Even from the beginning in the Garden of Eden with the forbidden fruit, food has been an important part of religious scriptures. Whether rich in spices or rich in significance, meals shared in the Bible can give us a picture of what times where like then. The Biblical Passover Seder festival meal was celebrated by Jews to commemorate the mercy of God sparing them from the plague of the death of the first-born son in Egypt and subsequent freedom from slavery. Quite literally, it celebrated that God “passed over” the doors of the Israelites who had covered the doorframes to their homes in blood from a sacrificial lamb and allowed them to live. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder meal that Jesus Christ and his disciples ate to celebrate this event. Jesus taught his disciples that the wine and the bread at the meal signified that he would become the sacrificial lamb by which sins are forgiven and reconciliation with God can occur.
Fruit Salad (chopped apples, figs, dates, with walnuts or almonds)
Parsley dipped in salt water
Matzah (tortilla-sized, crispy, unleavened bread)
Horseradish or Bitter Herbs dipped in Charoset
The temperate climate and soil made for excellent growing conditions for many fruits such as pomegranates, figs, dates and apricots. Date honey, which we might today recognize better as date syrup, was made by boiling dates, straining them through a cloth, and further reducing the remaining liquid. Fiber and antioxidants from fruits like this would have been protective against diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diverticulitis and diabetes.
Parsley (or another green vegetable) was dipped in salt water at the beginning of the ceremony as a symbol of the hyssop branches that were used to apply the lamb’s sacrificial blood to the doors of the Israelites in Egypt. The green of the parsley symbolized spring or youth, a reminder that God saved the Israelites by parting the salty waters of the Red Sea to allow them to escape from Pharaoh when they were still a young nation. Parsley is rich in vitamin K and antioxidants such as vitamin C and luetolin which prevent damage to cells in the body that often lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and asthma. A small amount of salt would’ve been important to help maintain proper fluid balance and regulate blood pressure.
The egg is symbolic of life and resurrection, and of the sacrifice that was offered in the Temple on the first morning of Passover. Eggs have very high quality protein which aids in muscle strength, and nutrients such as choline (beneficial for brain functions) and lutein (helpful for preventing macular degeneration and blindness).
In remembrance of the Israelite slaves leaving Egypt in such a hurry after being freed from Pharaoh that they did not even take time for the bread to rise (Exodus 12:39), they removed all leavened bread products from their homes during this special feast, a tradition that continues today among Jews. Unleavened bread (similar to the taste of a cracker), or matzah, is a good carbohydrate source, providing fuel for the body that gives you energy.
Bitter herbs symbolized the bitterness of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:8). Horseradish, chicory and radishes were used for this. These herbs were dipped into a sweet, fermented paste made from fruits and nuts called Charoset (often made from apples, grapes, dates, figs, cinnamon and almonds). Phytochemicals in these herbs and fruits aid in digestion and promote intestinal health. These foods are also rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, to protect against disease.
Lettuce symbolized the change in the Egyptians’ attitudes towards the Jews. At first their attitudes were sweet, like baby lettuce. Then they became bitter, like lettuce left in the field too long. Lettuce is rich in vitamin K which has a role in bone health and vitamin A which is essential for vision.
Although the lamb was an integral part of the meal, it was not the main course and the portion would have been quite small (maybe even just a few bites), especially compared to today’s standards. A lamb was used in an offering of thanksgiving because God passed over the houses of the Israelites whose door frames were coated with lamb’s blood during the plague of the first-born of Egypt. Besides beef, people also enjoyed wild gazelle, chicken, peacock, quail and pheasant (the most expensive after beef). However, it was not common for most people to eat meat every day. Small servings of red meat such as this would’ve been rich in iron and zinc, helpful for growth, mental focus and healing from injuries.
Olives were likely on the table, along with olive oil for dipping the matzah (Mark 14:20). Olives contain antioxidant flavonoids which help protect the body from free radicals, chemicals that damage cells and can lead to cancer and heart disease. Even though olive oil is a fat, it’s mostly monounsaturated fatty acids which are considered heart healthy and can normalize blood clotting and may help control blood sugar levels.
We deduce that the wine was most likely red rather than white based on the numerous Biblical passages connecting wine and blood (Ezekiel 19:10, Isaiah 49:26). Perhaps the best known example of this symbolism is when Jesus raised the glass of wine at the Last Supper with the words, “this is my blood” (Matthew 26:27-28). Another hint about the color of the wine comes from a Hebrew word used for wine — hamra — which comes from the word for a shade of red. Wine was sometimes sweetened with raisins, honey or fruit juices such as pomegranate juice (Song of Solomon 8:2). Red wine is known to have heart-healthy benefits because of a positive effect on the good cholesterol in the blood when consumed in moderation and with a healthy diet and regular physical activity. People would’ve walked many miles to and from Jerusalem to participate in the Passover Seder, so getting physical activity was certainly not an issue for them.
Estimating portion sizes from Biblical times is challenging, but the following amounts per person were considered as typical: ½ cup chopped apples, ½ cup chopped figs, 1 tablespoon walnuts, 2 sprigs of parsley, a dash of salt, 1 medium boiled egg, 1 matzah cracker, 1 tablespoon raw chicory greens, ¼ cup fruit salad (charoset), 4 lettuce leaves, 1 oz cooked lamb, and 12 ounces (4 cups of 3 oz each) red wine.
|Nutrient||Estimated Amount in Meal|
|Dietary Fiber||7 grams dietary fiber|
|Vitamin K||57 mcg vitamin K|
|Vitamin C||19 grams vitamin C|
|Iron||4.5 mg iron|
|Sodium||300 mg sodium|
Written with the assistance of Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, PhD (maqom.com). Special thanks to Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, PhD and Joe Parle, PhD for their expertise.
Ref: Feinberg Vamosh, M. Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper. Abingdon Press, 2004.