Christology of Passover customs


One of the ways that Christians try to attract Jews is to try and point out where the customs of Passover are really Christian in origin (and point to Christological beliefs.) This approach is very attractive to many Jews (and non-Jews.) This attracts even the most assimilated of Jews, because Passover is the most widely celebrated holiday of all the Jewish holidays. Although they may be totally ignorant of Judaism and its customs, Passover seems ‘familiar’ to them. The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the claims of missionaries and show them for the baseless deceptions that they really are.


Before discussing individual claims, let us consider the matter first. How could it be that a Jewish customs for such an important holiday could really be Christian in origin? (Or at least based on Christological ideas.) It would require that the originator of these customs hold Christian belief, and that he should have been able to get this custom adopted by Jews who were NOT Christians. For this reason there are a few conditions that would have to exist for us to make such a conclusion:


First, one would have to show that the custom originated no later then when the church split forever from Judaism. This would mean that a valid choice would be a custom from the period after the death of Jesus until the time of Bar Kochbah, when the separation between Judaism and Christianity finally occurred. This would be a period of about 100 years from around 30 CE to 130 CE. After that time interaction was sparse and usually adversarial. This would mean that a custom that was introduced after the time of the Mishnah (3rd century CE) and certainly those that are post Talmudic would automatically be excluded. It is beyond serious consideration to imagine that a custom originating after the 4th century CE could have any real Christian or Jewish Christian origin.


Second it would have to be traceable to an area where Jewish Christians were able to have influence on Judaism. Non-Jewish Christians would not be keeping such rituals. This would exclude those customs that can be traced to the Jews living in the Persian Empire, or Babylonia, where Jewish Christians were unknown in that time period. Christianity was so weak there where Jewish communities existed, that it would not be possible for any possible Jewish Christian to influence other Jews.


Third, there would have to be a trail of this custom to a Christian source. Just saying that it 'might' be of Christian origin doesn't make that a fact. Even if we have no idea of where a custom originate, that would not imply that it had to come from Christians. On the other hand, if there is a clear trail in Jewish sources of a custom, then we have to assume that such a trail to Christian sources is nonexistent, and the claims of an association with Christianity is a fabrication.  The burden of proof here is on the Christians.


Besides the entire discussion above, there is a certain logical problem with this whole issue. The Ramban raised it in his famous disputation. A Jewish heretic tried to argue that the Talmud and Midrash supported Christianity. The Ramban's answer to this fantastic claim applies here. The Ramban asked how could it be possible that the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud/Midrash (or in our case introduced these customs) were actually believers in Christianity and yet they did not teach us the 'truth'? That members of a religion (Judaism) which is basically non-Christian in its fundamental beliefs, could have leaders who are 'closet' Christians is a bit far-fetched.


What makes this issue important to discuss is that there is a concerted effort to 'show' the Christian nature of the Passover, and many Christian teaching groups exist which teach this subject. There are a number of 'Messianic' Haggadahs (one of which is being used here.) However no one seems to consider if this is true, or if it is just propaganda, on the level of other 'big lies' that history has produced.


Lets turn to the first, and most important, of the claims:


I. Passover Matzoh


CLAIM: Did you know that the use of three matzohs is Christian in origin and is based on the trinity: the father, son and Holy Ghost? Did you know that the middle matzoh, which represents the son/Jesus, is broken to represent the crucifixion? Did you know that this piece is hidden in a cloth, just like Jesus was hidden in shrouds? And that it is taken out later, just like Jesus was raised from the dead? [1]


ANSWER: This statement claims that three, well known Passover customs, are actually taken from Jewish Christians, or instituted to symbolize Christian beliefs. 


1.      The use of 3 matzohs at the Seder.

2.      The breaking of the middle matzoh.

3.      Placing the afikomen (broken piece of this middle matzoh) in a cloth and hiding it away for later in the Seder.[2]


The primary question is: Was the use of three matzohs of Christian origin, or traceable to Jewish Christians?


