Hebrew Voices #67 – Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder (Rebroadcast)

Da Vinci's painting of the Last SupperIn this episode of Hebrew Voices, Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder, Nehemia Gordon and Professor Shaye Cohen of Harvard University give an overview of the Passover sacrifice from Biblical times up until the destruction of the Temple, and how it evolved into the modern-day Passover Seder. Then they use that as a foundation for looking at the nature of the Last Supper in the New Testament.

I look forward to reading your comments!

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Hebrew Voices #67 - Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder

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Shaye: The million-dollar historical problem is, what was there during that last century of the Temple’s existence? Was there something we might call the Pesach Seder? Or is it simply a meal of roast lamb? Another way of asking this question is, was the Last Supper of Jesus a Pesach Seder?

Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon, and welcome to Hebrew Voices. This is the first of two conversations I had with Professor Shaye Cohen of Harvard University. In part one, we spoke about the history of the Passover sacrifice from biblical times up until the year 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed.

We then discussed how that it evolved into the modern-day Passover Seder. All of this was to lay the foundation for part two of our conversation, in which we talked about a Christian author named Melito of Sardis, who in the 2nd century wrote a prayer service, or sermon, for a Christian Passover. Here is the first of my two conversations with Professor Shaye Cohen.

Shalom, Professor Cohen.

Shaye: Shalom.

Nehemia: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Shaye: Sure. My name is Shaye Cohen. Shaye is the Yiddish way of saying the Hebrew name of the Prophet Isaiah. I am a Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. The fancy title is Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy. I’ve been at Harvard for 15 years. I have been working on Jewish studies as my vocation, avocation, passion and commitment for a very, very long time. Yeah, that’s what I do.

Nehemia: Wonderful.

Shaye: Now, we need to have a little disquisition on the calendar. Are we allowed to do that, Nehemia?

Nehemia: I’m the calendar guy, so go for it. [laughing]

Shaye: So, the Torah, the book that Christians call The Law, explains that there are two adjacent holidays. There’s a holiday called Pesach which is a Paschal sacrifice. The word “Paschal” comes from Pesach, the Hebrew word Pesach, also translated in English as “Passover”. And then we also have a matzah festival, a seven-day matzah festival, in which we are to remove leaven from our homes and which we are to celebrate by eating unleavened bread, what we call “matzah”.

So, when do these holidays happen? They’re both in the spring, and they’re very, very close to each other. So close to each other that later Jews will simply collapse the distinction and call Pesach and matzah, “Oh, it’s all the same.” But once upon a time, it was not all the same.

Nehemia: So, in the Torah, is Pesach actually a holiday, or is it a sacrifice?

Shaye: Pesach is a sacrifice.

Nehemia: Okay, so it’s not technically a holiday, it’s a sacrifice done on the 14th day of what’s today called Nissan.

Shaye: That’s correct, the 14th day of the first month of the spring, which the Torah simply calls “the month of the spring.”

Nehemia: Or “chodesh ha’aviv.”

Shaye: Yeah, chodesh ha’aviv, correct. And now we call that Nissan. That was the Babylonian month name that Jews adopted when they went into exile.

So, on the 14th day of Nissan, in the afternoon, we slaughter a Paschal lamb or a Paschal goat, though the phrase “Paschal lamb” seems to be standard, but the Torah very clearly says “a lamb or a goat”. And we slaughter it, we sacrifice it, then we roast it, and then, come nightfall, we eat the Paschal lamb. Since a whole lamb is a lot to eat for a single person or even a single family, you get a family reunion or the clan gets together, and they eat the Paschal lamb. They are to do so with bread and bitter herbs, “al matzaht u’marorim,” “with bread and bitter herbs,” and it is to be finished before midnight.

Nehemia: Unleavened bread, right?

Shaye: Unleavened bread, thank you, unleavened bread, and we are to finish it before midnight. And then come midnight, on that very first Passover in Egypt, the destroyer goes forth and kills the firstborn, and the Israelites are being pushed out of town. Pharaoh says, “Go, go, go.” So, come morning, the Israelites are moving out.

Nehemia: You say, “the destroyer”, and that might be something we get to later, because in the Passover Haggadah it says it was “God Himself”, not some other entity.

Shaye: But the text is quite clear that there was a destroyer let loose. If you remember the 1956 movie, “The Ten Commandments…”

Nehemia: What’s in the movie?

Shaye: Well, it was a kind of a green slime that came down from heaven and in some inexplicable way, killed everybody – except the Israelites, of course, who were protected by the Paschal blood, by the blood of the Paschal sacrifice. All that’s happening on the 14th. So, the 14th is a very busy day…

Nehemia: I’ve got to stop you. You say it’s happening on the 14th, so the animal sacrifice, as I understand, is on the afternoon of the 14th?

Shaye: That’s correct.

Nehemia: And then, when they’re actually eating it, it’s the 15th, based on the day beginning in the evening.

Shaye: That’s correct.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: In the Jewish calendar, and as far as we can tell, the Israelite calendar also, although there is some uncertainty in the matter, let’s just make life easier for ourselves. Let’s say in the Jewish calendar, for sure, the Israelite calendar probably, the day, as you said, the next day begins at nightfall. So, we think that the day begins at midnight, they thought the day begins at sunset.

Nehemia: So, they’re slaughtering on the 14th, they’re actually eating it on the 15th.

Shaye: That is correct.

Nehemia: For example, in Deuteronomy 16 it speaks about “eating the sacrifice that you slaughtered and eating it on the first day,” meaning the first day of unleavened bread or chag ha matzaht.

Shaye: I’m not quite sure how to make sense out of that passage in Deuteronomy, but I’m working right now with Exodus chapter 12.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: Exodus 12 describes that very first Passover, that fateful Passover in Egypt.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: So, to summarize, on the 14th day of Nissan in the afternoon we take the goat or the lamb that we set aside for this purpose, we slaughter it, we take the blood, we daub it on the doorposts, we roast the lamb, come nightfall we eat it, or with our whole family together, and then at midnight, the destroyer goes forth, kills the Egyptian firstborn, and then, come the wee hours of the morning we march out of Egypt. That’s a brief summary, I believe, of the story in Exodus chapter 12.

