I began a tradition of reading a particular section of The Star of Redemption each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Star of Redemption, which was penned on postcards on the Balkan front in World War I, is the magnum opus of 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who lays out the most comprehensive and complementary construal of Judaism and Christianity that has ever been written.

The year I was married, I read Rosenzweig’s reflections on the meaning of Yom Kippur—a mere two weeks before my wedding—and was struck in an entirely new way. As I entered into the difficult afternoon hours of the Yom Kippur fast, I was powerfully moved by Rosenzweig’s discussion of the white garment, called a kittel (kih’-tuhl), that is traditionally worn by men (and in some Jewish circles, by women as well) on Yom Kippur.

Like everything in Judaism, the significance of this act is layered. A kittel is the traditional Jewish burial garment; wearing it on Yom Kippur represents the Jewish people’s collective guilt before God, which is a main focus of this day. God cannot abide unholiness and impurity, and on Yom Kippur the Jewish people must stare into the face of their own sinfulness and shortcomings. “Forgive us, pardon us, atone for us,” the Yom Kippur liturgy repeatedly pleads. The Day of Atonement is a day of judgment, where each individual Jew (and the Jewish people collectively) must reckon with the weight of their sin before God.

However, wearing a kittel also represents the miracle of God’s forgiveness, another key theme of Yom Kippur. To don a kittel is to visually embody the notion that “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18). For Rosenzweig, Yom Kippur is thus profoundly a day of both life and death. In place of death as a result of sin, God grants the people lavish forgiveness and the gift of continued life. One is not without the other, and each lends meaning to its opposite.

After poignantly describing the significance of wearing a kittel on Yom Kippur, Rosenzweig references Song of Songs 8:6, where we read that “love is as strong as death.” Rosenzweig continues: “And this is why the individual already once in life wears the full burial dress: under the wedding canopy, after he has received it on his wedding day from the hands of the bride.”

This was what caused my breath to catch in my throat that particular year. I had read it many times before, but never with the same gravity of meaning. Death and new life, sin and forgiveness, repentance and pardon—these key themes surrounding Yom Kippur are also the daily pathways of marriage, a reality I would experience profoundly in the years to come.

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Notably, there is one more occasion in the Jewish calendar when a kittel is traditionally worn—during the annual Passover seder, especially by the one leading the seder. On that particular fall day on Yom Kippur, I was left pondering the connection not only between Yom Kippur and one’s wedding day, but also between Yom Kippur and Passover.

Many of these theologically rich connections have been lost as Judaism and Christianity distanced themselves from one another, rending the very threads that once interwove the deeply meaningful rhythms of the liturgical year. But this year, Passover and Easter fall on the same week, a reminder to Christians of the Jewish roots of our faith.

Yom Kippur is instituted in the Torah (Lev. 16, 23:26–32; Num. 29:7–11) and falls on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, the month of Tishrei. Tishrei is preceded by Elul, a month focused on the theme of repentance. According to Jewish tradition, a 40-day period of repentance begins in Elul and runs over into Tishrei, corresponding to the 40 days Moses interceded for the people of Israel after the sin of the golden calf.

In Exodus 32, while Moses was atop Mount Sinai receiving the two stone tablets from God, the people grew anxious and impatient and fashioned an idol to worship—an event that stands out as one of Israel’s greatest affronts before God.

Upon descending into the camp and seeing the people dancing around the golden calf, Moses throws down the stone tablets, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. It is an utter low point in Israel’s history, when the depth of their sin and guilt before God seems irreparable.

In an act of sheer unmerited grace, God renews the covenant with his people while Moses fashions a new set of stone tablets, declaring that he is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7). After remaining on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, Moses again descends into the camp, face radiant.

According to the rabbis, this event is the birth of Yom Kippur, the day that represents both the height of the people’s sin and iniquity and the depth of God’s unfailing love and unmerited forgiveness. This is the grand story the Jewish people enter into each year, clothed in white and ever in need of divine mercy and grace.

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The story of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) fills the Exodus narrative just before the people’s arrival at Mount Sinai. As part of the Israelites’ divine rescue from the shackles of slavery under Pharaoh, God brings ten plagues upon the Egyptians. Before the tenth plague (the death of firstborn sons) commences, God tells Moses to instruct each Israelite family to slaughter a lamb and use its blood to mark the doorposts and lintels of their homes. The spirit of destruction, tasked with taking the life of every firstborn son, sees the blood on the entrance of the Israelite houses and passes over them, sparing Israel’s firstborn sons.

What is needed is not merely reclaiming the link between Passover and Easter.

According to God’s instruction, Moses decrees that Israel is to observe the Pesach feast each year, and so to this day, Jews faithfully gather for this most sacred meal on the 14th day of the first month, the month of Nisan (Ex. 12). The table is adorned with special elements and foods, all of which play a role in remembering—literally, tasting—the experience of that fateful night and of the ensuing sojourn through the Sinai wilderness. Israel thus forever commemorates that, on the darkest night in the recorded history of Egypt, the flesh and blood of a lamb marked— and saved—the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

During the annual Passover seder, the Jewish people reenact and confront once again the pains of slavery, the tears of despair, and even the cries of the Egyptians. But Jews also commemorate the triumph of liberation, the joy of new beginnings, the mystery of God’s power and love, and the hope of someday making a proper home in the Promised Land.

As all four Gospels make clear, Passover serves as the backdrop of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his disciples, and ultimately his death and resurrection. Constantine at the Council of Nicaea decreed to decouple Easter from Passover, a decision that set into motion a long process of wiping away the Jewish roots of Holy Week.

