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Passover and Easter overlap in 2022: They have more in common than you think

Amy Kuperinsky
nj.com (TNS)

This week brings two major religious holidays — Easter and Passover. As in many years past, they share calendar space in 2022.

While dates for the observances change each year, the first night of Passover 2022 — Friday, April 15 — lands on Good Friday, which is an important part of Easter during the Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday (April 17).

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At the outset, Easter and Passover may seem far apart in purpose, ritual and imagery. But the common roots of the two holidays become overwhelmingly apparent when you discount any perceived chasm between chocolate rabbits and marshmallow chicks and matzo and gefilte fish.

The Passover-Easter connection

Passover marks the biblical story of Exodus, of the Jews and their leader, Moses, fleeing slavery in Egypt with the help of divine intervention.

Easter, widely considered the most important day of the Christian calendar, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus as told in the Gospels of the New Testament.

“Passover and Good Friday through Easter go together like a hand and a glove,” says David Kraemer, librarian and professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “They’re actually designed to go together.”

Still, if you think that simply means Jesus, a Jew, attended a Passover Seder just before he died, read on. The bond between the two springtime holidays manifests in a series of meaningful ways — from the names of the holidays to when, how and why we celebrate them.

It’s in the name

First, let’s take the names of the holidays. The actual origin of the name is unclear, but “Easter” has been associated with a pre-Christian Germanic goddess, Eostre (this is up for debate, as is the existence and origin of Eostre), or a word for “dawn” (that also contributed to the formation of the word “east”). But many other languages call the holiday some variation of Pasqua (Italian) or Pascua (Spanish).

“You’re actually hearing the closeness of the two holidays,” says Gary Rendsburg, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. “You’re hearing the Hebrew word ‘Pesach,’” he says, which is Passover in English.

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Kraemer says there was no Latin word for Passover, so the name came from “Pesach.”

“Properly speaking, ‘Pascua’ is Christian Passover,” he says.

Why “Passover”? Because according to Exodus, the angel of death “passed over” the homes of Israelites during the plague in which the first-born male of each family was to be killed, because the Jews had marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood.

Why is Easter sometimes on Passover and sometimes not?

In 2022, Passover and Easter converge, as they commonly do. This year, Good Friday falls on the first night of Passover, April 15, and Easter falls on the second full day of Passover on April 17. (Jewish holidays start the night before the first day. Passover, which is commonly celebrated with Seders — ritual meals — on the first two nights, lasts a total of eight days and ends on Saturday, April 23.)

But in 2016, the holidays were nearly a month apart because of a “leap month” in the Jewish (lunar) calendar. And in other years, the holidays can be days or weeks apart. There’s a larger reason for that, one that speaks to Easter’s roots in the Jewish holiday.

“Originally, Passover and Easter would have been the same time every year,” says Douglas Estes, assistant professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University in Columbia, South Carolina.

From the second century through part of the fourth century, Easter was celebrated on the Sunday after Passover began (which is where it falls this year), says Bruce Morrill, a Jesuit priest and professor of theological studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Christian churches around the Mediterranean only began celebrating Easter as a feast well into the second century,” Morrill says. It grew out of a desire to have a Passover associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Passover is observed starting on the 15th of the month of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, during the full moon. But Morrill says that in the fourth century, it was determined that Easter should always fall on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox (March 20).

(Christians in the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate Orthodox Easter on Sunday, April 24, just after the end of Passover week, because their observance is centered around the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar.)

Jesus, Passover and the sacrificial lamb

Many who claim basic knowledge of Passover and Easter may know that Jesus was a Jew who died during the time of Passover. The question of exactly when he died is laden with enduring symbolism.

The period known as the “paschal triduum” (notice the “Pesach” reference) starts with the Thursday before Easter. Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper, the night before the death of Jesus.

On Good Friday, the Gospel of John is read, in which Jesus is said to have been executed by the Roman authorities during the slaughter of the Passover lambs in the daytime, while the preparations for the holiday were underway.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, which are read on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, differ in their account, putting the death of Jesus the day after the Passover meal with his disciples (as depicted in the Leonardo da Vinci painting “The Last Supper”), Morrill says. It follows that Gospel of John is the source of the image “Christ as the lamb who has been slain,” he says.

At that time, Jews would be going to the temple to get their Passover lambs after the animals were sacrificed. Today, the lamb shows up on the Passover Seder plate in the form of the zeroah, or shank bone (which is not eaten).

Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?

It’s accepted that Jesus was executed around the time of Passover. But was Jesus really at a Passover Seder before his death?

That, of course, depends on whether you subscribe to the Gospel of John or the other version of the story that does put Jesus at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. Even if you assume the latter to be true, there is some room for debate. Especially if you make a distinction between “Seder” and “Passover meal.”

“Many people think that the Last Supper was a Seder meal,” Rendsburg says. “I’m of that group that thinks not.”

That’s because the version of the Passover meal that we call the Seder wasn’t developed until later, he says, pointing to evidence from the Gospels and Jewish literature that talks about Jews going to the temple for sacrifices and to celebrate holidays. By contrast, the Passover Seder we know today is an in-home affair.

Kraemer disagrees.

“The Last Supper is obviously the Passover meal, later what we would call the Seder,” he says.

