both families (to the extent feasible) will further encourage respect. And, for some religious Christians, attending Jewish rituals whether in the synagogue or at home is instructive and inspiring, reinforcing Christian beliefs because of a deeper understanding of the origins.
While Easter in an interfaith marriage can be a challenge, finding the place of mutual respect can lead to peace in understanding and spiritual calm. As is recited in the Easter service, Nulla in mundo pax sincera. This means that there is no honest peace in this world free from difficulty. Pure and true peace lies in God.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
Guardian Liberty Voice
Guardian Liberty Voice
Christian Resource Institute
Augustinians, Galway, Ireland
Ask the Rabbi, Ohr Somayach
Early Church History – CH101
Jewish Virtual Library
Catholic Answers to Explain & Defend the Faith
Personal conversation with Judy Acs Seidman Zucker, Washington, DC
Love and Brotherhood, Judaism 101