Gentiles and Passover

Is it permissible for a Gentile to eat a Passover Seder meal? The Torah does warn, "A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it" (Exodus 12:45), and it also says, "No uncircumcised person may eat of it" (Exodus 12:48).

The Torah forbids a “sojourner (ger toshav, גר תושב)” from eating of the Passover. The sojourner is a non-Jew who resides among the Jewish people, has forsaken idolatry, abides by the laws of Noah, worships the God of Israel, but has not undergone conversion to become Jewish. This class of people are also referred to as partial-proselytes, sons of Noah (benei Noach), and God-fearers. The prohibition applies directly to Gentile believers and prohibits them from eating the Passover sacrifice. The law is incumbent upon Jews and Gentiles in Jerusalem when the Temple and priesthood are functioning. The law does not prohibit the God-fearing Gentile believers from participating in the other aspects of the festival such as the matzah, bitter herbs, four cups, other seder elements, and seven days of Passover.

The rule has no real application today because without a Temple, no one can eat of the pesach-sacrifice. In the days of the apostles, however, the law had practical relevance. Paul’s converts had freedom to remain as Gentiles, but if they wanted to go to Jerusalem and eat from the meat of a Passover sacrifice, they needed to first become legally Jewish. Most of Paul’s converts lived far from Jerusalem and did not have access to the Temple in any case. For example, neither the Corinthian Gentile Christians nor the Jewish community around them could eat of the pesach unless they traveled to Jerusalem for the festival. Therefore they kept the seder and the seven days of Passover in Corinth like the rest of Diaspora Judaism—without a lamb.

The Talmud concurs. An uncircumcised non-Jew may keep the seder and the festival of Passover, but he or she cannot eat from the actual pesach-sacrifice:

“He shall not eat of it” (Exodus 12:45), but he may eat unleavened bread and the bitter herbs. (b.Pesachim 96a)

Paul’s opponents probably employed Exodus 12:45 to argue for excluding God-fearing Gentiles from the assembly of believers. It may seem like the Torah is saying that unless a person is circumcised and Jewish, he cannot celebrate Passover at all. But a careful reading of the Hebrew text indicates that the law only excludes non-Jews from eating the sacrificial meat of the Passover lamb. Therefore, Paul could have turned the passage around to defend the Gentile believers. He could use the passage to argue that the Torah allows for such a thing as an uncircumcised “sojourner” among Israel and even creates specific legislation for such a category of people.

Non-Jewish and uncircumcised believers are welcome at the Master’s table. They should partake of the matzah, the bitter herbs, the four cups, and the whole seven-day festival with a glad heart. There is no prohibition except in regard to the sacrificed lamb itself, and under current circumstances without a Temple, there is no sacrifice. Jewish and non-Jewish believers can jointly share in and rejoice in Messiah our pesach.

But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. (Exodus 12:48)

The Torah prohibits an uncircumcised person from eating the meat of the pesach. The law applies equally to Jews and Gentiles; it prohibits uncircumcised Jewish males from eating the sacrifice as well. This law does not prohibit uncircumcised men from participating in other aspects of the Passover Seder meal, such as the four cups, the matzah, and the bitter herbs.

The law against an uncircumcised person eating the pesach would have applied directly to Paul’s God-fearing Gentile converts. For example, Paul recounts an occasion when he and Barnabas brought the God-fearing Gentile believer Titus to Jerusalem. They may have arrived for the Passover and participated in a Passover Seder together along with other Jewish believers. If so, Titus would have been welcome to participate in the seder but prohibited from eating the pesach-sacrifice itself.

Suppose that Titus wanted to make a Passover sacrifice and eat of it? What then? The Torah says, “If a stranger sojourns with you, and [makes] the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to [make] it.” The NASB translates asah (“make, do,” עשה) in Exodus 12:48 as “celebrate,” implying that non-Jews could not “celebrate Passover.” The translation is misleading. A better translation would say, “If a stranger sojourns with you and makes a pesach-sacrifice … let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to make it.”

In that regard, the Torah does make an allowance for an uncircumcised Gentile to enter the nation of Israel by submitting to circumcision along with all the males of his household. A person who undergoes conversion is accepted into the nation and may offer a pesach lamb and eat of the sacrifice. The Torah says, “He shall be like a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48), which is to say, he will be regarded as a natural-born son of Israel, i.e., an Israelite.

This text provides the biblical basis for Judaism’s ritual of conversion by which Gentiles, both male and female, may elect to become legally Jewish. A legitimate conversion ritual must be conducted under the auspices of proper Jewish authorities. Since the ceremony entails acceptance into a social entity (i.e., the Jewish people), it cannot be performed in isolation from or without the permission of that community.

If Titus decided that he wanted to return to Jerusalem the next year and eat from the pesach-sacrifice, he would have had to undergo a formal, legal conversion, including circumcision. He could have done so under the supervision of apostolic authorities. After circumcision and immersion, Titus would have acquired legal status as a Jew and been permitted to eat of the pesach-sacrifice the following Passover.

A Story from the Talmud

b.Pesachim 3b

The Talmud illustrates this law with a story.

A certain Syrian Gentile used to pretend to be a Jew and go up and partake of the Passover sacrifices in Jerusalem, boasting, “Your Torah says, ‘No alien is to eat it … no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.’ Yet I eat of the very best of the Passover lamb.”

Back in Babylon, Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra asked him, “Did they let you have the fatty tail of the lamb?”

“No,” the Gentile replied.

“Then when you next go up to Jerusalem for Passover, demand the fatty tail of the lamb from them,” Rabbi Yehudah said.

When the Gentile went up for the next Passover, he said to them, “Give me with the fatty tail of the lamb.” The others reclining at the seder exclaimed, “But the fatty tail belongs to the Most High! Who told you to ask for the fatty tail?”

“Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra told me to ask for it,” he answered.

“What is this meaning of this?” they wondered.

They investigated the man and discovered that he was Syrian and had him executed. Then they sent a message to Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra, saying, “Peace unto you Rabbi Yehudah bar Batyra, for even though you live in Nisibis of Babylon, your net is spread in Jerusalem.”

Conclusion

The Torah does prohibit Gentiles from making a Passover sacrifice and from eating of a Passover sacrifice, but it does not prohibit Gentiles from participating in the festival of Passover, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs at the seder table, or any of the other ceremonies of the festival.

Exerpted from Torah Club: Depths of the Torah

More Messianic Passover Teachings

Want more about Passover from a Messianic Jewish perspective? Check out our Passover page!

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