The short answer is NO. The Talmud clearly indicates not, 'Rav Pappah says, "With regards to Passover, everyone agrees that we place the broken piece [of matzoh] together with a whole piece [of matzoh] and he eats [i.e. makes the blessing in order to eat.] What is the reason [that he takes the broken piece with a whole piece?] Because the verse says 'Poor bread'" (Brachos 39b)'


Here we see clearly that the accepted custom as late as the late 4th century (when Rav Pappah lived) was that everyone used one whole matzoh and a piece of another. Since the use of three matzos is obviously too late in origin to have originated due to Christian influence, the whole claim of a Jewish Christian origin is debunked. 


Let me now explain the later sources and the reasons how these customs developed, and we will see how far from the truth the missionary claim is.


In order to understand these questions we need to understand three halachic concepts.

1.      Lechem Mishnah.

2.      Lechem Oni.

3.      Ayn Mavirin al HaMitzvos.


Lechem Mishnah (lit. double bread) refers to the custom of using two whole loaves of bread (or matzoh) for the meals of Shabbos (and Yom Tov.) The source for this is in the Torah. There we learn (Exodus 16.22-23) that on Friday morning there fell a double portion of 'manna'. As the Talmud explains, from this we learn that on Shabbos instead of eating meals with one loaf, they use two.


Lechem Oni (lit. poor bread) refers to a broken piece of matzoh. The Torah calls matzoh 'lechem oni' (Deut. 16.3), which the Talmud in Pesachim understands to mean poor man's bread.


Ayn Mavirin al HaMitzvos (lit. one does not pass over the mitzvos) means that when one has two mitzvos available to perform, he doesn't pass over the one in front of him, but does them in the order that they appear before him.


While these ideas may seem a bit obtuse and complicated, they are the legal principles leading to the development of the customs around the matzoh used on Passover at the Seder.


1. Why are there three Matzohs?


Since we have seen that the older custom was to have one piece and a broken piece, we need to understand how we came to use three and why. (In the second temple they only had the Passover rituals over a broken piece of matzah.) This is a bit complicated, since this older custom, of using two, was still in practice in the 18th century. The famous Rabbi Elijah of Vilna was the last major authority that still followed that custom.


So why were two matzos used in the past? The reason is that there is a requirement of lechem mishnah for every Shabbos and Yom Tov, and since Passover is a Yom Tov there is a requirement for two matzohs. However since the Torah says specifically that we need 'lechem oni', they do not need to be two whole pieces. For this reason, in the past, as stated in the Talmud, one whole piece and part of another piece is sufficient.


This remained the only custom until into the period of the Geonim (7th-11th century). At that time there developed a difference between customs in Israel and in Babylonia. The source of this difference was a disagreement as to what to do when Passover was on Shabbos. The requirement for two loaves on Shabbos was considered to be stronger then for Yom Tov. For that reason, in Babylonia, when Passover occurred on Shabbos, they took two whole matzos for lechem mishnah and an extra one for lechem oni, while in Israel they continued to use only the two.


For a number of centuries there were multiple customs existing at the same time. Over time the difference between Shabbos and other days disappeared. The consensus of the majority of Rabbis became in accord with this view and the custom to use three matzos became universal in the 19th century.[3]


2. Which matzoh do we break?


Our custom is to break the middle one, but that was not always the custom. Obviously when there are two we have a problem. Which is the middle one? It is interesting to note that Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (who used only two) would break the TOP one!!


According to the Rambam[4] (12th Century) and Rashi[5](11th Century) it doesn't make a difference, you can take whichever one you want. Rashi, who used three matzos, says to do it at the beginning of the Seder, while the Rambam, who used only two matzos, said to break the matzoh just before making the blessings.


