Afikoman: The ultimate Passover question

Photo illustration: Pinterest

Rabbis expound on its name, purpose and traditions, but they never explain why the Haggadah historically surrounded the Afikoman with silence, except for one contradictory statement. Recently another declaration has emerged that only intensifies the question: Why is this Seder ritual different from all others?

The Afikoman tradition is essential to the Passover Seder, and it’s been observed by Jews around the world for centuries. Yet no other Jewish practice is shrouded in more mystery than this special half-matzah. Rabbinic sources claim its purpose is “a diversion to entertain the children”… but its enactment at the Seder is required by halacha (Jewish law) even when children are not present. The Afikoman is supposed to help everyone stay awake and involved until the end… yet its part is finished halfway through the Seder. Most peculiar of all is what is done to the Afikoman: removing it from its place between two others, breaking it in half (returning one half to its place, wrapping the other half), hiding the wrapped half and then returning it, breaking it into pieces from which all must eat — all performed without a word of explanation.

Historically the Afikoman is only mentioned once in the entire Seder ceremony, and that small reference creates a big problem.

Jews everywhere know that the Afikoman is the last thing to be eaten at the Seder table, because according to the Haggadah  the Mishnah says so. Or, at least it says so in English. Where the Haggadah repeats the Mishnah passage (Pesachim 10:8) in Hebrew, it turns out to be a flat prohibition against the Afikoman:

אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן

Literally: “It is forbidden to conclude after the Pesach [with] Afikoman.

Given this unqualified statement, it’s peculiar that for hundreds of years the identity of the Afikoman remained unsettled. The revered sage Rabban Gamliel (President of the Yavneh Sanhedrin between 90 and 110 AD) was credited with the above law. And yet as late as the redaction of the Talmud (Jerusalem 400 AD, Babylon 500 AD), the rabbinic establishment was still arguing over exactly what was forbidden.

The strangeness of this Talmudic uncertainty over the object of the ban is only surpassed by the unanswered question of how and when the “forbidden” became required… using the same Mishnah quote for support.

Some have tried to explain this last contradiction by suggesting that the word Afikoman changed over the centuries. Most scholars agree that it’s Greek, but no one is sure of its origin, let alone why a Greek word was chosen by the rabbinic community for an exclusively Jewish ceremony.

Messianic believers translate Afikoman as “the coming one”, and of course we have no difficulty interpreting the mute ceremony of breaking, wrapping, hiding, returning and feeding as a basic pantomime of Yeshua’s sacrifice. This association has been promoted by non-Messianic scholars as well, such as David Daube, who transliterated the word as afikomenos. But the mystery is not completely solved even here. For one thing, the Greek New Testament (Matt. 11:4 for example) uses a different word for “the coming one“: erkomanos.

Nevertheless, if we assume that Afikoman was originally epikomenos, that could be rendered as something (or someone) “coming afterward”. Jewish sources may have decided it meant “coming after” dinner is finished, and so translated it as “dessert”. It can just as easily mean someone “coming after” a time of concealment, and Chabad openly acknowledges the Afikoman as a picture of the Messiah in an in-between hidden state. In addition, old traditions in various Jewish communities around the world support the Messianic symbolism.

That raises another question: none of the above sources offer an explanation for why either the Passover lamb or a broken middle matzah should represent the Messiah.

Conservative Rabbi Avram Reisner started farther back, wondering why the Afikoman should represent the lamb. He began with the above-mentioned contradiction between universal Jewish custom and the Talmud, concluding that “Afikoman is not about the last bit of matzah that we are required to have, but about something else that we are forbidden.”

He then traced the history of the lamb (the Pesach) being the last item eaten and reported that “no one knows” how early that custom started; he assumed it was before 70 AD. “After the destruction of the Temple, then, that hole in the customary practice of the seder would have been filled by substituting a piece of matzah. But, then, why [was] it not important enough a custom to make the description of the seder in the Mishnah?”

Good question. No answer.

An Israeli blogger made a brave attempt to find out why this ceremonial matzah became known by a foreign word associated with unrestrained Greek feasting. He also wondered why it had to be first retrieved from between two other matzahs, then broken and hidden, before eating it. His investigation only uncovered the “when”: the name Afikoman became accepted for that last matzah piece around 1000 years after Greek feasting had faded into oblivion. Why? Nobody knows. What’s with the elaborate ritual? Silence.

An answer finally emerges in a rather aggressive apologetic piece by a second-century Jewish-Christian bishop, Melito of Sardis, who knew the word “afikoman” as a Passover symbol for Yeshua. His sermon is dated around 170 AD, several decades before the first rabbinic mention of “afikoman” (the Mishnah was compiled after 200 AD). This evidence has caused Jewish scholars to speculate that the Messianic symbolism in the Seder originated with the Nazarene community.