Now, if you remove that original setting and you see how it turned into a ritual, then, of course, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, then the 14th day of Nissan was a day of sacrificing the Paschal lamb. Everybody would line up with their lamb at the altar, because you needed the altar to pour out the blood. The reason you can’t do a Paschal lamb without the altar, without the Temple, is you can’t do anything with the blood. You can’t just spill it out on the ground, it’s holy, it’s sacred, it’s powerful, it’s luminous. So, you’ve got to pour it out somewhere appropriate. Where is that going to be? Answer: it’s on the altar.

So, people would line up. This is the description that appears in both Josephus and in the Mishnah, there were large crowds of people bringing their animals. They would be slaughtered... You can slaughter it yourself, you don’t have to have the priest do it, you can do it yourself. You can slaughter the animal, you pour out the blood at the base of the altar. Just imagine the scene of thousands of people bringing thousands of lambs and goats, slaughtering them, all pouring blood in the same spot. It sort of boggles the mind, what this thing would have looked like.

But in any case, they then march out of the Temple and they set up shop somewhere in Jerusalem. They put the slaughtered lamb or goat on a spit, it is roasted over the fire and then come evening it is eaten. People are all over the place in Jerusalem. I assume every street corner is chock-full of pilgrims who need a place to hang out. And then they’re eating it. We eat it with matzaht, with the unleavened bread. We eat it with marorim, with bitter herbs. We’ve already taken care of the blood by pouring it on the altar. And then, that initiates the festival of Pesach as it slides into the matzah festival come nightfall. So, that part, daubing the blood on the doorpost, did not move forward in history.

Nehemia: That was just done once, as far as we know.

Shaye: Exactly, that first formative Passover, right. After that, we don’t put blood on the doorpost. We still do eat Pesach, the Paschal lamb. We do eat matzah. We do eat maror. Those things move forward in history and become part of the ritual of the Paschal lamb. Now, if there’s no Temple, there is no altar, there is nothing to do with the blood, so the sacrifice ceases. And then you’re left with… you talk about the Passover, Pesach, but you don’t really have the Pesach anymore, because there is no Paschal lamb. What you have is a seven-day matzah festival which begins on the nightfall of the 15th, with the 14th turning into the 15th.

Nehemia: So, that 14th - and I’m jumping ahead here to the New Testament - so in the New Testament it describes this thing called preparation day. Was that preparation day the day that they were slaughtering the Passover lamb, as far as you understand it?

Shaye: Yes. Presumably, preparation day is the name for Friday.

Nehemia: Meaning, every Friday is preparation day? Or it was the day they were preparing…

Shaye: Yeah, in fact in modern Greek the word for Friday is Paraskevi which means “in preparation.”

Nehemia: Okay. But that has to be based on their interpretation of what it says in the New Testament, not the other way around.

Shaye: That is correct. But life is full, and we can’t solve every problem here.

Nehemia: Fair enough, yeah. Okay.

Shaye: So, back in that first Passover in Exodus 12…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: We go very clearly from a Pesach sacrifice into a seven-day matzah festival, in which we are commanded to eat matzah, prohibited from having unleavened bread anywhere in the house or eating it. And the connection, frankly, between the Passover sacrifice and the matzah festival is not as clear as we’d like it to be. Exodus chapter 12 explains the reason they ate matzah was because they were in a hurry. Once the death and destruction was let loose, the Egyptians turned upon the Israelites and said, “Get out, get out. Go, go, go.” So, the Israelites didn’t have time for their bread to rise, and any baker will know for bread to rise you need hours, hours have to elapse, but they didn’t have hours. So they took the bread as they had it, and that was matzah.

That’s the story in Exodus 12. Hard to know whether that’s the whole story or that’s the explanation after the events, but in any case, that’s the story in Exodus chapter 12.

Later on, when the Temple was standing, we had the sacrifice, as I explained, and then we have the Pesach sliding right into the matzah festival, which begins on the 15th, and that’s a seven-day festival. And after the Temple is destroyed, you no longer have the Paschal lamb, but we still have the seven-day matzah festival, which turns out to be an eight-day matzah festival in the Diaspora, but let’s not go there. That’s another complicated and messy problem, how seven becomes eight. But in any case, by the time we’re talking about Melito’s time…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: …the sacrifice in the Temple is a memory, based on Exodus chapter 12, based on the Mishnah in Pesachim which the Rabbis also engage in an act of memory, trying to recall, recollect, imagine what the sacrifice would have been like in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Nehemia: So, after 70 when the Temple’s destroyed, they’re not actually bringing Pesach sacrifices in the Jewish world anymore.

Shaye: No. There are some hints here and there and various places that some individual Jews may have brought a lamb or a goat and slaughtered it on the spot…

Nehemia: Really?

Shaye: … on the spot, and pouring it out…

Nehemia: Oh, oh, oh, on the spot of the Temple Mount?

Shaye: …where they imagine the altar had been. I don’t know if they were accurate or not, it doesn’t matter. They thought they were.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: They were pouring out the blood on that spot which they thought was the authentic spot for the Paschal sacrifice, so there’s some sign that the Paschal sacrifice, unlike other sacrifices, which are far more demanding, ritually speaking, for which you need priests and the whole apparatus…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: …to offer the sacrifices. The Paschal sacrifice is fundamentally a layperson’s sacrifice; you do the slaughtering, you do the eating. The only thing you needed the priests for is to take the animal, the slaughtered animal, and pour out the blood on the altar.

Nehemia: Didn’t they also have to burn the chelev, the fats?

Shaye: Yeah… they’re processing thousands of these, you know? Right, so fundamentally, you’re doing it, i.e., you’re slaughtering it, you’re handling it, you’re roasting it, you’re eating it.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: And the priests have nothing to do except pour out the blood. So, it is primarily a layperson’s sacrifice, where you’re supposed to be in a state of purity. You know, there are rules, of course, but it is fundamentally laypeople. The priests have relatively little to do, unlike other sacrifices where, of course, they are much more heavily involved.

