WHEN THE AFIKOMEN WAS SOMETHING TO AVOID
By Gil Marks
At the time that the Temple stood, the korban pesach (paschal offering) constituted the final part of the Seder meal. According to some authorities it was eaten solo, while others contend it was accompanied with matza and maror (Pesachim 115a). Thus according to the latter view, the Temple-era Seder featured two different sets of matza — at the beginning of the meal for the Ha’motzi (benediction over bread), recited over lechem mishneh (two whole loaves of matza), and, at the end, the biblically prescribed matza with the roasted lamb. In either case, following the destruction of the Temple, the paschal offering ceased and was replaced with a portion of matza at the end of the meal, eventually becoming known as tzafun or afikomen. In accordance with Hillel (Pesachim 115a), the Seder developed a third matza ritual, eaten together with a second portion of maror “in memory of the Temple” — the koraik (“wrap”). The dispersed occurrences of matza at the Seder are all interconnected, as each comes from one of the loaves used at the beginning of the meal to recite the Ha’motzi.
There was a disagreement among medieval scholars as to whether the final matza, after the destruction of the Temple, represents the actual fulfillment of the biblical commandment to eat matza on the first night of Passover (Rif, Rashi, and Rashbam) or whether it is only a commemoration of the paschal offering and that the first matza now serves as the fulfillment of the biblical commandment (Rosh, Ramban, Meiri, and Tosafot). The Rosh explained, “Now that the obligation to eat matza derives from ‘You should eat matzas at night,’ one should not delay the blessing over matza. It is best to eat matza earlier while he still has an appetite.” The practical consequence would be in an instance when there was only enough shmurah matza (matza made from wheat “guarded” from the moment of harvest, from u’shmarten et hamatzot, Exodus 12:17) for one portion. The Rosh would eat it at the beginning of the meal, while the Rashbam and Rif would save it for the end. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 482:1) follows the latter opinion, ruling that, under those circumstances, a person makes the blessing Hamotzi on non-shmura matza, while reserving the shumrah matza as well as the blessing of achilat matza for the afikomen.
The Talmud (Pesachim 115b-116a) notes, “Lechem ani (poor man’s bread) it is written (Deuteronomy 16:3); just as a poor person’s practice is to break it (a loaf of bread, to reserve a portion, as they are unsure if there will be additional food later), so here too (by the Seder) a piece is broken off.” In order to qualify as poor man’s bread, one of the loaves of matza must be broken in two. After dividing a matza, the Seder leader then used a whole matza (or two whole matzas) and one of the pieces to recite Ha’motzi (Berakhot 39b). The Talmud did not state which matza was to be broken, what to do with the second piece of the broken matza unused in the Ha’motzi, or any other details. The custom developed among most Ashkenazim to use three matzas and divide the middle one, reserving the larger piece for the final portion of matza. The afikomen, eaten after the meal without a blessing, is not consumed because of hunger, but for the fulfillment of the commandment or in memory of the Temple.
The Talmud (Pesachim 119b) directs that after a person finished their portion of the paschal offering nothing else could be eaten for the remainder of the evening so that the taste of the lamb would remain in the mouth. There is a dispute (Pesachim 120b) as to what time during the night of the 15th of Nisan that the paschal lamb must be eaten: Rabbi Akiva held until morning, while Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria said by midnight, explaining that the Torah (Exodus 12:8) stated, “And they shall eat the flesh in THAT NIGHT,” determining the definition of “that night” to be midnight, corresponding to the moment when God “passed over” the homes of the Israelites in Egypt and they were subsequently expelled. Rava adds that the time for eating matza corresponds to that of the paschal offering, thus if the paschal lamb has to be consumed by midnight, the final portion of matza substituted for it has to be eaten by that time as well. Interestingly, many early authorities rejected Rava’s opinion (i.e. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Chametz u’Matza 6:1), “this eating does not depend on the Korban Pesach, but is a commandment within itself and the commandment (for matza) is for the entire night.” However, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 477:1) advised, “One should be careful to eat (the Afikomen) before midnight.” This wording indicates that the law may be according to Rabbi Akiva, but the practice according to Rabbi Elazar, as the midnight deadline ensures that the offering will be eaten before daybreak.
In the modern Haggadah, modern being a relatively broad term when it comes to Jewish history, the final matza is called afikomen or tzafun (hidden), the latter because, at the onset of the Seder, the leader of the Seder divides the matza and secretes the larger piece in a bag or under the tablecloth or his pillow until the end of the meal, an act intended to pique the interest of the children. However, none of the early sources referred to the final matza by either of these terms (or mention hiding the broken piece). Amram Gaon simply states, “After eating (the meal), every one eats a kezayit (olive size portion) of matza.” Saadia Gaon (10th century), in his siddur containing an early version of the Haggadah, refers to the final matza as keenuach seudah (“wiping of the meal,” a Talmudic euphemism for dessert). (Similarly, the English word dessert derives from the French, “to clear the table,” reflecting something served following the meal.)
Eventually, the term tzafun became prevalent among Ashkenazim. The introductory poem of the Haggadah — Kaddesh, urechatz, karpas, yachatz, magid, rachtzah, motzi, matza, maror, koraik, shulchan orekh, tzafun, barech, hallel, nirtzah — reveals that the term was in effect by at least the late 12th century. The Sefer ha-Rokeach (c. 1200) proposed that the name of this custom derives from the verse “How abundant is Your goodness, which tzafanta (You have hidden away) for those who fear You (Psalms 31:20).” Illustrations in early Ashkenazic Haggadahs reveal that the practice of hiding the piece of matza under a cloth was widespread among Ashkenazim by that time. Like other parts of the Seder, the acts of hiding and finding the matza developed various symbolic meanings, such as pointing to the unknown future redemption. Wrapping matza in a cloth is also reminiscent of the Israelites leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:34). Although some Sephardim have recently adopted the practice of tzafun (hiding the matza), it was not their tradition. Instead, at a Sephardic or Mizrachi Seder, the afikomen is enwrapped in a special cloth bag, frequently embroidered, and the leader conducts a dramatic reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt.
For the past several centuries, the common parlance for the final matza has been afikomen, but this was not its original usage. The first mention of the word afikomen was in the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:8):
“One may not add after the Passover offering an afikomen.”
The wording of this Mishnah indicates the prevention of an activity that should not be done on Passover, something forbidden, and not the listing of a part of the Seder. Pointedly, the reference to afikomen in the Mishnah follows the details of various parts of the Seder, generally discussed in their order in the Seder (Misnah 10:7) — the third and fourth cups of wine, grace after meals, and the Hallel — reflecting that the prohibition of the mysterious afikomen occurred after the end of the entire Seder and, therefore, not to the final matza.
The Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 119b) asked:
“What does afikomen mean? Rav said: That they must not uproot from one company to another. Samuel said: Mushrooms for myself and squabs for Abba. Rav Chanina ben Shila and Rav Yochanan said: “Dates, roasted grains, and nuts.”
None of the three seemingly unrelated responses even mentions matza or, for that matter, any other aspect of the Seder ritual. On the contrary, from the discussion in the Talmud, it is evident that at this early stage in time the word afikomen did not apply to the final portion of matza. What was it that the Mishnah did not want the Jews to do after the Seder and how did that taboo become the name for the final portion of matza?
Despite a common misconception, the word afikomen does not mean dessert in Greek. Rather it reflects a rabbinic concern about the character and direction of the Seder. At the end of the Greco-Roman symposium and its meal, on which much of the Seder was drawn (See Origins of the Seder pages 000-000 gilbe), followed a komos (later comissatio in Rome), named after an intoxicated reveling group of satyrs who followed around the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. (The word comedy also comes from the komos.) The komos at the end of the symposium, living up to its namesake, consisted of a drinking party accompanied with revelry, music, and song. The host always provided various tidbits –- such as fruits, roasted grains, and nuts — to nosh with the wine, similar to the modern beer nuts, to induce the consumption of alcohol. (A komos also frequently featured masks and costumes, a practice, which around the 17th century, through the Italian commedia dell’arte, found its way into Purim festivities.) The komos served as a ritualistic transition from the intellectual and gastronomic parts of the symposium to its sensual, decadent side, inevitably and intentionally leading to lewdness. As part of the komos, the inebriated participants would then proceed (komatsain) from house to house, laughing and singing, to persuade others to join them in their drinking, carousing, and orgies.
Thus afikomen originally meant in Greek epi komos/epikomion (upon/at the revelry). The Sages, not wanting the Seder to degenerate into the bawdy and lascivious behavior of the komos, realized that it was necessary to avoid the excesses of the symposium. Hence the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:7) forbade drinking any wine after the meal, with the exception of the remaining two cups, as well as prohibiting any similar post-dinner celebrations:
“One may not add after the Passover offering any of the activities associated with the komos (10:8).”
Hence the meaning in the Talmud (Pesachim 119b) of the various answers to the question “what is an afikomen.” Rav (Abba ben Aivu, 3rd century CE scholar, born in Babylonia, who later studied in Israel, including with Yehudah ha-Nasi, before returning to Babylonia and founding the academy at Sura) said: “That they must not uproot from one company to another.” (This also corresponds to the Greek epi komatsain, “upon jumping up.”) Samuel (early to mid-3rd century Babylonian scholar who may have spent his entire life in his birthplace) said: “Mushrooms for myself and squabs for Abba (referring to Rav, the other great scholar of the first generation of Amoraim, whose actual name was Abba).” Rav Chanina ben Shila (end of 3rd century scholar, born in Babylonia and immigrated to Israel where he studied with Rav Yochanan) and Rav Yochanan (the Israeli contemporary or Rav and Samuel, Yochanan ben Nappaha, 3rd century Israeli scholar at Tiberias and the primary influence on the Jerusalem Talmud,) said: “Dates, roasted grains, and nuts.”
