April 2017

One of my fondest childhood memories of Pesach seders was siting next to my grandfather and stealing the afikomen. Shortly after he would break the middle matzah for yahatz in the beginning of the seder and putting the larger piece in a special afikomen bag, he would place it behind his chair. Once there, I would begin planning my snatch-attack!

When it can time for my grandfather to find the afikomen, he would laugh and proclaim, “where’s the afikomen; who took it?” I would then hold it up and demand reward for my cousins and me. It was always a fun time. I’ve heard many families tell of doing the same thing. So much for thinking I was original.

The afikomen is the last piece of food we are to eat at the end of the meal portion of the seder. Officially, when the Great Temple was in existence, the last thing we were suppose to eat at the seder was the Pascal lamb offering. Nothing was to be eaten afterwards. The word afikomen isn’t Hebrew, but actually from the Greek, epikomon meaning perhaps “dessert” or the practice of “going out and reveling.” The rabbis of the Talmud were afraid that the seder meal would go on forever (can you believe that) and never finish. People would also go “seder hopping” noshing on others’ food or desserts.

Well after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the rabbis in the Talmud (Pesahim 119b) instituted the halacha that the last thing one is suppose to eat is this thing called afikomen consisting only of matzah. This comes after all the unleavened cardboard-tasting cakes and cookies; okay, mandel bread and coconut macaroons are pretty good. Once those foods are finished, the afikomen from the middle matzah is broken up and passed around to everyone. This is the signal that the meal portion of the seder is finally over. From here, Birkat Hamazon—Grace after meals and onto the second half of the seder…if you make it that far.

So this is why we eat the afikomen, but what about stealing it from the leader of the seder? Once again, the rabbis of the Talmud in Pesachin 109a provide an unusual response.

“They said about Rabbi Akiva that he would distribute roasted grains and nuts to children on Passover eve, so that they would not sleep and so they would ask. It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer says: “One grabs the matzot on the nights of Passover.”

There is further debate by various rabbis over the generations as to what does “grabs the matzot” mean. I’m also not sure that kosher for Passover granola or nuts would help keep kids up during the seder, but bottom-line, is that it is fine, even laudable to steal it in order to keep children engaged in the seder experience. I like that answer. I was right in line as a kid stealing the afikomen from my grandfather’s chair. Who would have thought…

I want to conclude with a moving comment I read about what the afikomen symbolizes found in the Rabbinical Assembly’s The Feast of Freedom Haggadah. (The act of eating the afikomen in the seder is called Tzafun.)

The hiddenness of the afikomen intimates to us that the miracle of the Exodus was a preparation for future acts of redemption which are still hidden from us. The Exodus from Mitzrayim did not result in complete salvation. Every generation must contribute towards achievement of the final redemption.

Yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, is a silent reflective act wherein part of the matzah is concealed to be searched out before the blessings that conclude the meal may be recited.  

It is the larger piece of the middle matzah that is concealed. For more is hidden than revealed. Within us, individually and collectively, there are prayers to be fulfilled, promised to be redeemed. We are, like the broken matzah, incomplete. Our children, in their searching, are extensions of our explorations.

I hope your seder experiences are only filled with joy, wonder, tasty foods, and satisfying afikomens.

From my family to yours, have a sweet and kosher Pesach,

Rabbi, Dr. Larry Bazer