So after 70, we think that there were some Jews who still tried to carry on the Paschal sacrifice, and even in Israel today, there are some who think that we can’t quite yet rebuild the Temple, but the Paschal sacrifice doesn’t need a Temple. It just needs the spot, just the sacred spot of the altar. And if you’ve got that, you can do a Paschal sacrifice.

Nehemia: But they haven’t actually done it for, I guess, political reasons.

Shaye: For any number of reasons. It’s like the world will blow up.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: Or World War III might erupt.

Nehemia: In other words, there’s a group that I’ve actually spoken to that they do… And I asked them, “Is this a real Passover sacrifice?” and they say, “It’s just a mock sacrifice,” they explained.

Shaye: Yes, that’s what they say. I’m not 100 percent sure that they believe it, or I believe it, but that’s what they say.

Nehemia: I mean, I can only take people at their word, you know.

Shaye: They say that.

Nehemia: Is this a real halachic sacrifice? And they said, “No, we’re just going through the motions because we’re not on the Temple Mount and we don’t have ritual purity.” And anyway, they’re doing it on Har HaZeitim, on the Mount of Olives.

Shaye: Yeah, right. Well, then it’s clear, then, that they’re not doing the real thing.

Nehemia: Because they couldn’t do it at the Temple Mount.

Shaye: No, that would, as I said, ignite World War III, or I don’t know what it would do. But anyway, as far as I know, they have not actually done it.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: But the key point here is that unlike other sacrifices, we do need much more of the infrastructure in place.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: But the Paschal sacrifice, all you need, basically, is the City of Jerusalem and the sacred spot to pour out the blood, and you’re ready to go.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: Okay, so back to where I was. So that’s the 14th, so the 14th day of Nissan is the day of the sacrifice. And then at nightfall, when it’s now the 15th of Nissan, that’s the eating of the Paschal sacrifice along with the inception of the seven-day matzah festival, which then continues, obviously, for seven days.

Nehemia: So, I read an interesting article you mentioned in one of your other classes at iTunes University by this guy named Barr, and he said some really interesting things. Because, you know, I think the average Jew assumes that the Passover Seder that we do today, that I grew up doing, is the same Passover Seder that Hillel was doing, even though Hillel’s mentioned in it with the Hillel sandwich.

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia: Last night, I actually did something I haven’t done in decades. I sat down, not on Passover, and I read the Passover Haggadah in preparation for this, and I was struck by the statement of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah…

Shaye: Yes.

Nehemia: “I was like 70 years old,” which I think means he was 17, “And I have never recounted the Passover at night until Ben Zoma came and explained we’re supposed to do it.” What do you mean? I thought we have a Passover Seder and a Haggadah every year. I mean, this Rav Elazar ben Azariah, sometime around the year 90 AD, right?

Shaye: Give or take, yeah.

Nehemia: Give or take a few years, and he’s saying in his whole life, he’s never, ever recounted the Passover story at night, only during the day.

Shaye: Okay, I’ll tell you how the passage is interpreted. What Ben Zoma actually meant to say, I can’t tell you…

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: … except to say that Elazar ben Azariah’s comment is understood to mean that this is the last paragraph of the Shema. So, as you know, the Shema has three paragraphs. There’s, “Shema, hear o’Israel, you shall love the Lord, your God.” That’s paragraph number one. Paragraph number two is, “And if you obey the words of God then blessing will flow, and if you disobey the words of God, then disaster will follow.” That’s the second paragraph of the Shema, Deuteronomy 11. And then you’ve got the third paragraph of the Shema, which is the passage about phylacteries, or tzitzit, except that the very last verse of that one, “Ani Hashem Elokeichem asher hotzeiti etchem me’eretz Mitzrayim, I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.” So the third paragraph is called “yetziat Mitzrayim”. It’s called the “exodus from Egypt”.

Nehemia: Okay, so you’re saying He was recounting the Passover, he just wasn’t dealing with Numbers 15.

Shaye: … Law practices, right. He was saying, “Until Ben Zoma came along, I didn’t realize that the third paragraph of the Shema…”

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: “… talked about the tzitzit. I didn’t know you say it at night,” because after all, the mitzvah of tzitzit does not apply at night, because you can’t see…

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye:tzitzit. It says you have to see the tzitzit.

Nehemia: Is that the pshat?

Shaye: Did I say that?

Nehemia: I’m asking. [laughing]

Shaye: That’s the pshat in Elazar Ben Azariah’s comment. I believe it is.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: Otherwise, if we believe what you were suggesting, then we have to do some radical re-writing of things.

Nehemia: Not really. In other words, maybe they ate the Passover sacrifice…

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia: …and they were just having a party. And they’re not sitting around, telling the story of the Exodus. Maybe, I don’t know.

Shaye: Maybe you’re onto something. I’ve got to think about it.

Nehemia: I don’t know.

Shaye: I’ve got to think about that some more.

Nehemia: But in any event, here’s the key point that I think you will agree with, because you recommended the Barr article. Presumably, you agree with some of it.

Shaye: I haven’t looked at it in many years, but I thought it was very good when I read it.

Nehemia: And it has some really interesting points. So what he’s basically saying is, “Our Passover service today, and in the 13th century, isn’t the Passover service of the 1st century up until 70 AD.” Here’s a really interesting thing. So, I’ve been to non-Jewish Passover services where they will be doing exactly the modern-day Jewish Passover Seder, but then everything they’ve now interpreted about Jesus. And they’re doing things that according to this Barr article weren’t done in the 1st century. Now, some of these things might be from the 13th century, like the afikomen.

Shaye: Yes.

Nehemia: So here’s really the question. As far as you understand, after the year 70 AD, did the Jews continue some kind of a Passover service after the Temple was destroyed and they were no longer doing the sacrifices?

Shaye: At some point in the 2nd century of our era, some religious genius - I don’t have a name so I can’t tell you who it was - but some religious genius came up with an idea.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: Because here was the problem. The problem was, on Passover eve, on the 14th day and into the 15th, the main event is the Paschal lamb, right? Bringing it to the Temple, slaughtering it, roasting it, eating it as a family clan unit. That’s the main event. The problem is, after the Temple has been destroyed, certainly after Bar Kochba, after 135, when it’s not clear Jews had even had access altogether to the city of Jerusalem, then the main event is… well, there is no main event. There’s no event at all. There’s no Paschal lamb.

