For children, it is the highlight of the Passover Seder.
Over the years they discovered that because the seder could not be concluded until this final piece of matzah is eaten, they could “steal” it in order to coerce their exhausted parents, desperate for sleep, into granting them whatever ridiculous demands they should choose to impose, hence the American idea of “Afikoman presents.” For adults, it just seems like an ingenious trick to give kids an authorized “recess,” a chance to run around and have fun while at the same time keeping them involved in what is happening at the table.
What is the Afikoman?
One of the first things we do at the Passover seder, following Kiddush and Karpas, is “Yachatz” which is the breaking of the matzah. Typically a matzah will break into two incongruent pieces. The larger piece, the Afikoman, which literally means “desert,” is stowed away, to be saved for later, and the smaller piece is set in front of us. It is on this smaller piece, that we now recite the entire Haggadah. Many of the most crucial and integral parts of the seder experience are prefaced with the instruction: “Uncover the broken matzah” or “raise up the broken matzah.”
This matzah, precisely because it is small and broken, aptly represents our “bread of affliction,” and “the food of poverty.” It is the quintessential matzah, and it plays a leading role throughout the seder drama. If the seder were a play, this would be one of the main actors. Finally, after concluding the recitation of the entire Haggadah, it is the first thing eaten, and with it we fulfill our biblical obligation of eating matzah.
The larger piece, meanwhile, is hidden away, sidelined and absent; it must wait patiently until its return much later into the night. Only after reciting the Haggadah, after eating matzah, maror, korech, the egg, and after the entire holiday meal do we remember it and retrieve it from its hiding place, and this becomes our “dessert.” Preferably, it is the last thing to be eaten that night so that we sleep with the taste of matzah lingering in our mouths and in our memories.
Although seemingly relegated to a secondary part in the play, and cast into some sort of supporting role, the Afikoman is just as integral, crucial, and necessary to the seder experience as its “younger brother.” Our Sages tell us, “ain maftirin ad acharei hapesach afikoman,” meaning “The seder cannot be concluded without the Afikoman.” It also replaces and represents what was the biblical highlight of the seder, the Pascal sacrifice.
A Tale of Two Matzos
The Passover story—enslavement followed by liberty—is the eternal story of the Jew. “For not only once did they stand up against us to destroy us, rather in every generation they attempt this again. And only G-d saves us from their hands,” we state in the Haggadah.
It is fascinating to observe the prestigious place the seder held and continues to hold in the lives of so many Jews. More Jews conduct some form of Passover Seder than attend even High Holiday services. The seder strikes a chord deep within us. Many of our warmest and fondest childhood memories were created at our parent’s seder table. Somehow the Jew feels that he or she cannot ignore the seder story; it is our personal story as individuals and as a people.
Now we can understand the deeper symbolism behind the breaking and separation of the matzah. Perhaps the matzah represents the Jewish people, the Congregation of Israel, who throughout history have continuously been crushed, flattened and humbled (like matzah), and have been given to eat the “bread of poverty,” the “bread of affliction.” Time and time again we were not allowed to wait until our dough rose, we had to take the wandering stick and leave with nothing but “matzah,” literally and figuratively.
But for a long time now, our matzah has been divided; we are a divided people. One part of our people, the smaller part of our matzah to be sure, still stubbornly sits at the “seder table,” they sit around the table of their ancestors, following the traditions, continuing the rituals, studying the laws and telling the story. This is the smaller part of the matzah, the minority of our people, which refuses to get up of from the Passover table and find other alternatives for life and for happiness. Yes, they sometimes sit there with closed eyes, half asleep, but they are present. These are the Jews who wake up each morning remembering that we are part of a long narrative—beginning with Abraham, culminating with Moshiach—and we ought to live our lives inspired by this narrative. They don a tallis, wrap tefilin, go to the synagogue, pray to G-d, and send their children to Jewish schools to receive an intense Torah education. These are the Jews who celebrate Shabbos, eat kosher, would not eat a meal outside of a Sukkah, or wear a garment made of wool and linen.
The larger part of the matzah—the majority of our people—have wandered from the seder table, into foreign pastures. They have found alternatives to Torah. Indeed, most of our nation remains ignorant and in many ways apathetic to our heritage and its wisdom, millions of our brethren people feel alienated from our people and its story.
And we can identify the moment in history when the matzah was “split.”
Around 250 years ago, with the French Revolution, and what was known as the age of “Enlightenment,” or “The Age of Reason,” the shtetl walls crumbled and many, indeed the majority, of Jews have ultimately said goodbye to their ancient ideology in lieu of the leading ideologies of the day. Voltaire replaced Moses; Rousseau replaced Rashi. Kant and Nietzsche supplanted Abaye and Rava. In France and Germany, enlightenment led to alienation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from tradition. Some decades later, in Eastern Europe, millions of Jews bid farewell to the Torah for a host of new “isms” that seemed far more promising than ancient Juda-ism.
Secular Zionistic nationalism, for example, captured the imagination of countless young Jews, substituting a transcendent G-d with a concerete homeland. In Russia, Jews flocked to found and support Marxism, communism and socialism. In America, over one million Jews assimilated between 1840 and 1930 alone. In the last few decades in the USA, we lost another million of our children.
And the split of the matzah continues. We continue to be a divided people. The small part of the matzah often looks with disdain at the larger piece of the matzah: “I am at the seder table; you are lost and estranged;” while the big part of the matzah often looks at the small piece of matzah with bewilderment and pity, wondering how it manages to remain so isolated and detached from modernity and the new world.
Here we will discover the secret of the Afikoman. Open your hearts…
The Calling of Our Generation
Next Tuesday marks the 117th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902-1994) of blessed memory, who was born on the 11th of Nissan, April 18, in 1902, in the Ukraine, just days before Passover. Growing up at the height of the revolutions which swept the world and captured the hearts and souls of millions of Jews, the Lubavitcher Rebbe observed first hand the “matzah” being split, fragmented, broken, and then almost completely consumed by the flames of Stalinism and Nazism.
Providence had the soul of the Lubavitcher Rebbe grace our world a few days before the seder, perhaps because his life’s message captured the great story of the afikoman.
What was the Rebbe’s message for a broken and fragmented generation?
That the larger part of the matzah may be absent from our seder table, but it is our Afikoman; that our matzah may be divided, but we are still one matzah. Millions of Jews may be absent from the seder table, but they may never be forgotten. Most importantly: we cannot conclude our seder if we do not bring back the larger piece of matzah which has been gone from the seder table.
The small piece of matzah will never be capable of reaching the culmination its seder if it will not reach out to its brother-matzah and bring it back to the seder table, recognizing the truth that we are one people and each of us has a place of dignity at the eternal table of Jewish history and consciousness.
This, the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed, was the mission of our time. The seder is almost complete, the story is almost finished. Moshiach is at our doorstep. The meal has been eaten, and we have had our share of maror, of bitter herbs and suffering. And now we must remember the Afikoman. We must search for the afikoman, and with much love and sensitivity bring it back to the table, and let it reunite with its own essence, with its own story, with its own soul.
At times the Afikoman is hard to locate, the assimilated Jew is difficult to identify. Sometimes he struggles to even identify himself. But at the end of the night, at the end of this exile, he will return, to listen to the story of the Exodus, to take part in the mitzvah and pass it along to his own children. For no Jew will be left behind.
Only then will we be able to conclude our journey and truly be “Next year in Jerusalem.”
(My thanks to Rabbi Zalman Schmukler (Los Angeles) for sharing the nucleus of the above idea, and to Rabbi Avi Shlomo for his assistance in transcribing this essay.)
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