Sermon: 1st day Pesach (Rabbi Colin Eimer)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 April 2015

Rabbi Harold Schulweiss relates how he remembers finding the Afikomen at the Seder when he was about 5 or 6 years old, and hiding it again under the pillow of his bed. But the Seder had started late, he’d drunk too much wine and simply fell asleep. He was woken by his mother saying, “Where’s the Afikomen? The Seder can’t go on without it.”

At that moment, he says, the Afikomen stopped being a bit of Seder hide-and-seek, and became absolutely crucial, in some way he didn’t yet understand, to the continuation of the Seder.1

Perhaps we’ve been doing the Seder for so long that we often stop asking “Why?…. why do we do this or that thing in the Seder and why at that particular point?” Yet if we don’t, as it were, interrogate the Seder we risk underestimating its power. For the Seder is a very cleverly-constructed, densely-packed, multi-layered ceremony. Everything is there for a reason – and the reasons are invariably deeper, more pregnant with significance than we think.

Last night, virtually at the beginning of the Seder, we broke the middle of the three ceremonial matzot in two and hid one piece for later use as the Afikomen, to be eaten after the meal, but before Grace after Meals. So what is it? Is it part of the meal or not? Just what is going with this Afikomen?

The rules about it are very specific. That middle matzah should be broken into two unequal pieces, and the larger one reserved for the Afikomen. We don’t say anything when we break it, no blessing, no text to bread; and we say nothing when we actually eat it. Breaking and eating are to be done in silence. Everybody must eat some, leaning to the left. And once we’ve eaten it, nothing further should be eaten at the Seder.

Some traditions have the celebrant wrap the Afikomen in a napkin and the children have to try and snatch it away, and can demand a ransom before giving it back.

A member of my synagogue, who grew up in the Calcutta Jewish community, told me that at his Seder, his father made a sort of backpack with a serviette and put the Afikomen inside. As he walked around the table with it, everybody asked, “Who are you?” “I am a Jew,” he replied. “Where have you come from?” “Egypt.” “Where are you going?” “To Jerusalem.”

Some explain that it’s eaten after the meal as a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice in Temple times – also eaten at the end of the festive Pesach meal.2

Some say the word ‘Afikomen’ might be derived from a Greek word epikomai, meaning ‘after dinner entertainment’ in the sense of songs and poetry after the meal, or a word meaning ‘dessert.’3

Elie Wiesel in his Haggadah, says, “the larger piece of the matzah represents lachma anya, the bread of the poor. It’s meant to remind us of the hungry. We should identify with those who are afraid to eat all their bread, who always leave something for later.”4

Ruth Gruber Freedman, in her commentary, explains: “the Afikomen sums up the experience of the people of the diaspora. Levi (the priestly people) is broken (dispersed) and exiled from the table (the Altar, the Temple, Jerusalem) to be returned (redeemed) by the children (messiahs)”5

From this point, says another, “our matzot are incomplete …. throughout the Seder we are made aware of our distance from perfection by the broken matzah. Like the Jewish people or the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the Afikomen is in exile during the Seder. Although we have literally broken bread we do not yet eat any of it.”6

Perhaps the Afikomen is saying something to us about freedom and licence. Licence means doing things without thought of the present or the future, acting without restraint on our behaviour. At the Seder, to emphasise our freedom, we break bread, but don’t eat it there and then. We demonstrate our freedom. We can make choices in our lives and we start the Seder with that message. The paradox of freedom, of course, is that it means more, not less restriction on our behaviour. That’s paradoxical because, at least superficially, more restrictions sounds more like slavery. The difference, of course, is that in freedom restrictions are primarily self-imposed, not forced on us by some outside authority.

Schulweiss suggests that “brokenness is a symbol of incompletion. Life is not whole. The Passover itself is not complete…….. the redemption from Egypt is a fact of history…. but it is towards the Passover of the Future that our memories are directed.”7

In Solzhenitsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, the hero has found an extra piece of bread. He eats some, but not all, of it, keeping the rest for later, even though he’s starving. “Only a poor person who does not know when or if his next meal will come,” writes Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “breaks off from what he has now and saves it for later. Since most of us do not know what poverty is, we begin the Seder by becoming acquainted with it, at least symbolically. “8

The three matzot on the Seder plate represent liberation and redemption. The top one, the liberation from Egypt; the bottom one, Messianic redemption. The middle one is, literally and metaphorically, in between – to remind us that we are in an inbetween situation. We are beyond Egypt, but not yet truly redeemed. It’s one thing to get out of Egypt but we still have to get ‘Egypt’ out of us. We can sit at our Seder tables and celebrate past liberation – but not yet future redemption.

The section in the Haggadah when we eat the Afikomen is called tsafun, which means ‘hidden.’ Until I gave it any thought, I suppose I assumed the ‘hiddenness’ was because of the hidden Afikomen. And of course for little Harold Schulweiss and millions of kids at their Sedarim, that’s just what it is. For us, though, we see a deeper dimension: what is tsafun ‘hidden,’ is that future redemption. In modern Hebrew, the root of tsafun – tsadde-peh-nun – has to do with codes and encryption. The Afikomen is, indeed, tsafun, with something encoded in it.

The inequality in the size of the two pieces reflects the inequalities between one place and another in the world – of education; of health care; of position of men and women; of wealth and its distribution and so on – the list is, alas, endless and long, too long.

Perhaps that’s why there’s no blessing for the Afikomen. How can we make a blessing over inequality? It is, indeed, the matzah of silence: the silence of shame at our inability to do what we could, and should, to reduce those inequalities. We live in an unredeemed world and have to take responsibility for it.

The focus of the Seder before the meal is on the past; after the meal the Seder looks forwards, to the future. So we eat the Afikomen before Grace after Meals, and before opening the door for Elijah. Elijah is the traditional harbinger of the Messianic time, when we will be able to not only fill that cup but also drink it in joy and simcha. Then the unequally broken matzah will no longer symbolise the inequalities of human existence, will no longer be the affront to our humanity that they now are.

The child is to be kept awake – and the promise of the hide-and-seek is a device to do that – so that they might learn, early on and at a subliminal level, that we live in an unequal, incomplete world.

The five year old Harold Schulweiss didn’t understand why the Seder couldn’t continue without the Afikomen. Now he sees it as a symbol of the gap between present reality and future hope – for in that gap lie oppression and slavery. Progressively, adult as much as child, must be brought to deeper awareness, just as we need to be reminded and urged to greater action, to work for the liberation of all who hunger – who hunger for food but also for freedom.



  1. Harold Schulweiss, In God’s Mirror, (Ktav NY 1990) page 272ff
  2. Adin Steinsalz, Haggadah shel Pesach (Karta, Jerusalem 1979) Section ‘yachatz’
  3. Passover Haggadah, (ULPS London 1981) p34
  4. Elie Wiesel, A Passover Haggadah (Simon & Schuster NY 1983) p22
  5. Ruth Gruber Freedman, The Passover Seder (Meridian NY 1983) p123
  6. Ira Steingroot, Keeping Passover (Harper San Francisco 1995) p69
  7. Schulweiss, op cit p273
  8. Shlomo Riskin, Passover Haggadah (Ktav NY 1983) p38