But some religious genius said, “I know what we’ll do. We don’t have a Paschal lamb, but we can talk about the Paschal lamb.”

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: “And we can talk about it and tell stories, and narratives, and laws, and Hallel, and now we’ll make something out of it, you know? It’s not nothing, we can make something.” In other words, giving us the Seder. So, I would argue that before 70 CE, when there still was a Temple, there was no Seder. You had a ritualized meal, yes. I wouldn’t quite call it a Seder yet, because what the Seder requires paradoxically, is the absence of the Paschal lamb. That’s what makes the Seder a Seder. We fill up the empty space by talking, by singing, and that is what becomes the Seder.

And some religious genius in the 2nd century CE came up with that idea, and that, in fact, is the paradigm for Rabbinic Judaism. We take what was in the Temple but we replace it. We don’t have the Temple, we don’t have the sacrifices, we don’t have the priests, we don’t have the Levites - the whole infrastructure is gone. But we pretend that it’s there. We make believe it’s there, and that’s just as effective. In fact…

Nehemia: What do you mean, it’s just as effective?

Shaye: It’s more effective.

Nehemia: In what sense?

Shaye: It’s religiously meaningful.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: It fills up a void in our lives. It is a way of transporting ourselves from the here and now to the ultimate and the hereafter.

Nehemia: That’s a very specific definition of effective. [laughing]

Shaye: It defines that.

Nehemia: In other words, if you’re a biblical… and I’ll use the word “fundamentalist”, and you say, “Hey, I want to fulfil the letter of Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16,” then it’s not effective at all. Or, maybe it’s effective, but in a very limited way.

Shaye: Well, this is my point. The whole point here is that by having a Pesach Seder, we don’t notice how absent the Paschal lamb is.

Nehemia: That’s profound; okay.

Shaye: In other words, we talk about it so much, it’s as if it’s there. And it’s as if we are doing exactly what Exodus 12 says, although frankly, we’re not doing at all what Exodus 12 says, because the main thing is missing.

Nehemia: So, talk about the transformative function of ritual. I mean, that’s explicitly stated in the Jewish sources related to Pesach.

Shaye: That’s correct. That’s perhaps one of the most amazing things about the Pesach Seder. It is transformative, right? We imagine ourselves; we pretend that we were there. And as you said, it’s explicit. I don’t have to read…

Nehemia: Right.

Shaye: …between the lines, it’s quite explicitly there. And the same thing is saying, it’s as if the Paschal lamb were there.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: As if we were in Egypt and we were experiencing the exodus. As if, as if, as if. That, I would say, is part of the theme of the Pesach Seder. Just as our ancestors were redeemed, so too, we are redeemed, or we will be redeemed. Or yes, we are yet to be redeemed. But it’s all going to happen now, the same way our ancestors were redeemed. So, it’s all transformative. We ally to the distinctions of time. We ally to the distinctions of place. We ally to the distinctions of ritual, right? And we are redeemed.

Nehemia: And let me read this passage, it’s Pesachim chapter 10 Mishnah Hey.

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia:Bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmoh ke’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim. Each and every generation, a man is required to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.”

Shaye: Correct.

Nehemia: And then it quotes a verse that’s obviously their interpretation of the source – I guess, everything is. Exodus 13, “And you shall tell your sons on that day saying, ‘Because of this, the Lord took me out of Egypt.’”

Shaye:Ba’avur ze asah Hashem li betzaiti miMitzrayim

Nehemia: Right, so they’re focusing on the word “me”. And then it goes on, “Therefore, we are required to thank, and to praise and to…” a bunch of different for praise and bless, right?

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia: “To He who did for our fathers and for us all these miracles,” not just for our fathers, he did it for our fathers and for us, all these miracles. He brought us “me’avdut lecherut, from slavery to freedom, miyagon lesimcha, from misery to happiness, me’evel l’yom tov, from mourning to a holiday, u’meafela le or gadol, from deep darkness to a great light, u’mishi’abud le’geula, and from slavery to redemption.” So, I mean, it’s an amazing passage. It’s telling you explicitly, “Hey, we have this ritual, and here’s the purpose of the ritual. We’re even going to have some, perhaps biblical justification for the ritual.”

Shaye: Right, now you could argue that elsewhere, we see the transformative power of ritual in our Jewish text. But the Haggadah hits you over the head with it. I mean, it’s not implicit, it’s not subtle. It hits you right over the head, you know, “Do this, and it’s as if we were there.” And it’s as if we experienced that fateful night of the 14th day of Nissan, into the 15th day of Nissan, and on the 15th we were marching out. We were there.

Nehemia: Yeah. I did this wonderful interview with Rabbi Twerski, who is a renowned psychologist who deals with addicts, and he told the story of how one of his patients, I guess you’d call it, was so moved by the Passover Seder, and he says to him, “What’s your connection to it?” He says, “I was actually in the slavery of addiction, so I can really connect with this. I can really understand it.” Because here in Western civilization we have running water and electricity, and okay, in Israel we’ve got some wars, but the idea of slavery is somewhat abstract to us, to many of us.

Shaye: That is true, although we understand why the African-American experience, they naturally gravitate towards this story, because they found in this story a story about their own lives, about themselves, which we could understand completely. In the Jewish experience, any time we have a slave driver, wicked oppressor, he’s called Pharaoh. He can be called other things, too, but Pharaoh is one of the options.

Nehemia: Yeah.

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia: Right.

Shaye: We look forward to our new Pesach, a new redemption, or a new Purim. Okay, there are a whole bunch of ways…

Nehemia: Right.

Shaye: …of biblical typologies. But certainly, Pharaoh is one way to look at our oppressor and redemption from Egypt is another way to look at our hoped-for or expected redemption. The million-dollar historical problem is, what was there during that last century of the Temple’s existence? Was there something we might call a Pesach Seder, or is it simply a meal of roast lamb?

Nehemia: So, the answer is, nobody really knows for sure.