The Rokeach (13th Century) says we break the UPPER matzah. This appears in the Smag (13th Century) and the Mordechai. (13th Century) Many followed this ruling, because to break the middle matzah would lead to a violation of the principle 'Ayn Mavirin al HaMitzvos'.  The reason of the Rokeach is that since the breaking of the matzoh is the first mitzvah, then the first matzoh (i.e. the upper one) should be broken.


However most of the Rabbis after that period disagreed as to which matzah to break, but accepted the same principle. They did not consider the breaking of the matzah as a mitzvah by itself, so they reasoned differently.


We make two blessings on the matzos, 'HaMotzie' (lit. who brings forth) which is always made before eating bread, and 'al achilos matzoh' (lit. on the eating of matzah) specifically on the mitzvah of eating matzoh this night.  Since the blessing of HaMotzie is first the whole matzoh should be on top and the broken one below that. Why not the lower one? Since the second mitzvah is that of the blessing 'al achilos matzoh', which is made on a broken piece, it must be the second matzah. (This applies whether one uses two or three matzos.)


3. Why do we wrap it up?


First we should ask if there is an ancient custom to wrap it up?


The Rosh[6](late 13th Century) says we should give it to someone to watch. However Rashi[7] says to put it under the tablecloth. The Rokeach agrees and gives the reason as Exodus 12.34 which says that in EGYPT THEY WRAPPED THE MATZOH UP WHEN THEY WENT OUT. Others say to wrap it in a towel and put it under the pillow. The reason for that being that it is to be protected so that nothing happens to it. From this we see that there is no ancient custom to hide it, and that even those who do so had reasons for the custom that are non-Christological. (Also unrelated to which of the matzos it was.)


Summary: Three matzohs are taken because two are needed for the lechem Mishnah and the third for lechem oni. The middle matzoh is broken because it is the second blessing/mitzvah performed with matzos. The matzah is wrapped up in remembrance of the matzos that were wrapped up in Egypt according to the verse Exodus 12.34. The source and reasons of the customs are clear and are not Christian or Jewish Christian in origin.


CLAIM: 'The unleavened bread is found in its special covering, termed a Unity, even though it has three sections.'[8]


ANSWER. This is just false. The name of the utensil for holding the matzohs is called a 'Kara' (plate) in Hebrew or a 'matzoh tash' (matzoh bag) in Yiddish. As to the three sections that is the predominant custom, but some do not follow it and there is no requirement for that.


CLAIM: 'in honor of Passover, a third matzoh was added in order to have the Afikomen'[9]


ANSWER: As we have seen this is just not true. This broken matzoh was always used. A WHOLE matzoh was added, but not the one that is used for the afikomen.


CLAIM: 'The reason why this middle matzoh is broken is not clear in Jewish tradition.'[10]


ANSWER: As we have seen this is just not true. A matzoh was broken for lechem oni, and it was the middle one so as not to violate Ayn Mavirin al HaMitzvos.


CLAIM: 'Is it not significant that Afikomen means, "I have come"'[11]


ANSWER: This is just false. The Talmud discusses the meaning of that word in Pesachim and this is not even one of the possibilities there. They are:

1.      To go from one company to another.

2.      A dessert.

Marcus Jastrow’s classic dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic Aramaic understands it as after meal entertainment. No Jewish source seems to have such a meaning, and it certainly does not fit in with the Talmud.


It should also be pointed out that according to the Talmud Pesachim, the Afikomen is something one does NOT eat, or do after finishing eating the Passover sacrifice. This was later applied to the piece of matzah eaten at the end of the meal in place of this sacrifice. The association of the name Afikomen and this last matzah is post Talmudic.


CLAIM: 'Jewish believers in the Messiah are convinced that there is a connection in the Passover Seder with the Last Supper of our Messiah. Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua HaNotzree, who claimed to be Messiah, sat down with His disciples to celebrate the Passover Seder after accomplishing His teaching and healing ministries. On the table were probably the three matzot and red wine.'[12]


ANSWER: While the last supper may have been a 'Passover seder' it is quite doubtful that anyone would have recognized it as relating to what is practiced today. As we have seen, there would not have been three matzos at that time.  (In fact if the last supper had been a Seder there would have been only 1/2.)