The Seder, which means means “order” and describes the procession of the ritual meal, with its plate of symbolic foods (matzo, bitter herbs, shank bone and more) and reading of the story of the Exodus in the Passover Haggadah (“telling”), evolved at a later time, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. But that’s immaterial, Kraemer argues.

“Before the Seder developed, there was already the Passover eve meal,” he says. “It was clearly the Passover meal.”

Freedom, redemption and salvation

Regardless of when he actually died — during the run-up to the Passover meal or after — the image and symbol of Jesus as the lamb cuts to the heart of Easter.

In the New Testament — the Book of Revelation and the Epistle to the Hebrews — Jesus is referred to as “the paschal lamb,” Kraemer says. His sacrifice “through the crucifixion, like the slaughter of the lamb, is both what symbolizes and brings about deliverance — redemption,” he says.

Estes says that for Christians, the idea of the resurrected Jesus as the sacrificial Passover lamb is the fulfillment of the Passover story, starting with what God did through Moses “and then even more so, what God did through Jesus.”

Early Christians celebrated Passover, and Estes says he’s seen an increase in awareness about the holiday among Christians.

“Passover and Easter are really intended to go hand in hand,” he says. “The Israelites saw Passover as the symbol or the sign that they were freed from pharaoh (in Egypt). Christians see Easter as the freedom from corruption or sin. ... As Christians we are rescued and Jesus is the rescuer.”

As part of Saturday night Easter vigil and Holy Thursday, Christians read the story of the Exodus that is found in the Passover Haggadah, which is read during the Seder, says Kevin Ahern, assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. The story of Easter is inextricably linked to Passover, but he also says the overarching themes are similar.

“Both of those stories say to me that God’s love is more powerful than any empire,” Ahern says, whether the pharaoh or the Romans. “Love wins.”

“Both are celebrations of hope,” he says. “Not of dour hope, but of joyful hope.”

Morrill says the messages of redemption and deliverance resound through both holidays: “These were life-changing and death-defeating events.”

The paschal candle, which is lit on the night before Easter Sunday, is about needing hope in the world, and light in the midst of darkness. This custom, carried out during the paschal vigil, may remind some of the Jewish custom of lighting candles at night during the Sabbath, Morrill says.

“The symbolism is that the candle represents the light that is Christ,” he says.

“The light and the fire thing took on a new sort of intensity because of St. Patrick of Ireland,” Morrill says.

The tradition of lighting a fire or bonfire during the Easter vigil on Saturday night is a custom originated by St. Patrick, who adapted the custom from the springtime bonfires of the Druids. It’s just one example of Easter’s Christianization of a popular local tradition. The eggs and rabbits we associate with the holiday are thought to be another.

Springtime, rabbits and eggs

The legions of chocolate bunnies, Easter baskets and Easter eggs that are now symbols of the holiday? Those may not have existed in pre-Christian celebrations, but that may be where they come from. There is a hard-boiled egg on the Passover Seder plate, but it’s not dyed springy colors or used for a hunt (though children do hunt for a piece of matzo called the afikoman).

Eostre, the German goddess of dawn, fertility and spring, is also connected with the emphasis on rabbits and eggs. Signifying life and fertility, both Easter accessories were adopted from springtime customs, Morrill says, in keeping with Christianity’s practice of melding existing traditions with religious rituals.

The Easter Bunny is also thought to be a German invention, originating with the character Oschter Haws, an egg-laying bunny. This emphasis on fertility, spring and life was only enforced by the story of Jesus being delivered from death.

Matzo, yeast and symbolism

In the unleavened bread used for the Christian Eucharist, some see a likeness to matzo, the unleavened bread that Jews eat during Passover to commemorate their exodus from Egypt. In the usual telling, the Jews did not have enough time for their dough to rise before they had to flee the pharaoh.

Another interpretation of the unleavened bread is that yeast is associated with haughtiness, or “puffiness,” Rendsburg says. Jews rid their homes of chametz, or leavened products, before Passover, removing both physical and spiritual yeast for the holiday, he says.

“That’s a good Jewish metaphor,” Rendsburg says. “It gets, like many things, layers of interpretation.”

How the barley festival became the matzo holiday

On the surface, you might not find matzo has much in common with Easter eggs and Easter rabbits.

But like the symbols that came to be associated with Easter, the explanation that Jews didn’t have time for their bread to rise in Egypt is also the product of reinterpretation, Rendsburg says.

From about 1200 B.C. to 586 B.C., which was when the First Temple was destroyed, Jews celebrated a spring agricultural festival that served as a precursor to Passover, he says. In this festival, they marked the start of the barley harvest, since it was the first crop to ripen. In order to celebrate properly, the Jews did not want to contaminate their new barley with the yeast that came from old grain.

“You don’t want to take some of your old leavening agent and include it,” Rendsburg says.

So they observed the celebration by eating unleavened bread made with that new barley — something that didn’t look anything like the boxed matzo we eat today, but probably more like a tortilla, or naan or pizza dough without yeast.

That perfect square of crunchy matzo? A reinterpretation of a reinterpretation.

“The core is unleavened bread for the celebration of the barley festival, which then gets written into the narrative,” Rendsburg says. “Religious symbols always get reimagined.”

“People celebrate harvests, that’s what they do,” he says, but Passover was different because it was the first time such a festival was used to commemorate a historical event.

“The genius of ancient Israel was to give historical significance to the festival,” he says. “Some core element of Israelites came out of Egypt. That event took place at the time of the spring, so it was an easy association to make.”