In order to press into and rediscover these rich and foundational connections, what is needed is not merely reclaiming the link between Passover and Easter but also incorporating Yom Kippur into our understanding of Holy Week. In Rosenzweig’s thought, as well as in Jewish tradition more generally, a tallit—the iconic Jewish prayer shawl—is symbolic of a kittel. It is also traditionally white, and though generally only worn in the daytime, the one exception to this is the eve of Yom Kippur, when it is worn after the sun has set. In fact, it is traditional to wear it the entire day during Yom Kippur.

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Many Jewish men do not own or wear a tallit until after they are married, and it is traditional for the bride to give the groom a tallit (rather than a kittel) on their wedding day. My fiancé Yonah held to this tradition, and before heading back to the States for our wedding, we went to the Ramot Mall outside Jerusalem and picked out a beautiful tallit that I gave him as part of our wedding ceremony.

We ought not therefore to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way,” asserted Constantine at the Council of Nicaea. “It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the calculation of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded.” This moment in the life of the church is known as the Quartodeciman controversy, as the issue at hand was the Jewish celebration of Passover on the 14th (quarta decima in Latin) day of Nisan.

The Quartodecimans were those who favored reckoning Easter in accordance with the Jewish community’s celebration of Passover. This was a remarkable position to hold, as it essentially bound the Christian calendar to the Jewish calendar. Such a linkage became intolerable for the church as it sought to untether itself from Judaism, and the Council of Nicaea solidified this separation.

What was lost in this decision is the intentional connection made abundantly clear in the Gospels. The meaning and significance of Holy Week can only be understood in full if we have Israel’s history in view as we walk through it. The death and resurrection of the Messiah is patterned after the exodus from Egypt, which serves as the founding event of the Jewish people. At this foundational moment in the church’s inception, its grafting into Israel’s enduring covenant with God, Jesus becomes the Passover lamb by whose blood the people of God are spared.

As we’ve seen in other areas, Christian theology often seeks to neatly parse out elements that Jewish theology is quite comfortable leaving in tension. This contrast is likewise highlighted in the eventual distinction between Passover and Easter.

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For the church, Good Friday is reserved for death, while Sunday is designated as a celebration of resurrection life. This temporal arrangement of worship can end up bifurcating life and death, thus making the bold (and dualistic) statement that, come Sunday, death is no longer a force we need to reckon with at all. We are told to cling to life and to forget the power of death, because Jesus leaves death behind once and for all in his empty tomb. Effectually, the sting of death can be relegated to those outside the church’s walls. This message is profoundly disorienting and, ultimately, dehumanizing.

As so many of us have experienced, reality is far different from the simple statement that death has been conquered by resurrection. Death, in all its insidious forms, still pervades our daily lives. Even after Jesus’ glorious resurrection, we continue to wrestle with the disquieting dimensions of our humanity: the traumas we relive, the losses we endure, the disappointments we amass, the anxieties we are paralyzed by. And unfortunately, the church can send the subtle message that to be troubled by these very real struggles is to somehow lack adequate faith or to misunderstand the core of the Christian message.

Passover, on the other hand, embraces the complex intertwining of life and death; in fact, it portrays life and death as convergent, interwoven forces. While life is ultimately triumphant in Israel’s narrative, Jewish tradition reminds us that it is impossible to separate the life we experience from our individual and collective memories of death.

At the Passover table, we remember the death of a lamb whose blood spared our lives. We give thanks for the gift of freedom even as the bitter herbs remind us of the lingering bitterness of slavery. We rejoice in leaving Egypt even as we recall that the Promised Land is still not yet our home. And, remarkably, we diminish our joy and remember the suffering of the Egyptians by removing drops of wine, a drink that symbolizes joy, from our glasses.

Judaism’s boldest confrontation with death, however, comes on another day that the Passover story anticipates: Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people stand before God in the very throes of death, wearing burial garments yet endowed with the courage to believe that God is present and accessible even from the grave.

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As with Passover, there is no life apart from death on Yom Kippur. Even life, it turns out, does not afford us the ability to forget death. The two stand together in impossible paradox, and we walk out the reality of both as we await final redemption.

Passover and Yom Kippur remind us that we cannot neatly separate or chronologically order life and death.

Passover and Yom Kippur remind us that we cannot neatly separate or chronologically order life and death. Alas, for now, we must sit in the tension between the two—and this is precisely the place where we encounter the fullness of God’s love in Christ, our Passover lamb whose blood atones for sin.

Ironically, the interpretive undercurrents that inform Christian worship on Easter can erase the very context that enables us to fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In constructing Judaism as its foil, Christian tradition has all too often obscured the unity and coherence of the biblical narrative, in which God’s covenant with Israel is the necessary context for the work of Jesus and the founding of the church.

From this angle, Calvary begins to look a lot more like Sinai. The torn veil recalls the broken tablets at Sinai, the death of Jesus invokes the sacrifices of Yom Kippur, the mystery of Holy Saturday mirrors Moses’ intercession atop Sinai, and Jesus’ resurrection becomes about a covenant renewed once again—a statement of God’s endless, unfailing love, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile (Rom. 1:16).

Approached from this perspective, the joyous declaration that “Christ is risen!” takes on an entirely new depth of meaning. The Savior of the world is, after all, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.

This essay is adapted from Finding Messiah by Jennifer M. Rosner. Copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Rosner. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
Michael Stone contributed to this essay.

[ This article is also available in español Português, and Indonesian. ]

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