Our Jewish Heritage


Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine Jan-Feb 1996

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 839, tells us: “When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews ’belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ’ for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The interior quotation is from Rom 9:4-5.

That concise paragraph tells us that the Catholic Church is the fulfillment and completion of God’s self-revelation that began with Abraham. After seven centuries, God continued His revelation through Moses. The people that He chose to carry His revelation across the next twelve centuries lived in the crucible of the Old Covenant until they were prepared to receive His Messiah, who reconciled God with man in the New and Eternal Covenant. There is a straight line from Moses, who said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you” Ex 24:8, to Jesus, who said, “This is my blood of the covenant” Mt 26:28. God made the connection: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” Lev 17:11. The ancient Jewish priesthood continues today in the person of the Catholic priest. Catholics are God’s chosen people, proclaiming His revelation across the centuries until he comes again in glory.

Prophecy and Pre-Figuration

When a new diplomat arrives, the first thing he does is present his credentials to officials of the host country. The host diplomats, recognizing the credentials as authentic, know that the man who carries them is an authentic representative of his country. When our heavenly Father sends His Messiah, we would expect Him to have credentials, something only God could do. No man could before he was born enter into the written record a detailed description of his life. Our heavenly Father sent His Son’s credentials centuries before His arrival: From the line of David: “… upon the throne of David …” Is 9:7. “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch” Jer 23:5. 490 years after the Temple restoration: “Seventy weeks of years are decreed … from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one” Dan 9:24. King Cyrus decreed the restoration of Jerusalem around 536 BC. Daniel’s seventy weeks of years (seventy times seven, 490 years) brought us to within a half century of Jesus’ arrival. Massacre of innocents: “Thus says the Lord: ’Rachel is weeping for her children’” Jer 31:15. Praised by little children: “Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants …” Ps 8:1. Rejected by His own people: “He was despised and rejected by men” Is 53:3. Riding to Jerusalem: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humbling and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass” Zech 9:9. New covenant: “I will make a new covenant” Jer 31:31. Betrayed by a friend: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” Ps 41:9. Thirty pieces of silver: “And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver” Zech 11:12. Died to redeem us: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole” Is 53:5. His bones would not be broken: “You shall not break a bone of [the paschal lamb] Ex 12:46. “…Nor break a bone of it …” Num 9:12. “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” Ps 34:20.

Jesus from the cross said, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Mt 27:46. At that time the psalms had not been numbered. Jews then knew all the psalms, and referred to a particular psalm by its first few words. In that way Rabbi Yeshua reminded us of the stunning prophecy in Psalm 22: “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots” Ps 22:18.

A thousand years of these canonical prophecies of the Messiah stopped completely, shortly before Jesus of Nazareth arrived.

Our heavenly Father allowed His Messiah to speak to us directly from the Book of Proverbs, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth … When he established the heavens, I was there … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman” Prov 8:22-30.

Our Father added to His Messiah’s credentials by pre-figuring Him throughout man’s history. When Cain murdered the good shepherd Abel, God told him, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” Gen 4:10. The Book of Hebrews speaks of, “…[Christ’s] sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” Heb 12:24. When Abram returned from his victory over Chedorlaomer, “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine” Gen 14:18. Salem is shalom, Hebrew for peace, and foreshadows Isaiah’s Prince of Peace Is 9:6. Rabbi Yeshua was also pre-figured in Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his only son; Abraham told young Isaac, “God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” Gen 22:8. But Rabbi Yeshua was most pre-figured in Moses. Moses interceded with our Father in heaven for his people, who did not pray for themselves, just as Rabbi Yeshua interceded for us with the Father. Moses pre-figured Rabbi Yeshua’s 40-day fast: “[Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water” Ex 34:28. “[Rabbi Yeshua] fasted for forty days and forty nights” Mt 4:2. Moses pre-figured Rabbi Yeshua’s transfiguration: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai … the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” Ex 34:29. “[Rabbi Yeshua] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” Mt 17:2.

