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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

The Afikomen

Prof. Josef Tabory

Department of Talmud

The Afikomen is one of the focal points of the Passover night Seder ceremony. Everyone, especially the children, looks forward to the "stealing" of the Afikomen and the elaborate negotiations which precede its return just in time for it to be eaten as required. The Talmudic Encyclopedia defines the Afikomen as "slice of Matzah which must be eaten at the end of the meal on the seder night on Passover". In point of fact this definition is merely the last in a long line of explanations for the term and the custom.

The Afikomen is first mentioned in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10,8): "One should not have any Afikomen after the Passover sacrifice". This law also appears in the Haggadah of Passover as the answer to the question of the wise son: "Then you will relate to him the laws of Passover: One should not have any Afikomen after the Passover sacrifice".[1] It is obvious from the context that the Afikomen is a negative thing which should not be done on the Seder night.[2]

Concerning the negative definition of the Afikomen, our sages differed and their differences fall into two groups. One group understood that the forbidden Afikomen refers to various kinds of food. The Tosefta, which belongs to this group, defined the Afikomen as "nuts, dates and roasted cakes" (Tosefta Pesahim 10, 11, p. 198). Also Rabbi Yochanan explained it as "varieties of sweets" (Bab.Tal., Pesahim 119b, Jer.Tal., Pesahim 10,8, p. 379): and Samuel explained the Afikomen as various kinds of delicacies "such as mushrooms for me or young fowl for Father".[3] In line with this view the Rashbam explained that Afikomen was in fact two words: afiku min meaning (in Aramaic) "bring out various delicacies with which to end the meal". One could not give this order once the Afikomen was served.

The second group saw the Afikomen as some sort of social or cultural activity. Rav determined that the prohibition was "that they not wander about from group to group" (Bab. Tal., Pesahim 119b) and Rabbi Simon, in the name of Rabbi Einieni son of Rabbi Sissi, explained that the Afikomen was: "Types of singing" (Jer. Tal., Pesahim 10,9, p. 37d).[4]

Historical investigation seems to justify the latter group. The Sages feared that the Seder night, so similar in many ways to the Greek - Hellenistic "symposium", would degenerate into the kind of lewd behavior which was the general rule at a symposium. The dessert at a Greek or Roman banquet usually signaled a transition to what the Greeks called komos and the Romans comissatio, different words for the identical practice. After various kinds of desserts, they would indulge in drinking, the dessert foods being an accompaniment to the wine. When we read of the riotous finale to the banquet which Socrates attended, we can easily imagine to what extremes the revelers could go.[5] Philo[6] expressed harsh criticism of such symposia and the laws of Sparta outlawed drinking after the meal in order to prevent lewd behaviour.[7] Certainly the sages would have no part of this and therefore declared that "one should have no Afikomen after the Passover Sacrifice". