Passover and Easter are both holidays that involve eggs, in some form. The first records of actually eating Passover eggs, and giving eggs as presents on Easter, were both in medieval Germany. Could the use of eggs by adherents of the two religions have a common origin?
Every Passover, Jews place a hard-boiled egg on the Passover ceremonial plate, and the celebrants also eat hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt water as part of the ceremony.
The Christian egg-related custom is different: ahead of Easter, the yolk and white are extracted and the emptied shells are decorated. But might these egg-related customs have a common source?
This turns out to be a difficult question to answer, as we are not sure of the origin of either custom. A good place to start, then, would be the earliest-known references to them.
Mourning the lost sacrifice?
Several sources say the earliest reference to actually eating eggs at the seder is in commentary written by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572) on the code of Jewish law called "Shulchan Aruch": “In some places it is the custom to eat as part of the meal, eggs.”
Isserles didn't know how the custom arose, but gave his readers two theories. Either the eggs symbolize mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Or, it is a symbolic representation of the paschal sacrifice, which was discontinued with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.
The fact that Rabbi Isserles was discussing ingestion of the egg at all attests that the custom of eating them on Passover existed in central Europe in the 16th century, and likely spread from there.
Possibly Rabbi Isserles was correct and maybe the custom arose from one of those two reasons. However, the egg existed on the Passover table centuries before Isserles. It just served a different purpose.
One topic of intense rabbinic debate concerned how much matza and bitter herb one must eat on Passover. The standard answer is “kaza’it” - the amount equivalent to an olive.
This seems to be quite a precise and final answer, but for whatever reason, the rabbis debated this matter for centuries. They came up with a bunch of different answers – but usually used the volume of an egg as a standard measure.
Maimonides (1135-1204) said the amount of mandatory matza and bitter herb was just over a third of an egg. Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (1235-1210) said the amount should be a quarter of an egg's volume. Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) advocated for half an egg.
Perhaps, originally, eggs on the Passover table were there as a reference measure for volume, and later were given vague symbolic meaning.
Now let us see when the Easter egg is first mentioned.
Indirect signs of an ancient custom
The earliest written reference to the giving of Easter eggs seems to be in German (ostereyer) and was written in 1407.
This custom is widely believed to have arrived in Germany from the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, although there is no written, pictorial or other evidence to the existence of this custom among the Slavs.
Still, a Slavic origin seems quite likely because: (a) There is little written evidence of anything in these parts during the Middle Ages. So that lack of evidence is no surprise. (b) The custom of coloring eggs on Easter is very prevalent throughout the Slavic lands, which seems to indicate that it is a time-honored tradition, not a recent borrowing from Germany. (c) The custom is common among members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Maronite Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church, which severed ties with the Eastern Orthodox Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. That in itself implies that the custom was extant before.
Following this evidence to early Orthodox Christianity, the custom seems likely to have originated in Mesopotamia, from the tradition of decorating eggs and placing them on the table on Nowruz. That is the Zoroastrian new year celebration that takes place in spring, around the time of Easter. Zoroastrianism was the major religion of Mesopotamia at the time when Christianity took hold.
There is another, less likely, possibility, suggested by Jacob Grimm in his “Deutsche Mythologie.” According to him, eggs were part of the spring celebration for the goddess ostre, who gave Easter her name. The tradition proliferated when the Germanic tribes converted to Christianity.
One snag with this theory is that the only reference connecting ostre to eggs is a single reference written by the English monk Bede the Venerable (who lived from 673 to 735). The truth is, we know little about the religion and custom of the ancient Germans.
Another more prosaic and likely origin of the tradition is the Christian tradition of abstaining from eggs during Lent, the 40 days before Easter. Since hens still lay eggs during Lent and they weren’t supposed to eat them, some people may have thought that decorating them is a good idea – and presto – the Easter egg was born.
So did the tradition of eating hard-boiled eggs on Passover come from Christian or earlier pagan traditions of decorating eggs? Probably not. The custom likely arose independently within Judaism: since they were there on the table anyway as a measure of volume, centuries before Isserles' first mention of their ingestion, they came to be eaten too.
It does bear adding that the Zoroastrian new year, Nowruz, did influence the seder, especially the plate of symbolic foods set in the middle of the table, which includes eggs, greenery and other symbolic foods. So we cannot totally reject the possibility that the Passover egg originated with Nowruz, though it is unlikely.
The origins of religious customs are often obscure, shrouded by millennia of history, and difficult to uncover with accuracy. Thus we must be content with the answer - they may be connected, but probably aren't.
By the way, there is zero evidence for the theory making the rounds on internet, that the Easter egg started with the goddess Ishtar in Mesopotamia. None at all. Fake news.
This story was originally published in 2017.
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