The Passover Seder

We find Rabbi Yeshua in the traditional Jewish Passover Seder, spiritually present in the bread, the wine and the lamb, the true head of household and provider of the meal. The bread is unleavened, pure as Rabbi Yeshua was pure. It has dark stripes, as His back was striped by Pilate’s scourging. It is pierced, as He was pierced on the cross. When Moses led the Israelites toward the promised land it had been the bread of life; Rabbi Yeshua, born in Beth Lekhem (House of Bread), is the Bread of Life, leading us toward the promised kingdom. The head of the family takes three pieces of unleavened bread, reminding us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He breaks in half the second piece, suggesting the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity crucified. He then wraps one of these two pieces, called the afikomen (Hebrew: a festival procession), a reminder of Rabbi Yeshua’s constant call, “Follow me,” in white linen, reminding us of Rabbi Yeshua’s linen burial cloth, and “buries” or hides it, as Rabbi Yeshua was entombed. Later the youngest at table “resurrects” or finds the afikomen as Rabbi Yeshua rose from the dead. The head of the family then breaks the afikomen and passes it around for all to eat, as Rabbi Yeshua did when he told his shlikhim, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” Lk 22:19. In that way, Rabbi Yeshua through the Seder calls us to follow him into his redemptive sacrifice on the Cross Rom 6:3, to become a new person in him.

Rabbi Yeshua is spiritually present in the wine. When the afikomen is broken and passed around for all to take and eat, Jews at the Seder table drink the third of four cups of wine, called the cup of blessing because it represents the blood of the sacrificed paschal lamb in Egypt on that memorable Passover night. That was the cup Jesus gave to His apostles, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” Lk 22:20. Jesus did not drink the fourth, the kalah cup, with his apostles. After his capture at Gethsemane, Rabbi Yeshua asked Rabbi Kefa, “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Jn 18:11. Rabbi Yeshua drank the last cup on the cross from a sponge full of vinegar held to his mouth, said in a loud voice, kalah (it is finished), bowed his head, and gave up His spirit. Jn 19:30.

Rabbi Yeshua is spiritually present in the paschal lamb. Pasch or pesach in Hebrew means “he passed over.” The paschal lamb recalls the lamb that was sacrificed that its blood might be daubed on the doorposts of every Jewish home, and its body eaten in every Jewish home, that the angel of death might know it as a household of the faithful and pass over. Since there are no more Temple sacrifices, many Jews today represent the paschal lamb with a lamb’s shank bone. As the Jews in Egypt ate the paschal lamb to be physically redeemed and led to the promised Canaan, Catholics for two thousand years have eaten the body and blood of the Lamb of God, that we might be spiritually redeemed and find the promised kingdom of heaven.


A thousand years of sacrifice by Jewish priests stopped after Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant by reconciling God and man through his redemptive sacrifice on the cross. Rabbi Yeshua had foretold that the Temple would be destroyed; in AD 70 it fell, never to be rebuilt.

A Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, in AD 362 tried to prove Christ’s prophecy wrong by rebuilding the Temple. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that the builders encountered storms and earthquakes, and that balls of fire came up out of the ground. Julian the Apostate was killed by a mysterious arrow. Three thousand years after God took Israel from the Jews, He returned all of it except the Temple Mount. Only the Western Wall remains, incomplete, a wailing wall. Jesus alone remains the Final Sacrifice.

Fulfilling the Covenant

Rabbi Yeshua said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” Mt 5:17-18. Heaven and earth will pass away at the end of time when Rabbi Yeshua comes again. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” Rev 21:1.

The Old Covenant remains an everlasting part of the Church’s foundation. Catholics obey the two great commandments and the ten commandments as crown jewels of the Torah, and read from the Hebrew Scriptures at Mass. However, Rabbi Yeshua dispensed with the dietary laws when He told us, “There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him” Mk 7:15. He explained, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” Mk 7:21.

When Jesus told Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” Jn 14:6, He used the Hebrew word halakha to express “way.” He said, “I am the halakha.” Halakha is the way Jews implement God’s commandments in daily life. It includes the Written Torah and Oral Torah, the rabbinic legislation, and the commentaries. Jesus named the two Torah commandments that had always been the pure essence of halakha: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” Deut 6:5, and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Lev 19:18. Jesus affirmed that the New Covenant is the distilled essence of the old: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” Mt 22:40.

How can two commandments contain all that? When they received the Covenant, the Israelites were desert warrior nomads, just emerged from four hundred years of slavery and forty years of following Moses across the burning endless sands. Had Jesus emerged then with His complete public revelation, telling them to love God, they would have asked how. Had Jesus told them to love one another, they would have said, “Even Moses, who led us out of the security we knew in Egypt to die in this barren land?” And Jesus would have answered, “Not only Moses, but also the Amalekites and the Philistines and all the other tribes that will attack you and try to kill you to the last man, and take your women and your lands and your chickens and sheep and cattle.” The people who could barely follow Moses were completely unprepared for Jesus.