Shaye: The answer is, nobody knows for sure, but we have guesses. And I belong to the school which says, “You don’t have a Passover Seder yet.” Another way of asking this question is, was the Last Supper of Jesus a Pesach Seder?

Nehemia: Wow.

Shaye: That’s another way of phrasing the question. What exactly is he doing? And the descriptions in the Gospels, in fact, are an important source for trying to figure out how did Jews celebrate the sacrifice of the Pesach on the 14th day of Nissan?

So I belong to the school which says it’s not yet a Seder, right? It’s the beginnings of a Seder. You can see the stuff out of which a Seder will emerge after the destruction of the Temple, but in and of itself, it’s not yet a Seder. It is a ritualized meal, to be sure.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: They had roast lamb, to be sure, matzah, bitter herbs, apparently wine, because wine is not mentioned in the Torah in this context, but everybody knows a festival meal has wine. You can’t have a festival meal without wine, so of course, there’s wine. And Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about the bread and the wine, and you know, that presumably there’s bread and wine on the table. It says the word “bread”, but surely it means matzah. I can’t believe it would be anything other than matzah. And as we all know, matzah is bread, matzah is a kind of bread, so that’s perfectly okay.

But at the end of the day, do I see ritualized instruction? No, I don’t. Do I see questions and answers? Well, not really. And some of the hallmarks of the Seder just aren’t there yet, but they will come after the Temple.

Nehemia: My impression from the Barr article was that the Seder we have today, which coalesced, you know, who knows when, right? But it seemed to me like from the sources he was bringing is that they combined different sources, like they had a source about the four questions…

Shaye: Right.

Nehemia: And they had another source about leaning. And they combined a bunch of different sources and said, “Hey, let’s take everything and smush it together and make one big ceremony with it, and try to cover all our bases.”

Shaye: Yeah, it’s complicated. The Seder is a multi-layered thing. It grows out of something and it turns into something. As you correctly said, the Seder that we have at our home today is probably not the same one that they had 1,000 years ago, or the same one as they had 2,000 years ago.

Nehemia: Even 1,000 years ago they didn’t have it, you’re saying?

Shaye: That’s correct. Even 1,000 years ago.

Nehemia: Wow. Okay, so you’re telling me Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t sitting at his Seder and singing…

Shaye: Chad Gadya.

Nehemia: Dayeinu.

Shaye: Singing Chad Gadya or Dayeinu. Yeah, I’m going to make that same…

Nehemia: “Dy, dayeinu, dy…” He wasn’t singing that, okay. [laughing]

Shaye: Not as far as we know. [laughing]

Nehemia: Okay. And essentially to say that he was is an anachronism?

Shaye: Of course. That is correct, that would be completely anachronistic.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: Even kos shel Eliyahu, which for many people is a high point of the service…

Nehemia: Definitely, for me.

Shaye: That’s not attested until the high Middle Ages. The cup of Elijah that we put on the table because on this night of redemption we are hoping and expecting that Elijah will show up, preferably bringing the Messiah with him. After all, that’s Eliyahu’s job. So, it is the night of redemption, going back to typology, right? There’s redemption past, redemption future, it’s all the same redemption, and we hope to experience redemption and of course, who better to bring redemption than Elijah the Prophet. So, we put out a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet. I have a long footnote attached to this…

Nehemia: Yes.

Shaye: There is probably a different explanation entirely to this cup of Elijah.

Nehemia: What’s that?

Shaye: It probably was a fifth cup, because there are different customs of doing how many cups of wine, if there should be five. So, we couldn’t decide if there were four or five, so we drink four cups, and we put the fifth one on the table and we don’t drink it, as a way of compromising. It turns into Elijah’s cup in the high Middle Ages, that fifth cup becomes Elijah’s cup.

Nehemia: When you say the “high Middle Ages”, give us a century for that.

Shaye: Oh, I didn’t do my homework, so I don’t remember exactly where that first appeared. I’m going to say 12th century.

Nehemia: All right, plus minus the 12th century, okay.

Shaye: Yeah.

Nehemia: And then, the opening the door for Elijah, how far back… do you have any idea how far back that goes?

Shaye: That also goes back to the high Middle Ages, because then Elijah is visiting us, then we have the habit of saying, “Opening the door,” and we have the custom of saying those verses, “Sh’foch chamatecha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha.” Yeah, all of these things, they’re not there in antiquity, you know. Read the Mishnah Pesachim chapter 10, which is the original description we have of the Seder, and it’s not found anywhere. It’s not in the Talmud on the spot, not in the Babylonian Talmud, not the Yerushalmi. They never heard of kos shel Eliyahu. They heard about five cups, perhaps, but they never hear about Eliyahu and Sh’foch chamatecha, and opening the door, and hiding the afikomen. For most people, these are the highlights of the Seder, but they’re not there.

Nehemia: Can you just talk about the afikomen? So, you take the matzah at the beginning, you break it in half and you hide the bigger half. And then later, the kids go look for it. And growing up, I never had any idea what the word “afikomen” meant, so help us out here.

Shaye: All right, so this, again, I’m going to say it briefly. It’s complicated, right? So, I want to pick up where you left off. So, you’re describing how we celebrate the afikomen today, at least in most homes.

Nehemia: And you find it, you get a chocolate bar.

Shaye: Exactly. You find it, you get a present or the kid find it usually holds out for… He plans to negotiate for a tricycle, or a bicycle, or, you know…

Nehemia: Not in my family. It was a chocolate bar. [laughing]

Shaye: Right, or against a video game, or something. You know, it becomes a mild, polite form of blackmail. You know, the kid finds the afikomen. If you want it back, it’s going to cost you. All right, so in other words, it’s a game, really. It turns into a game, and we hide the afikomen or it’s found, or in some families, the kids hide it and the grown-up has to find it, which is not the way we did it in my home, which sounds similar to you.

And as you said, it’s the afikomen broken off at the beginning of the meal, hidden, and then brought back at the very end of the meal. The last thing you’re supposed to eat on the night of Passover, of Pesach, is the piece of matzah which represents the afikomen. The end of the meal is when you eat that final ceremonial pieces of matzah.

