Though Pesach is still a few weeks away, plans are already underway in our home for seder night. Here’s our family’s question. Different segments of our relatives have different practices when it comes to the afikomen. I say that the adults hide the afikomen and that the children search for it, while my husband’s family says the children hide it and the adults search for it. Please settle this seemingly innocuous dispute.
In the words of that great Jewish philosopher, Tevye, of Fiddler fame: You’re both right! Both versions of your family’s seder night “hide and seek” are mentioned by sources as appropriate and both are prevalent. But they are not the only two! There are other variations of this seemingly light-hearted practice. More importantly though, this quaint playful ritual is, in fact, deeply meaningful, weighty in implication, and central to our seder praxis.
Our task is to explore the origin and the background of the custom of hiding and then seeking the afikomen. After understanding that, we can analyze your two different approaches and determine if one is more preferable than the other, if there is a reasonable rationale for both, or maybe, after learning about other variations, your family might decide to adopt yet another practice.
The notion of afikomen is first mentioned in Tractate Pesachim, where it says: “Ein maftirin achar haPesach afikomen.” Amazing how five little words can generate so many a commentary. This is a puzzling phrase, difficult to translate, with a number of interpretations and halachic implications. The phrase might sound familiar to you, as it is in the Haggadah, as part of the response the parent offers to the Wise Child’s question. Our job is to be that wise child and figure out its meaning. Five words, three languages — no problem.
Let’s take one word at a time. Ein we understand as “no” or “one does not.” The second word, maftirin, though Aramaic, should also sound familiar to many of us because it sounds like words we use every Shabbat, “maftir” and “haftarah.” The two have something in common: They have to do with the end. Maftir is the end of the reading of the Torah portion of the week. Haftarah is the prophetic portion at the end of the entire Torah service. So the word maftirin has something to do with the end of the seder.
Back to our phrase. We can almost explain all of it! “One does not end” achar, after, the pesach, meaning the Paschal sacrifice, with afikomen.” Hmmm, but this is exactly what we do. Do we not conclude our seders with afikomen?
Perhaps we need to delve into the word afikomen itself. This word is neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. Many scholars suggest it comes from the combination of two Greek words, epi, after, as in epilogue, komos, banquet — epikomen, the food after the banquet. Aha! The dessert!
Five words, three languages, one sentence — translated this way by the Artscroll edition of the Talmud: “We may not conclude the seder meal, after eating the Pesach offering with afikomen.” No eating afikomen after the Pesach sacrifice. Wonderful, except that nowadays we do not have a Pesach sacrifice and we all eat the afikomen! It’s a bit confusing!
We need to do some updating for post-Temple times. The Mishnah’s teaching was for when there was a sacrifice. It might mean that after you eat of the sacrifice you cannot move on to another family’s seder and continue the festivities. Back in the day, the seder was about all of the Jews going to Jerusalem and partaking of outdoor family “barbecues;” each family with its own roasted lamb, gathering in groups within the walls of Jerusalem. There might have been a temptation to walk around, see who you know, catch up with old friends from past years. You sit, you schmooze, you eat. But no. Every family’s roasted lamb was to be exclusively for those for whom it had been intentionally offered. Our sentence instructs, no running around to other banquets after the seder!
Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes in his Haggadah that this traipsing around from party to party was an actual practice described by Plato in The Symposium. This is in sync with the opinion of Rav in the Talmud: After eating the sacrifice, no moving around; you may be tempted to eat from another family’s sacrifice.
However, Rav’s most common disputant, Shmuel, suggests another meaning to this five-word teaching of the Mishnah. No eating dessert after the sacrifice. Afikomen, he wrote, is a contraction of apiku minei — bring out the varieties of sweets! He feels that one should have eaten the sacrificial lamb like royalty, not ravenously hungry. Therefore no eating dessert — that would indicate that you were hungry! So no eating after the last bite of the Pesach lamb.
Finally, there are those who suggest that we should leave the table with the taste of the mitzvah yet in our mouths. In present times there is no sacrifice, so we instead substitute the matzoh for this aspect of the seder. We eat nothing after the afikomen, leaving the table with the taste of matzoh on our lips.
We have done our afikomen homework. So on to the hide and seeking. This practice began as a technique to keep the children engaged and interested. It has two parts. First, at the fourth step of the seder, yachatz, we break the middle matzoh and then hide it. Second, at tzafun, meaning hidden, a step after the meal and before barech, the grace after meals, when the afikomen is found and retrieved, then finally eaten.
The first part of the seder is all about the experience in Egypt and the Exodus. The second part, after the meal, is about the future. Better days of redemption, peace and no wars. It is signaled by the eating of the afikomen and followed by the cup of Elijah and the opening of the door.
Finally, the breaking of the matzoh represents the two symbolic meanings offered for the eating of matzoh. On one hand, it represents the bread of affliction fed to us by our captors. Matzoh sits in the belly for a long time — good food for slaves. On the other hand, we are told that matzoh represents freedom and redemption. It is the dough that did not have time to rise as we fled out of Egypt. We break the matzoh. The first piece, representing slavery, is eaten at the start of the meal and the second half, representing freedom and redemption, is eaten at the end.
Now to the hiding. The hiding of the matzoh evokes essential ideas: That an ultimate goodness is hidden away for us, which we were instructed to guard. We valued the matzoh back in Egypt and the Israelites actually hid it in their clothing as they left, taking some of that slavery with them. Some communities have the custom to act this out. They place the matzoh on the shoulder of a child. Send the child outside and have the child knock on the door. To the query, “Who is there?” the child responds: “I am an Israelite on my way to Jerusalem.” The child then comes into the house and asks the four questions.
In the end, any of your family’s practices works. Since there are two nights, you might take turns with the different strategy on each night. I like the idea of children hiding away the redemption yet to come. After all, are we not depending on them to complete what we have yet to finish?