From Adam’s first breath, God asked of us only that we love him and one another. As children who have no experience with the world need detailed instructions that would be inappropriate when they have grown up, God prepared the Israelites by giving them in the Torah detailed instructions that would focus their attention on him, and on getting along with one another, to prepare them for the Messiah’s arrival.

Behold the Ten Commandments, which alone were written “with the finger of God” Ex 31:18: (1) “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me.” (2) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” (3) “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy … the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” (4) “Honor your father and your mother.” (5) “You shall not kill.” (6) “You shall not commit adultery.” (7) “You shall not steal.” (8) “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (9) “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” (10) “You shall not covet your neighbor’s property.” Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5:6-21.

The first three, three as in Blessed Trinity, lead us toward love of God. The remaining seven, seven as in the days of Creation, lead us toward love and respect for one another.

Jewish Separation

Jesus, all his Apostles, three of the four evangelists, and many of the disciples, had been Jewish. Since Jewish law provides that a child born to a Jewish mother remains a Jew all his life, the early Christians considered themselves completed Jews (because the messianic prophecies had been fulfilled) and continued to pray in the synagogues. After the Temple fell, more Jews converted to Christianity. The Pharisee rabbis, seeing Judaism become increasingly Christian, resolved to purge it around AD 80, Rabbi Gamaliel, then head of the house of study at Jamnia, inserted into the Amidah prayer the birkat ha minim (Benediction of the Heretics.) It reads:

For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humbles the arrogant.

The Jewish converts, hearing themselves cursed into eternal fire, withdrew from the synagogues and continued with Holy Mass as their primary worship.


We find our Jewish heritage in the church as well. The priest’s vestments at Mass have ancient origins. His outer garment, the chasuble, a large cone-shaped cloth with a hole for the head, was often worn in Palestine during the Greek and Roman occupations. Its beauty and adornments go all the way back to Aaron. God had told Moses, “You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” Ex 28:2. “These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a girdle; they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests” Ex 28:4. “They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet stuff, and fine twined linen” Ex 28:5. “Of the blue and purple and scarlet stuff they made finely wrought garments, for ministering in the holy place; they made the holy garments for Aaron, as the Lord had commanded Moses” Ex 39:1.

Every Catholic parish church has a tabernacle, where lives the Word Made Flesh. In the synagogues, the tabernacle holds the Word of God in ancient Torah scrolls. Beside the Catholic tabernacle, and beside the synagogue tabernacle, is a candle. Both go back to the time of Moses. “The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” Ex 40:35. “Throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” Ex 40:38. Today we still see that fire, now a steady candle, and know as then that God is inside.

That blood-red tabernacle candle, reminding us that Jesus who died to redeem us is present, reminds Jews as well of the yahrzeit or memorial candles they light each year to remember the departed.

As the Mass begins, the priest processes down the center aisle as rabbis from time immemorial have also processed. Our entrance antiphon continues an ancient Jewish tradition of singing from one of the 150 psalms.

When the priest arrives at the altar he kisses it. Altar is a Hebrew word that means, “Place of sacrifice.”

On solemn occasions, the priest or deacon will spread incense around the altar. The rising smoke symbolizes our prayers ascending heavenward in God’s sight. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” Ps 141:2. The evening sacrifice, of course, was the Passover sacrifice, when every Jewish family was instructed to sacrifice a paschal lamb in the evening twilight Ex 12:6.

The priest’s greeting, “The Lord be with you” comes from the Book of Ruth. “Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, ’The Lord be with you’” Ruth 2:4.

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass uses three words in their original Hebrew. Amen comes from the Hebrew word emunah, faith, and means, “Yes, it’s true!” Alleluia means “Praise God!” Hosanna means “God saves!” These three words remind us at every Mass of our Jewish origins.

During our Shepherd’s time, synagogue worship consisted of prayers, psalms, and Torah readings. The Torah readings were based on a three-year cycle, starting on the Sabbath after the Feast of Tabernacles and reading a portion each week until the end three years later on the last day of the same feast. In that way the entire Torah was read aloud to be sure every Jew was exposed to it. Holy Mother Church continues the Jewish tradition with Sunday Gospel readings on a three year cycle. Year A relies on Matthew’s Gospel, Year B on Mark’s, and Year C on Luke’s Gospel. These readings cover over 7,000 verses, including nearly all of the New Testament, to help us know our sacred Scripture.