Now, what’s going on there? So the kiddy stuff, the Talmud already refers to playing games with the kids to keep them awake, right? They don’t describe the afikomen game, but the Talmud already does describe distributing fruit and nuts and candy to children to keep them awake.

Nehemia: That’s because Barr explains - I believe he explains - that people would go to sleep right after it got dark. And here, you’re starting the meal, essentially, when it gets dark.

Shaye: That’s a very good point, right. They didn’t have electric lights, so yeah, they tended to live way more than we are, in accordance with the natural cycle of sunlight, of daylight. When daylight starts you get up, and when daylight ends, you go to sleep. We have electricity, so we are immune to that pattern. That pattern is not our pattern of life anymore.

Anyway, so the important thing is, the afikomen as we have it has an amusing side, it’s child-centered side, but it also has a serious side. And as many people have observed, the afikomen as we have it, probably is meant to symbolize redemption. It probably is meant to symbolize the Messiah Himself, namely, at the very beginning, the Messiah, the Mashiach, the redemption is taken away and hidden away, so, we experience the rest of the evening without the Messiah, without redemption, until finally, in the fullness of time, the Messiah is revealed, namely the afikomen is revealed. So, the afikomen is ritualizing our Messianic expectations, our hope for redemption, right? Hidden away at the beginning, designated by God but basically kept under wraps until finally the Messiah comes forth.

Now, many scholars have tried to say that that theology of that piece of matzah was already known in the 1st century CE, and that’s what Jesus is doing when he was talking about breaking the matzah. “This is My body,” et cetera, he’s actually alluding to this Midrashic trope of this piece of matzah representing redemption.

Nehemia: And when you say, “under wraps”, it’s literally wrapped up.

Shaye: It’s hidden. It’s hidden, right, until it is revealed.

Nehemia: Well, but it’s actually covered in a cloth, at least that’s how we did it.

Shaye: Yeah, we have an afikomen bag with a little zipper. It says “afikomen”.

Nehemia: Ah, okay, that’s what you guys do, okay.

Shaye: It says “afikomen” on it, that’s how you know what’s inside. [laughing]

Nehemia: Okay. I’ve heard Christians say that just as you put a cloth over the afikomen, that’s the shroud that Jesus was covered in.

Shaye: Oh, I never heard that, but okay. That’s fine, okay.

Nehemia: It’s a dvar Torah. [laughing]

Shaye: If that works for them, then I’m happy for them.

Nehemia: Okay.

Shaye: Now, the problem is that both the word and the custom have histories to them, right? These things are not simple. They don’t start early, they grow. So, the word “afikomen” appears in the Mishnah, Mishnah Pesachim 10. And the answer we give to the wise son, we quote that passage in the Mishnah, “Ein maftirin achar haPesach afikomen,” right? That’s always said to the wise son. You remember the wise son asks, “What are all these commandments?” et cetera. So, we say to the wise son, we give him instruction. We instruct the wise son on all the laws of Pesach, even until the law which is “Ein maftirin achar haPesach afikomen.” Now, what does that mean exactly? It’s very difficult, the Hebrew is very difficult.

It looks like what it means is that we don’t bid farewell to the Paschal meal with afikomen. What does the afikomen mean? Afikomen seems to be mean “after dinner entertainment”, or “after dinner treats”, or something like that. In other words, we don’t want to detract from the centrality of the Paschal meal. So, normally after a big, glorious meal full of wine and multiple courses, and a fancy, shmancy meal, we would go out carousing. But not tonight, not on the 14th, 15th day of Nissan. We don’t go carousing after the Paschal meal because…

Nehemia: Explain what you mean by “carousing”. So, Barr refers to it as “dessert”.

Shaye: Yeah, dessert is one kind of carousing. Carousing would be to sit around drinking wine, getting drunk, walking around on the streets, you know, dancing girls, that’s carousing.

Nehemia: Okay. Is that something that was done in the Roman world, they’d go around dancing in the street after…?

Shaye: Sure, that’s right. Have you ever read Petronius, the Satyricon? You know, that’s what…

Nehemia: I have not. So, you’re saying, so they didn’t do afikomen. The Mishnah specifically mentions…

Shaye: That’s correct.

Nehemia: … we don’t do afikomen after the Passover.

Shaye: That’s correct. The Mishnah says that we don’t do afikomen after the Pesach, after the Paschal sacrifice. In other words, the end of the meal is the end.

Nehemia: So, how did we go from the Mishnah Pesachim 10 to where today, every Jew, like this is a dear part of the service. How did we go from that?

Shaye: There’s a complicated story there, which I once looked into this, trying to figure out how I could connect the dots, but the dots remain unconnected.

Nehemia: What is our first reference to afikomen that is done?

Shaye: Afikomen in our sense of the word, namely a piece of matzah which we break off in the beginning and which we eat at the end, and then it associated with games, and children, that is attested for the first time in… That is in the 12th century.

Nehemia: Okay. You’re saying the afikomen doesn’t go back to the 1st century?

Shaye: No, it doesn’t.

Nehemia: So the scholars who make the claim that Jesus is performing the afikomen ritual when he says, “This is my flesh,” you know, breaking the matzah…

Shaye: That’s not true at all.

Nehemia: How do they explain it?

Shaye: They’re 1,000 years off. They’re off by 1,000 years.

Nehemia: Okay. So, they say, “What’s 1,000 years between me and you?”

Shaye: There you go! Okay, exactly. Among friends, what’s 1,000 years? Right.

Nehemia: “What’s 400 shekels between friends,” yeah, to quote our ancestor, Avraham. Okay, so I’m going to have you back to talk about Melito of Sardis, which we never actually got to. All of this was the background.

Shaye: Okay, so we promise that we’ll get to Melito right away.

Nehemia: Excellent. Thank you, Shalom.

Shaye: Shalom, shalom, Nehemia.

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Related Posts:
When was the Passover Sacrifice Brought
Passover and Leaven
From Slavery to Freedom
Pesach: Feast of Protection
Guess Who’s Coming to Seder
An Early Christian Passover

Show Notes:
Exodus 12
Exodus 13
Numbers 15
Psachim Chapter 10, Mishnah 5
Prof. Shaye Cohen
The Seder of Passover and the Eucharistic Words

  • Sandy Yerger says:

    Nehemiah, thanks so much. i get alot out of your analyses and your guests. Thank you for bringing the Hebrew understanding to so many parts of the Brit Hadasha that, as a non-Jew, I have little knowledge of.