Interestingly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:5,71a) answered the question of “what is afikomen” somewhat differently, recording three opinions –- “Rabbi Simon in the name of Rabbi Einieni bar Rabbi Sissi said: types of singing. (Certainly connoting practices of the komos.) Rabbi Yochanan said: types of sweets. Samuel said: For example mushrooms and squabs for Chanina ben Shilat.”
All of the sages cited were from the first generation of Amoraim (3rd century CE), indicating the emergence of the prohibition of afikomen (and the term itself) as very late in the Tannaic period (shortly before the year 200). Those Sages who lived under Roman rule in Israel understood the connection between the Seder and the symposium and that Jews residing in a Greco-Roman society were very much susceptible to being influenced by the komos customs, as reflected in the Israeli rabbis’ understanding of the afikomen. Thus Rav’s response, “they must not uproot from one company to another,” was not a play on words (uproot meaning jump), but actually an etymology. In a similar vein, the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:4,70b) in its discussion of the Haggadah answered the simple son: “That we do not add an afikomen after the Passover lamb, so that he will not jump from one group and enter another group.” Rav, who spent many years living in Israel under Roman rule, was warning against the Greco-Roman practice of epikomazien (wandering from one house to another) after the symposium, the principal stimulus of the epikomion (inappropriate revelry). This also clarifies the view of the Rabbi Yochanan of Tiberias (Pesachim 119b), “You must not add after the Passover meal dates, roasted grains, and nuts,” the very items constituting the favorite nibbles of a komos, leading to wine consumption and promiscuity. Rabbi Yochanan proscribed those foods associated with the komos, while Rav forbade those activities associated with it.
On the other hand, the Babylonian scholars, living in an area where the symposium was never practiced, were naturally unconcerned that local Jews would be induced by its lascivious aspects. Babylonians considered the afikomen an after the meal treat, which in Talmudic times involved savory dishes and not sweets. Thus Samuel (Pesachim 119b) said that it meant “ordeela’ai (the meaning of this will be discussed) for myself and guzlaiei (squab) for Abba.” The question debated by the commentators was whether they were prohibiting all foods after eating the paschal offering or only certain ones. The Ran and Ramban (Milchamot Hashem) viewed the response of Samuel as not banning all further eating after the paschal offering (or final matza), only certain types of food. The Ran translated ordeela’ai as a type of poultry. Hence according to the Ran and Ramban, Samuel prohibited only strongly-flavored flesh after the paschal offering, as its taste would mask that of the lamb. According to Rashbam, ordeela’ai means mushrooms. Thus Samuel was citing favorite foods that he and Rav usually enjoyed after a feast, but not after the final matza.
In either case, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Chametz u’Matza 6:11) states: “From the words of the Sofreim that not to add (eat) after matza at all, including roasted grains, nuts, and like them.” The Shuchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 479:1) tersely rules: “After afikomen do not eat anything.” Rabbi Moses Isserles adds (Ibid.): “And do not eat in two places,” summoning up the opinion of Rav.
Pointedly, Rambam did not mention the term afikomen at all. The first record of the word afikomen employed in reference to the final matza, and no longer something forbidden, occurred in the Responsa of Rashi (304), a collection of Rashi’s writings chronicled by his students (c. 12th century). By the time of the Shulchan Arukh (c. 1555), the term afikomen was firmly established among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim as the name of the final portion of matza at the Seder.
Tellingly, the words of the Mishnah, “One may not add after the Passover offering an afikomen,” appears in the Haggadah — as part of the reply to the wise son, after explaining to him “all the laws of the Paschal offering.” As many commentators point out, on the surface this does not seem to answer the wise son’s question, “what are the testimonies, and the statues, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” Interestingly, the Jerusalem Talmud (10:4,70b) substituted “us” for the “you” in the wise son’s question. (In the Mechilta (Bo 18) the wise son’s question also stated “us,” but the answer to him was the same as our Haggadah.) Also in the Jerusalem Talmud the answer given to the wise son was that given to the simple son in the Haggadah — “with a strong hand God took us out of Egypt from the house of bondage” — and that given to the simple son is “You should teach him the laws of Passover, that we do not add an afikomen after the Passover offering, so that he will not get up from one group and enter into another group (thereby fall victim to the komos).”
To be sure, the wicked son is the one most in danger of leaving a spiritual Seder and, having failed to internalize its ritual, immediately turn to base practices and the revelry of the komos. The simple son is the one most in danger of being innocently enticed by societal messages. Nevertheless, even the wise son, who took to heart the lessons of Passover, can be seduced by the sensual and confusing pleasures and enticements of the komos. Therefore, the Haggadah instructs a father to warn his child that even after absorbing all of the intricate details of Passover, a person has to be careful against misconstruing the elements of the Seder with those of the symposium (and society). Although today the symposium may no longer exist, the allure of physical pleasures and immediate gratification can still lead even a wise son down the wrong path.