When someone asks about your Thanksgiving Day traditions, what do you say? Some people jump right into describing the feast. Whether it’s the secret recipe for turkey and dressing or Grandma’s homemade sweet potato pie, food is the pinnacle for many people on this holiday. Others just laugh and try to ignore the thought that they must spend an entire day in a confined space with their inlaws or a large group of rowdy cousins. However, special gatherings centered on loved ones and food meant something different for Jews in biblical times, and the customs and traditions surrounding these gatherings are still honored and taught today.
In Jewish culture, meals have always represented a time of reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity. This meaning especially held true centuries ago for Jews celebrating the Passover. From the place a person sat to the dish that was served, everything had its symbolic place. The Explorations in Antiquity Center of LaGrange, allows guests to experience this Passover meal, and this past Tuesday, November 15, participants in this year’s Fall Conference: “From Nazareth to Bethlehem” had this incredible opportunity.
The room that the meal was served in was historically set up to represent the way The Last Supper would have appeared. The three-sided tables were much lower to the ground than traditional tables, and they didn’t have chairs surrounding them, either. Participants were taught that Jews didn’t eat while sitting up; instead, they would lie down on their sides during the meal in order to eat comfortably. Servants, however, had to stand while eating. The “second man in command”, so to speak, was placed at the head of the upper end of the table to assist the host beside him. On the other side of the host was the honorable guest. Following this idea, most historical and biblical scholars believe that John, the youngest disciple, was at the head of the table, followed by Jesus as the host, and Judas Iscariot as the honorable guest.
After explaining the way people placed themselves to eat, it was time for the actual Passover meal. There were no knives, forks, or spoons in biblical times, so they ate by hand. The meal began with a blessing over the unleavened bread and then with a blessing over the wine (grape juice for those at The Antiquity Center). But, right at the beginning of the Jewish feast, there is already a substantial difference in the way they began their meals compared with ours. Their blessings were not for themselves; unlike most of our pre-meal prayers, they didn’t’ ask God to bless their family, friends, and food. Rather, they blessed God. Their prayers being with “Blessed are You, Oh Lord, our God, King of the Universe…” Following the opening blessings, participants were served bitter herbs dipped in vinegar. This represents the bitterness of bondage that Israeli slaves faced under Egyptian rule. Next, charoset was brought to the table. Charoset is a sweet, apple sauce-like paste that is made with fruits and nuts. Charoset serves as a symbol for brick mortar, reminding the Israelites that hard work brings about sweet blessings from God. Then, participants were served boiled eggs. Since these eggs are boiled together, they represent shared suffering. Jews eating this meal could either serve boiled eggs or roasted lamb, but eggs were much cheaper and easier to find. Rounding off the meal, guests were given lentil soup, basic salad, roasted chicken, fruit, and nuts – all foods that are common to Israel.
Once participants finished the meal, they learned that what made the symbol of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet so incredible is the simple fact that according to Jewish custom, that was not His job. As the host, He was not in charge of cleaning people’s feet; that was the job of the servant at the end of the table (most historical and biblical scholars believe that Peter took the role of the servant at The Last Supper). He stepped down out of his higher role to take the place of a servant. Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:28.
Meals weren’t a time to gorge on delicious food or avoid obnoxious relatives, much like our Thanksgiving traditions go. Meals were a time for everyone to bless The Lord, to reflect on the blessings of their people, and to become a blessing for all who were present.
For more information on The Explorations In Antiquity Center’s conferences, biblical meals, archaeological tours, and more, visit their website at http://www.biblicalhistorycenter. com/programs/ or contact their office at 706885-0363.
Peyton Hanners Staff Writer