    I understand the comment that Yeshua’s supper didn’t have an afikomen but my take might be that many things he did had a hidden understanding that wasn’t made clear until later, and in some cases much later. Perhaps he was just foreshadowing the afikomen for our time when it would become common. Since God is outside of time, there really wouldn’t be a conflict there, and many times the Scriptures note prophetic happenings in two sentences when a large gap will occur between the 2 fulfillments.

    Shalom and keep up the good work

  • Thomas Cain says:

    I wonder if Jesus then started a new Passover since he must have kept the dinner at the beginning of the 14th and died in the afternoon of the 14th and buried at the very end of the 14th. Why wouldn’t the disciples question that?

  • daniel says:

    The Seder became effective through the imagination of storytelling, similarly as Radio has been called ‘Theater of the Mind’. I don’t think it was Pesach yet at the Last Supper, but rather on Preparation Day before Passover. Wouldn’t it be interesting though, if the Last Supper was the inspiration for both the Pesach Seder as well as Holy Communion? Hmmmm…

  • christopher scallio says:

    The Passover Passages for comprehensive study. a) Exodus 12:13
    b) 1 Corinthians 5:7 c) Exodus 23:15 d) Joshua 5:10 e) Numbers 9:13
    f) John 13:1-3 g) Numbers 9:1-5 h) Leviticus 23:4-8 l) Deuteronomy 16:1-8
    m) John 2:13-23 n) Mathew 26:17-28 o) Mark 14:12-25 p) Exodus 12:1-51

  • Rod Koozmin says:

    One famous Seventh Day Adventist, Backaotte said there was no Lamb at the Supper that Jesus was at.

  • Rod Koozmin says:

    Why did they eat unleavened bread in Egypt but today we eat unleavened crackers?

  • Lars says:

    Shaolom, Nehemia.
    Yeshua’s meal was a regular supper. They ate it after sundown the 13th of aviv, that is the beginning of the 14th., preparation day BEFORE the Holy Day of Unleavened bread. He did not come to be part of the Holy Day that “pass over” time, but to fulfill or complete the “shadow picture” of the Passover Lamb by becoming the final Lamb. He gave himself as an atonement for your and my sins so that we can come back to our Father, cleanced and ready to follow his Word, the living Torah, Yeshua.
    They did eat leavened bread (arthos). That is another proof it was not the Passover meal. Yeshua could not break his own Torah!

    • Timothy benYehovah LeCornu says:

      HalleluYah!! Finally someone who shares the truth and the real essence of this whole ritualized matter. Thank you, Lars. Shalom-shalom, Yehovah’s Perfect Peace to all reading this now.

  • Oscar says:

    It’s the second time I’ve listened to this study and not really in total agreement. The prohibition on indulging the afikomen from the 12th century presumes an already existing practice. If it’s from the Greeks certainly at least 2,000 years older, so not of12th century origin. It can also be a prohibition for observant Jews because it had been practiced not by Greeks but by Messianic Jews. The prohibition then is to distance Jews from Messianic practice. Just a thought.

  • Matt & Sue Carrasco says:

    do you have Bibles for sale or can you suggest one?

  • Jonathan Garnant says:

    Nehemiah… great study w S Cohen!
    Can we obtain a copy of Bahr’s.The Seder of Passover and the Eucharistic Words from you and not jstor [$34!] Thank you

    • Hi Jonathan, You can sign up for a free account with JSTOR and read three article online for free.

      • Jon Garnant says:

        Nehemiah…. you’re right, I have an account and was being cheeky… and cheap.

        Great study, tho feel the Jaubert hypothesis on calendric issues may have bit of traction…
        Most Important, Happy Passover/DUB

    • Rod Koozmin says:

      Hello Jon you Baptised me, best wishes. Would you ever have a chanch to read Pagan Christianity by Viola. He goes into the Sophists who influenced Christianity in the one man talking many listening concept of religion. In Acts 12:12,13 we have early Christians meeting. I think they are meeting like the Jews of the day and even maybe Jesus, praising God in the Assembly or the grand Assembly as it says in the Psalms. Good to see you again.

  • jgarnant says:

    Apologies… excellent segment on Passover vs Seder….!

  • Rocky Jackson says:

    Wow that’s extremely interesting in light of what source material I’ve heard over this journey..

    Can’t wait for part 2 either.

  • Keren De Torno says:

    Nehemia what options do we take for the actual celebration date when we bring the Feast of Unleaven Bread when there are two shabbats according to the calendars in use? One here in the US, and another in Israel

    And, what of this practice of allowing a gentile to “purchase” our chamatz when we remove it from our dwelling, and then us buying it back? When did this traditional practice originate?

    When will Part Two of this interview be released????

  • BillyP says:

    I just stumbled upon the Fast of the First Born. could it be that Jesus and his disciples where having the last super before his fast which was done by the first born the day before Passover?

  • Ruth says:

    I am not totally agree with this perspective. it is indeed obvious that Yeshua’s Last Supper was not similar to the modern day Seder ,since Yeshua ate the Pesach Lam. However, there are some similarities with the Seder and these are:
    1. The cups of wine. In Luke 21 Yeshua use cups of wine , although this was not commanded in Torah. The cups of wine were added by the Rabbis
    2.Yeshua spoke the bracha before each cup as in the Seder, where the bracha is spoken before each cup.
    3.The dipping of food we see in John 13;26 as in the Seder.

  • Lars T. says:

    Now According to the gospels, the Last supper of Yeshua ve-ha’Talmidim occured the Evening BEFORE the preparation day. As Yeshua was killed on the day before the Sabbath of the unleavened Bread. therefore it seems to me that “last supper” was one evening to early, ( eg, the evening of 13:th/14:th of Nissan) to be a Pascal meal as the lambs/goats were not yet slaughtered. If this could be discussed i would be grateful.

