Passover and The Living Law of Moses

It is true that Christianity is inextricably tied to Judaism.  Not only is this so historically, but also theologically, as in the Christian self-conception as ‘New Israel.’ This adoption, or usurpation of Jewish identity, explains much of the historical tension between Christians and Jews.  It also led to the common reference in Spain to the ‘the Dead Law of Moses,’ and the Crypto Jewish insistence on the ‘Living Law of Moses.’ This is of course a very old debate, and it may even appear in the Haggadah itself.

The Mishna (Pesahim 10:5) quotes the opinion of Rabban Gamaliel that in order to fulfill the mitzvot of the haggadah one must say ‘Pesah, Matzah, U’Maror,’ as well as what each one represents.  “[The] Passover-offering [is offered] because the Omnipresent One passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. Unleavened bread [is eaten] because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. [The] bitter herb is [eaten] because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.”

Prato Haggadah Spain, ca. 1300. The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478

Prato Haggadah Spain, ca. 1300. The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, MS 9478

It is a strange tradition, as we typically say ‘mitzvot einan tzerihot kavvanah,’ that mitzvoth do not require intent.  While a person must recognize that they are fulfilling a mitzvah when doing a mitzvah act, it is generally not required that they also have in mind a particular idea or association with the act (though perhaps laudatory). So why does R. Gamaliel require it in this instance?

Israel Yuval discusses this question in his book ‘Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (2008).’  There he explains that early Christians had begun to reinterpret the Haggadah rituals in a Christological manner.  This of course was fueled by the association of The Last Supper with the Haggadah service.  These early Christians interpreted the Pascal offering with the sacrifice of Jesus, the bitter herbs with his suffering and the matzah with his body.

Rabban Gamaliel sought to counter these claims and the possibility that any Jew would believe that in fact the haggadah really was a reference to this new religion.  He therefore required that Jews verbally articulate the true symbolism of the Pesah rituals, in order that no confusion would be made.  Pesah had always been a holiday of great Jewish significance, and would continue to be so.  It represented the suffering of our ancestors, and how God had delivered us from their hands.  No doubt this message was of ever greater importance during the days of Rabban Gamaliel when Jews first found themselves without the Temple and self-autonomy, a precarious position that would continue until the modern State of Israel.

The Crypto Jews of Portugal tried their best to preserve what they could of the ‘Law of Moses.’  I was told by the Jews of Belmonte during my recent trip to their community that during their hidden days they still found ways to observe some form of Pesah even though it was precarious for them to do so.  They would draw fresh water and with it bake enough bread to last for eight days, and that alone would they eat during the Passover holiday.  That was their attempt to avoid ‘hametz’ and fulfill the ‘Living Laws of Moses.’

Throughout the ages, Jews have gone to great lengths to procure matzah and wine for Pesah.   Perhaps that is what has instilled within the Jewish psyche a greater commitment to Passover celebration (70% of American Jews do it!) than to most other Jewish holidays.  Through our celebration of Pesah we demonstrate and ensure that the ‘Laws of Moses’ are alive and well.


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