At the (Conservative Jewish) Schechter Institute, Joshua Kulp (“Origins of the Seder: Currents in Biblical Research”) proposed that “rabbis shaped the seder in response to early Christianity” rather than the opposite. He in turn cited Hebrew University scholar Israel Yuval, who concluded that the two communities were developing Haggadah traditions at roughly the same time, and that the Yavneh rabbis were trying to reverse the Nazarene influence.

David Arnow of New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education (“The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in Redemption“) proposed that this push-back explains why the rabbinic Haggadah virtually ignores Moses, and explicitly rejects the Angel of the LORD as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt (compare Judges 2:1). The Nazarenes had proclaimed Yeshua as “the prophet like Moses” (Acts 3:22) and the visible Word of YHVH (John 1:14, Col. 1:15-16). The second doctrine, which was a strong Jewish belief in second Temple times, was banned in Yavneh as a heresy.

Now our questions take a skeptical turn. Did the meaning of the name really change for Jews 1000 years after the Mishnah, or was the Afikoman always a piece of matzah concluding the Seder? Why would the Mishnah use a Greek word, when there are perfectly good words for “dessert” and “revelry” in Hebrew and Aramaic… and when “revelry” in the Greek of that time was “monos” (see Rom.13:12)? Did Rabban Gamliel worry about irreverent partying, or ‘heretical’ symbolism? Was the Talmudic vagueness about identifying this forbidden tradition a case of confusion, or evasion?

Pouring more fuel on the fire is a Chabad teaching which suggests that Afikoman is not Greek but Aramaic: “The word afikoman can be broken up into two Aramaic words אפיקו מן,[‘afiku-man’] meaning ‘bring out sustenance’.” 

However, the precise meaning of “man” in Hebrew is not “sustenance”, it’s manna (Ex. 16:15). And translating Afikoman as “bring out manna” makes it even more strongly expressive of Yeshua, “the bread out of heaven” given by the Father (Jn. 6:31-35). “Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, always give us this bread.’” (v.34) This connection is supported by a Scriptural parallel between the distribution of the Pesach lamb and the portions of the manna:

“Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb.” (Ex. 12:4)

“Gather of it [the manna] every man as much as he should eat; you shall take an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent.” (Ex. 16:16)

And in making this portion the last thing to be eaten after a sumptuous meal, it reflects Yeshua’s words (v.35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger.”

In short, there is evidence that rabbinic adoption of the Afikoman custom, name and all, was a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. The Nazarenes substituted a broken matzah (“This is My body, broken for you“) for the Pesach lamb after the Temple’s destruction. Or, given the Mishnah’s attempt to ban it from appearing “after the Pesach [lamb]“, it was possibly an addition to the feast while the Temple stood (“Do this in remembrance of Me“). This middle matzah of three was given the name Afikoman, “the One coming after”. After what? “The restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

It’s likely that the Afikoman originally had verbal explanations, like everything else in the Haggadah (a word that means “telling”). An act so central and remarkable would have been at least accompanied by a blessing, and some modern Israeli Haggadot now include one which follows the standard holiday formula (in Hebrew): “I am ready and prepared to fulfill the commandment of eating the Afikoman.” But that’s not an explanation; it’s a minimal concession. To this day, the standard explanation downplays the entire ritual as a child’s game (BT, Pesachim 109a; Rambam, Hilchot Hametz u-Matza 7:3).

That only brings back the question of why this part called “Tzafun” (Heb: “hidden”) is a “commandment“, regardless of whether or not children are present.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis tackled that one, and he came up with a startling piece of information: an Aramaic introduction to the Afikoman which I’d never heard of before. The author sensed that “something secret is expressed in the silence surrounding the ritual, and he guessed that it had to do with the Messianic age. But he apparently missed the impact of the obscure prelude, which he translated thus:

I am ready and prepared to perform the commandment of eating the afikoman, to unite

the Holy One blessed be He

and His Divine Presence

through the hidden and secret Guardian

on behalf of all Israel.

I have discovered this amazing expression of the Triune God in one of our own Israeli Haggadot, and there the text is mostly Hebrew:

הנני מוכן ומוזמן לקים מצות אכילת אפיקומן לשם יחוד

קודשא בריך הוא


על ידי ההוא טמיר ונעלם

בשם כל ישראל

The translation is the same, except in place of the “Guardian“, it names Someone whose name is erased: “Ha-Hu“… “That One“. One who is “hidden and secret” but unites YHVH “who dwells in unapproachable light “ (1 Tim. 6:16); and the Shekhinah who desires “to dwell among the sons of Israel” (Exod. 29:45).

Ha-Ish Ha-Hu” (“That Man“) is a traditional rabbinic euphemism for only one person: Yeshua the Nazarene.

May our Passover celebration become a revelation of the Tzafun to all Israel.