To the secular world, the Jewish celebration of Passover may seem linked to Easter because these holidays occur about the same time, and Christianity is rooted in Judaism. But that’s where the similarity ends,says Rabbi Peter B. Schaktman of the Temple Emanu-El of Honolulu.
Passover, which begins on April 18 this year, celebrates a pivotal event in Jewish history: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Called "Pesach" in Hebrew, Passover is observed for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). Easter, which falls on April 24 this year, pays homage to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As for egg hunts and other secular customs heralding springtime, "Easter is a pleasant holiday and we’re fine with that, but historically, the Easter season has been a fearful time for Jews," Schaktman said.
The New Testament of the Bible, which includes the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, is not part of the Jewish canon, Schaktman said, adding that Christians and Jews have different ideas of a messiah or savior.
"From a Jewish perspective, Passover is not about personal rebirth," he said. "It’s more about the birth of a people and the Torah. Rebirth implies that there was a death. There wasn’t a death, and people were not resurrected.
"Evangelism is so much a part of Christian theology, and Jews have been such a target. In the process of evangelizing, they created a theology about Jews that became the basis of anti-Semitism for 2,000 years."
In contrast, when Christians refer to the blood of the lamb, it is a reference to the blood shed by Jesus (also called the Lamb of God), who died on the cross so that his believers would be cleansed of their sins and receive everlasting life. The symbols of springtime rebirth also recall Jesus’ resurrection.
Some Christian churches offer a traditional Seder meal in recognition of Passover during the Holy Week leading up to Easter, which may also encourage people to link the holidays. Passover symbols and rituals are so powerful that they have been co-opted by some Christians, as well as many other groups that have a claim to oppression, Schaktman said.
In preparation for their exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews were directed by God to kill and roast a lamb, and to eat it with unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs. There was no time to let the bread rise in their haste, but leaven (or yeast) was also "a symbol of puffery, that which inflates us — self-importance and arrogance," he added.
Eggs are an important part of the Seder meal, but have nothing to do with the springtime rebirth/resurrection symbolism of Christian celebrations — though "Easter eggs don’t have a lot to do with the resurrection" either, Schaktman said. For Jews, eggs are also symbols of spring, but "the reason they’re hard-boiled is they represent the fact that the more oppressed Jews have been, the more resilient we’ve become."
"The challenge is that many Christian festivals, like Christmas, develop practices far away from any religious aspects," he said. "But as Jews, we live in this world, and sometimes we go to the Christmas office parties. And as long as it doesn’t get too religious, Jews don’t have to get too concerned," he said.