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D'var Torah: Shabbat Pesach

Our portion today was from Exodus, but since we just read this portion back in February, I won’t bore you with yet another attempt at trying to convince you of what it should mean or might mean to its readers. Instead, I’ll bore you with trying to answer the burning question that you must face every year at your seders, after your meal is completed and you’re serving dessert. It’s at this time that someone invariably asks, “Hey, what about the afikoman?”

Indeed. The afikoman. So what is this afikoman, really? Like most of the elements of the seder, the idea of something called an afikoman is very old. Not only is the word mentioned in the Mishnah, it’s also mentioned in the Tosefta, a work that appears to have been compiled before the Mishnah, as early as or even before the first century CE. However, in both of those texts, the afikoman is mentioned as something that is not to be done. Now that I’ve confused you thoroughly, let’s see if I can explain what happened to turn a talmudic prohibition into a positive law.

OK, the afikoman. Everyone knows what it is—these days, anyway—that’s not the issue. One of the symbols of the seder is the ceremonial stack of three matzot that we place on the seder table. Close to the beginning of the seder, the middle matzoh in the stack is broken in half. One piece is designated as the afikoman and is set aside to be eaten after the conclusion of the meal, before saying the grace. But let’s look at how the afikoman is mentioned in the Mishnah:

V’af atta emor-lo ke’hilkhot ha-pesach, ein maftirin achar ha-pesach afikoman.1

This directive is also mentioned in the haggadah in the answer to the wise son’s question. The traditional (i.e., Maxwell House) translation of this passage is, “Explain to him the laws of Pesach: no dessert may be eaten after the Pesach sacrifice.” But that’s only an approximation of the Hebrew meaning. Exactly what does this passage really mean? If you look at various haggadot, you’ll find this verse translated differently in each one, since any translation is essentially an exercise in interpretation. To illustrate just how different some translations of this passage are, consider this one from one of my haggadot: “One does not break up the Passover ceremony by announcing, ‘To the aftermeal entertainment!’” But the essential sense of the passage is that after some point in the seder there is to be no “afikoman.”

To see where the afikoman prohibition comes from, we need to look closely at the Hebrew itself. The first phrase, V’af atta emor-lo ke’hilkhot ha-pesach, means something like “Teach him the procedures of the pesach.” In the next phrase, the words ein maftirin can mean either “at the conclusion, you must not...” or “at the conclusion, it is not customary to....” And achar ha-pesach can refer to “after eating the korban pesach,” or “after the festal meal,” or even “after the seder ceremony is over.” Finally, then, whichever is correct, we must not proceed to whatever “afikoman” represents. It is obvious from this statement that the “afikoman” is something not to be had or done on the seder night.

Various explanations have been given for the negative connotation of the afikoman; the rabbis of the Talmud and later periods had differing opinions, but these differences can be grouped into two schools of thought. The first considered that the forbidden afikoman refers to various kinds of food. Both the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds explained it as “varieties of sweets” or other types of delicacies,2 while the Tosefta defined the afikoman as consisting of “nuts, dates, and roasted cakes.”3 The idea is that sweetmeats were not to be eaten after the seder was completed.

The second group viewed the afikoman as some sort of social or cultural activity. The word is almost certainly derived from the Greek epikomios, meaning “festal procession after the meal.” Thus the interpretation of this group of rabbis, who were under the influence of Grecian culture where pagan partying (i.e., the symposia) was common, was that this meant going off after your own festive dinner to another home’s festive dinner, invitation not withstanding, and continuing to party there,4 a prevailing custom of the times which the rabbis tried to abolish among the Jews.

The second viewpoint was the one that achieved primacy, and the admonition that became recorded in the haggadah that “One should not partake of afikoman after the paschal sacrifice” appears to refer to the custom of engaging in post-seder house-hopping parties.

The evolution into our current afikoman custom derives from the Talmudic halakhic discussion about the meaning of not eating anything after tasting the paschal sacrifice since, after the destruction of the Temple, the Passover sacrifice was no longer performed. The idea of not eating anything else after eating the sacrifice presumably was to ensure that the taste would remain with the individual; thus the idea arose that the matzoh could be viewed as a substitute for the sacrifice and the individual eating matzoh as the afikoman would have its taste remaining afterwards.5

This interpretation of the afikoman being the broken piece of the middle matzoh and the last food to be eaten at the seder became primary with the medieval rabbis, including Rashi, Rashbam, Nachmanides, and Maimonides. Rashi and Rashbam identified the piece of the broken middle matzoh as the obligatory offering—the real matzoh, the one that stands in for the paschal lamb. Thus, we can see how modern practice has evolved to embrace the position of the first, earliest, group of talmudic rabbis: that nothing should be eaten after the afikoman.

Now, at your second seder tonight, you’ll be able to answer that burning question with ease and be able to confuse your listeners as well as I’ve confused you this morning.

Hag pesach v’kasher sameach.

April 2012


1. J.T. Pesachim 10:8
2. B.T. Pesachim 119b, J.T. Pesachim 10:8
3. Tosefta Pesachim 10:11
4. J.T. Pesachim 10:9
5. Talmud Bavli with Halakhah Berurah, Birur Halakhah p. 146, Jerusalem 1985

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