CLAIM: 'The three matzot may represent the triune nature of God'[13]


ANSWER: We have seen that this is just bogus.


II. Other parts of the Seder


CLAIM: 'The greens (i.e. Karpas) represent the hyssop which was used to places the blood of the Passover lamb on the door posts and the lintel'[14]


ANSWER: The Talmud (Pesachim 114b) says clearly that the Karpas (actually the dipping of the Karpas) was only done to arouse the curiosity of the children. The reason being that since it was not normal to dip, and especially BEFORE the meal, the child would be inspired to ask questions. The whole purpose of the Seder is in order to ANSWER the questions that a child would ask. This is what the Torah itself says with regards to Passover in Exodus 13.14 'and it will be when your son asks you...' For this reason many acts are done to cause one to ask questions, including this one. This is all explained in the last chapter of Pesachim.


CLAIM: 'Now it was time to prepare the ceremonial platter where the various additional items are placed into their proper place arranged in two triangular patterns'[15]


ANSWER: His reference to the triangle as a symbolism of the trinity fails when one remembers that this setup of the platter dates only to the 16th century to the famous Kabbalist Isaac Luria.


CLAIM: 'The late Professor Solomon Birnbaum had the opinion that it was no longer possible for our people to offer the Passover lamb since the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.'[16]


ANSWER: The Passover sacrifice is the ONLY sacrifice that we CAN perform today (if 1 billion Arabs wouldn't kill us if we did.) I have seen many sources that state that theoretically it can be done, since the Passover sacrifice is allowed if everyone is ritually unclean.


III. Errors in custom


1. 'The leader of the Seder takes hold of the shankbone, shows it to the company and says...'[17]


There is no custom to take hold of the shankbone at any time. In fact it is forbidden to indicate that the shankbone is a representation of the Passover sacrifice as it violate a number of Torah laws, as is mentioned in various halachic works.


2. The order for Motzi, Matzot (sic) on page 31 of Chosen People's ministry Haggadah is an error.


3. The claim on page 33 of Chosen People's ministry Haggadah that we eat matzoh with charoseth for Korekh is an error.


NOTE: If I had wished I could have been pickier with the Chosen people's ministry Haggadah that is filled with errors from start to finish. I only mentioned some here to give an idea of what I consider the more significant of the problems.


© Moshe Shulman 2003

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at

[1]    These questions, with minor variations, are the usual claims we see presented.

[2]     It should be noted that Question #3 depends on #2, which further depends on #1.

[3]     The following sources describe this history:

1.      Haggadah MM Kasher p. 61 in the name of the Tur #475, 154-157.

2.      Rabbenu Chananel Brochos 39b;

3.      Machzor Vitri p. 279, 284;

4.      Rambam Chometz and Matzoh 8.1 and the Hagaos Maimones;

5.      Tosephos Pesachim 116a [ma darcho] Rashi and Rashbam there;

6.      Mordechai 39a; Rosh 135b;

7.      Ran on Pesachim

[4]    Chometz and Matzoh 8.1

[5]    Machzor Vitri p. 271, 281, 282

[6]    Kitzur Halachos

[7]    Machzor Vitri p. 281

[8]    Chosen People's ministry 'Messianic Passover Haggadah' p. 11

[9]    Ibid p. 12

[10]   Ibid.

[11]   Ibid p. 37

[12]   FOUR MORE QUESTIONS by Rachmiel Frydland

[13]   Ibid. 

[14]   Chosen people's ministry 'Messianic Passover Haggadah' p. 11

[15]   FOUR MORE QUESTIONS by Rachmiel Frydland

[16]   Ibid.

[17]   Chosen people's ministry 'Messianic Passover Haggadah' p. 25