Sermon: First Day Pesach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 11 April 2017

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, says Schulweiss, 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]

So just what is this Afikomen? We take the middle of the three ceremonial matzot, break it in two, hiding one piece, the Afikomen, which we eat just before Grace after Meals. It is only mentioned once more during the Seder. The reply to the Wise Child’s question is, “you shall explain all the laws of Pesach down to the very last detail about the Afikomen.”

The rules about it are very specific. That matzah should be broken into two unequal pieces, and the larger one set aside for the Afikomen. We don’t say a blessing when we break it and nor do we say one when we eat it. Breaking and eating are, therefore, 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 serviette and the children have to try and snatch it away, and can demand a ransom before giving it back.

A member of Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue who grew up in the Calcutta Jewish community told me that, at his Seder, his father made a sort of sling with a serviette, put the Afikomen in it and walked around the table Everybody would ask, “Who are you?” “I am a Jew,” he replied. “Where have you come from?” “Egypt.” “Where are you going?” “To Jerusalem.”

Adin Steinsaltz explains 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]

The 1981 Liberal Haggadah explains that ‘Afikomen’ is 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 commentary, 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 Fredman, 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 (Altar, 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 says 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 start the Seder with that message. The paradox of freedom, of course, is that it means more restrictions on our behaviour, not less, which could, of course, be a working definition of slavery. The difference, obviously, is that here we’re talking about self-imposed restrictions, not those forced on us from the outside.

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 prisoner in the Gulag 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 something 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 in between, to reminds us that we are in that in-between situation: beyond Egypt, but not yet truly redeemed. It’s one thing to get out of Egypt – we still have to get ‘Egypt’ out of us. We can celebrate past liberation – but not yet future redemption.

That item on the Seder ‘agenda’ when we eat the Afikomen is called tsafun, which means ‘hidden’ referring, we might think, to the fact that we hide the Afikomen. For little Harold Schulweiss, it was, quite literally, tsafun, ‘hidden’; for us, though, the hiddenness is metaphorical: it is future redemption which remains, tsafun, hidden from us. Which gives the intentional inequality in the size of the two pieces a deeper meaning, reflecting the inequalities in the world: of education, health care, men and women, wealth and its distribution and so on. A list which is, sadly, all too long.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Pesach last year and this. Then it was pre-Brexit, pre-US election, Syria, some really bad terror attacks. Change is now in the air and we know not whether it will be for good or ill. Last night we sat around our Seder tables facing insecurity, tectonic shifts in society, talk of the gap between the haves and the have-nots being wider than we imagined and so on.

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 our share of 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, but more significantly 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. But in the meantime we eat it in silence – how can we bless something that seems even more remote this year than last?

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 even at an almost subliminal level, that we live in an unequal, incomplete world.

Little 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 peoples.

  1. 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 Fredman, The Passover Seder (Meridian NY 1983) pi23
  6. Ira Steingroot, Keeping Passover (Harper San Francisco 1995) p69
  7. Schulweiss, op cit p273
  8. Shlomo Riskin, Passover Haggadah (Ktav NY 1983) p38