Passover Communion

A couple years ago when I attended the Passover Seder at my parents’ home, I was struck by two of the rituals which are incorporated into that celebration, the blessings over the bread and the wine. These are known, respectively, as the HaMotzi and the HaGafen, and, while not limited to Passover, are integral to the contemporary Passover ceremony. I used the word “contemporary” because, despite diligent research, I have been unable to determine when these prayers came into common usage, although it is possible that they could date back as far as the time of Christ. And if not, it is likely that some equivalent prayers were, indeed, employed during the time of Christ, and this is attested to by the accounts we find in the New Testament of the Last Supper. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the prayers themselves, along with their translations, as found on Wikipedia:

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.
(Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.)

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, bo’re p’ri hagafen.
(Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.)

The first of these appears to derive from Psalm 104:14, which reads: “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate — bringing forth food from the earth…” This is the NIV translation, but it should be noted that the word here translated as “food” is literally translated as “bread.” The assumed equivalency of these two translations is significant, which will become apparent below.

The second of these prayers clearly derives from the Babylonian Talmud, an ancient collection of commentaries on the Jewish Bible. The ultimate source of these commentaries cannot be dated, since they are purported to set into writing long-standing oral traditions. In the 35th folio of the Berakoth (a portion of the Babylonian Talmud), we find the following: “What blessings are said over fruit? Over fruit of the tree one says, ‘who createst the fruit of the tree,’ except for wine, over which one says, ‘who createst the fruit of the vine.’

Although we cannot know exactly when these prayers, in their present form, were first adopted, they are clearly prayers of thanksgiving, ascribing our bounty to the provision of God and expressing solemn gratitude for that provision. Which is interesting, since in Mark 14:22-24 we find the following: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them.”

The key phrase here is “when he had given thanks,” which seems to indicate that prayers of thanksgiving (not quoted in the text) were spoken, prayers which must have been very similar to the HaMotzi and the HaGafen. We tend to think of “saying grace” as a Christian custom, but this demonstrates that it has its roots in longer-standing Jewish tradition.

I am well aware that there is a good deal of scholarly debate about whether or not the Last Supper was, indeed, a Passover meal. But for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter. Saying grace is saying grace, be it at Passover or at any other meal. (Jesus did not, after all, explicitly tie the observance of communion to the Passover.) Thus, the first realization I came to while sitting at my parents’ Passover table was that, in reciting the HaMotzi and the HaGafen, we were actually saying grace.

But the insight did not end there. Because the Lord’s Supper — communion — is prescribed, but without mandatory conditions. In other words, Jesus instructed the Apostles to, “do this in remembrance of me.” He did not instruct them to perform the ritual of communion at any specific time, in any specific place, or under any specific conditions. He did not even instruct them to observe this ritual as a group and, thus, ironically, one should be able to observe the ritual of “communion” in solitude. What Christ was telling the Apostles to do was to give thanks — and remember Him — every time they ate bread and drank wine. If we understand “bread” to mean “food” and “wine” to mean “drink,” we cannot escape the conclusion that communion should, rightly, be considered a daily practice, and this cuts to heart of why we should offer thanksgiving every time food or drink is brought to our lips.

As I sat in my parents’ dining room, I realized that, as a Christian, I was taking communion. I must admit: I wondered what my parents would have thought of that?

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