Most Reverend Nektarios Tsilis,
Metropolitan of the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast
The word Judah comes from the verb LeHodot, which simply means “to thank.” In the context of the Hebrew Bible, such thanks are synonymous not just with gratitude, but with praise. In fact, there was a particular sacrifice called “The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving.” In the Temple in Jerusalem, it was called “Todah” – the noun for “Thanksgiving.”
A reference must be made to the strong symbolism of the word “Judah” (=Yehuda=to thank). Jesus came from the tribe of Judah and he is “the Lion from the Tribe of Judah”. Jesus is the Leader who leads His people to give thanks to God the Father for His ineffable love. Also, in the Eucharist, Christians give thanks for God’s deliverance and remember how Jesus brought about the new exodus with His death and Resurrection.
It is interesting to note that in Modern Hebrew, to simply say “thanks”, Israelis use the very same word (todah) that was used in the Temple to express gratitude to God.
An old Rabbinic teaching says: “In the coming Messianic age all sacrifices will cease, but the thank offering [todah] will never cease.” What is it about this sacrifice that makes it stand alone in such a way that it would outlast all other sacrifices after the redemption of the Messiah?
A todah sacrifice would be offered by someone whose life had been delivered from great peril, such as disease or the sword. The redeemed person would show his gratitude to God by gathering his closest friends and family for a todah sacrificial meal. The lamb would be sacrificed in the Temple and the bread for the meal would be consecrated the moment the lamb was sacrificed. The bread and meat, along with wine, would constitute the elements of the sacred todah meal, which would be accompanied by prayers and songs of thanksgiving, such as Psalm 116.
There are many examples in the Old Testament of people offering todah — thanks — to God. Jonah, while in the belly of the whale, vows to offer up a todah sacrifice in the Temple if he is delivered (cf. Jon. 2:3-10). King Hezekiah offers up a todah hymn upon recovering from a life-threatening illness (cf. Is. 38). However, the best example of todah sacrifice and song is found in the life of King David.
After David had defeated the last Canaanite stronghold, he decided to bring the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. The bringing of the ark to Jerusalem was the occasion of a great national todah festival. The sacrifices were “peace offerings,” and the todah was the most important and common peace offering. All the elements of the todah were present. For example, David offered bread and wine along with the meat of the sacrifices (1 Chron. 16:3). Most importantly, David had the Levites lead the people in todah hymns, that is, psalms of thanksgiving (1 Chron. 16:8-36).
At this pivotal point in Israel’s story, David not only changes the location of the ark, but he also transforms Israel’s liturgy. At the todah celebration that brought the ark into Jerusalem, David gave the Levites a new mandate — their primary job was to “invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord” (1 Chron. 16:4).
The importance of the todah as a backdrop for Jesus and the Last Supper comes into sharp focus when we realize that in Jesus’ day the Greek word that would best translate the Hebrew todah was eucharistia, which also means “thanksgiving.” From the earliest Christian sources we learn that the celebration of the Lord’s meal, or what we call the Mass, was known by Christians as the Eucharist. After all, at the Last Supper Jesus took the bread and wine and gave “thanks” (eucharistia) over them (Luke 22:19).
The Last Supper celebrated in the upper room is both a Passover and a todah meal.
When Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and declares thanksgiving (eucharistia), He is performing the key function of both the todah and Passover — giving thanks for deliverance. But here Jesus is not simply looking back at Israel’s history of salvation, but forward to His death and Resurrection. In other words, Jesus is giving thanks to the Father for His love and for the new life to be granted in the Resurrection.