    • Dave R says:

      Lars, Shanah Tovah! The Gospel of John seems to align the best, both if Yeshua would be killed as the “Passover lamb”, but in alignment with the other events. It’s pretty safe to say that events can not be viewed without “Hebrew goggles”. Time wise, Yeshua is anointed on the 5th day of the week (8thday of first month), rides into Jerusalem (10th day of the first month) and teaches on Shabbat at the Temple. After Shabbat, occurs the “last supper” which could not be a Passover Seder. On that evening after Shabbat, Yeshua is arrested. After 3 days of inspection which includes Caiaphas (bearing iniquities against Yeshua) pressuring Pilate to kill Yeshua, who is found without fault. That has to occur not on a Shabbat, nor after the 14th, as Caiaphas didn’t want to be defiled at Pilate’s court. Yeshua is crucified on the afternoon of the 14th day of the first month (4th day of week). He is taken down (dead already?) and placed in the tomb prior to the 15th day. 3 days in the tomb, and Mary goes to the tomb early on the 1st day of the week (after Shabbat) and finds the tomb empty. I have a problem that on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, that any Pharisees would go to Pilate and insist on a Roman guard, which is not mentioned in any other Gospel.

    • Ruth says:

      The last supper was indeed a Passover meal since the Gospels Matthew ,Mark, and Luke called it ‘passover”. Yeshua also called it’ Passover”. In order to understand the verse in John 18:28 It is good to take into accountability the custom of some Jews during the period of the second temple to slain the Passover Lam on the afternoon of nisan 14 and eat it at the beginning of nisan 15. So this mean that some Jews kill the passover lam at the start of nisan 14, this according to the command in exodus 12, and other groups such as sadducees, kill the lam on the evening of nisan 14 and eat it on nisan 15

      • Lars T says:

        Hi, Yes that is one explanation, that it was possible to eat the pascal lamb both on the first and second evening of the fourteenth of Nissan. Yeshua ate it on the first evening ( Luke 22;13) and the Zadokim ate it on the second evening. (John 18:28) And Yeshuas trial and cruxifiction takes place on the day of the 14:th , the preparation day. Then we have Nehemia Gordon arguing in another post, that evening the 14:th/15:th of Nissan is what is commanded in Exodus 12. I dont know much about the history of this intra-jewish point of contention. But if its been around since the 2nd Temple period its ancient indeed.

      • Anon says:

        John 18:28 proves that the “last supper” the night before was Not the Passover. “They themselves did not go into the palace {Rome’s Fort Antonia}, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover {which would be later that evening}.”

  • Trekbaby says:

    Shalom! Thank you for your work. My understanding is that the earliest most complete Haggadah goes back to the 9th century and resembles much of what we have today. Have you heard of or come across this document?

  • Dave R. says:

    wow! 1st, the professor encumbers the requirement of the Temple altar to qualify the pouring out of the blood of the Paschal lamb sacrifice (Takanot). I assume this is where Christian doctrine places so much emphasis on “the Blood” yet says that the Torah no longer applies due to sacrifices requiring the Temple, : no temple – no sin sacrifice possible. More importantly, If Talmudists declare that there can’t be a Pashal sacrifice without the Temple, then per Ex 12:48, there is no way to keep Pesach, and therefore no sojourner can be grafted in as native under one Law.

  • Barbara Stewart says:

    PLEASE!!! Bring on part 2! This was a Cliffhanger. ?

  • Dennis says:

    Was “the LAST SUPPER” celebrated with leavened or unleavened bread?

  • Karen Polcsik says:

    Thank you, Nehemiah. That was a very interesting show as usual.
    As far as Yeshua’s “Last Supper” being a Seder or not, I found the best understanding to this topic compiled in the comments of Michael Rood’s “Chronological Gospels”. According to this commentary the Last Supper was not a Seder, especially as the bread was leavened according to the Greek translation of that word which would be a big clue. Could there have been a deeper meaning or possibly a rehearsal of Melchizedek’s bread and wine?
    I don’t know, but after reading it from that perspective it gave me more things to chew on!!

    • David Johnson says:

      Actually the Greek word is not restricted to Leavened as Luke 24:30 and in the Sept. Lev 2:4 Lev 8:26 & Num 6:19 testify

  • Keren DeTorno says:

    WOW Nehemia! This one professional interview discusses and contains numerous historically relevant explanations for the current Pesach ceremonious practices brought forth through time to our so called Seder by “tradition without credibility”. This validated by the cited 12th C origins in chronology that many of these practices were not even done before then.
    For this Karaite family, this has determined our prayers recited, practices of what is served on that table, and most importantly, our BELIEFS of What Pesach truly means to us today since we no longer offer sacrifices in remembrance of this high holiday.

    So looking forward to the Second part of this interview!

    Toda raba

  • Janet says:

    Perhaps the name of the Last Supper should be changed to the ‘First Supper’. It may be the first example of a Pesach remembrance meal, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. After all, did Yeshua not tell the disciples that the Temple would be destroyed? Could this have been a last instruction to his disciples?

  • Barbara J says:

    Listening to your discussion on the transformative function of ritual brought to mind a recent experience I had at the Museum of the Bible in D.C. There is an interactive exhibit called The Hebrew Bible. At a point in the exhibit, you and all the others attending, stand in the dark around a single poignant sculpture of an Israelite family while the events of Passover are told. And then you continue on into the exodus, so to speak. It was remarkable – sensing the power, the fear, the relief. The artist(s) desire seems to be the same as the direction from the Mishnah and Haggadah – placing the person in Egypt at that specific point in time.
    Thank you for bringing these interesting discussions, looking forward to part 2.

  • Simon says:

    Can you explain. Is the 14 day of Nison is the day of attonment. Was the passover on the the day of attonment.

    • Neville says:

      No, they are not the same. Passover is the 14th day of the 1st month. The Day of Atonement is the 10th day of the 7th month, so almost 6 months apart.

  • LuEvea Zamarron says:

    Shalom from Lansing, Michigan ? I enjoy listening to your teachings and just listened to your part #1Segment about Passover. My question is, will you also be posting part #2 ?

    Thank You For All You Do, You have been one of the Blessing in my walk towards Truth ? Shalom, LuEvea “Lu” Zamarron