The deacon’s, or priest’s, homily continues the Jewish synagogue tradition that the rabbi offer a sermon. In the old villages, the rabbi was often the only educated man in town. While everyone was gathered together it was a good opportunity for a little teaching. In the church as in the synagogue, the idea is to explain to this particular congregation the Word of God that has just been proclaimed.

The ancient Jews brought offerings to their priests for sacrifice. “He that offers the sacrifice of his peace offerings to the Lord shall bring his offering to the Lord …” Lev 7:29. “The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast shall be for Aaron and his sons” Lev 7:31. The early Christians continued this tradition by bringing up gifts of food as thank offerings in a procession very much like the one we have today.

Jews for thousands of years have prayed over bread, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” As he begins the Preparation of the Gifts, the priest prays: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” Jews have prayed over wine for thousands of years and still do today. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” The priest prepares the wine for consecration by saying, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.”

After the priest says quietly, “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God,” he washes his hands, continuing the Jewish tradition, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about thy altar, O Lord” Ps 26:6.

Morning synagogue prayer always includes the kedushah. Its first part comes from Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim singing joyfully, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! The whole earth is full of His glory!” Is 6:3. The second is from Psalm 118, “Blessed is He who enters in the name of the Lord” Ps 118:26. Our Sanctus comes directly from the kedushah: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.”

Jews end every prayer service with the kaddish as a proclamation of God’s greatness. It begins: “Raise high and glorify the name of God. Throughout the world He created by His will. May He build a kingdom in your life, during your days, and during the life of all the House of Israel. Soon, and in a time close at hand.” We begin our Communion Rite with a very similar prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Christian Influences on Judaism

The tree of the Hebrew Bible fulfilled in the Messiah gave forth two branches, rabbinic Judaism and Catholic Christianity. Overwhelmingly, the root has nourished both branches, but the Catholic branch has nourished the Jewish branch on the vital issue of the hereafter. The Jewish concept of an afterlife began in Biblical days as rest after effort. Genesis tells us, “God rested from all His work.” Gen 2:2 Saul asked Samuel’s soul to return, and Samuel asked, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” 1 Sam 28:15 as if he had been awakened from a restful dream. The theme of God and man living together appears in “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me,” Ps 23:4 and in “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” 2 Kings 2:11.

God’s rewards and punishments were all in this world. He told Abram, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” Gen 15:18. He told Solomon, “Since … you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you” 1 Kings 11:11. “Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son” 1 Kings 11:12. Even the Jewish belief in resurrection is a return to earthly life, based on Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones Ezek 37:7.

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church put great emphasis on Masses for the departed. Judaism responded by developing its own ideas about olam haba, the world to come. Although the kaddish contains not a word about death, medieval Judaism made it a prayer for the dead. Today, even Jews who are not very observant will go to synagogue to pray the kaddish once a year for a departed father or mother.

The hereafter is not central to Judaism. Jews toast, l’chaim, “To life,” in celebration of the beauty and goodness of life in this world. During the high holy days Jews wish one another, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.” But much of the olam haba theology was driven by the Catholic vision of eternal life.

Catholic celebrations also influenced Judaism in the bar mitzvah ceremony and in the Hanukkah celebration to provide for Jewish children a ceremony of their own comparable to celebrations in the Christian communities that surrounded them. From the beginning, the Catholic Church had administered the three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist – to infants. However, during the fourteenth century the Church began administering Confirmation and Holy Eucharist when the child was old enough to understand the faith. Talmud (Kidushin 16b) recognized a Jewish boy at age 13 and a girl at age 12 as an adult, but there was no ceremony. Soon after Catholic children began to celebrate their Confirmations, Jews added the bar mitzvah ceremonies for their own children. Also, since ancient times Hanukkah had been a very minor festival. But the joyful celebration of Christmas each year left Jewish children outside, their noses pressed against the window pane watching the Christian revelry. In response, Jews in the United States vastly expanded the festival so that their children could get presents, too. Even today, in Latin America and Europe, Hanukkah remains a minor festival.


God’s covenant with man began through Noah Gen 9:11, developed through Abraham Gen 17:4 and Moses Ex 34:10, reached fulfillment through Lk 23:46 Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, and will last until the end of time. It is the single ongoing story of God’s relationship with us. High above all else, it reminds us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, that he should be the object of our every waking thought: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” Deut 6:5-9.

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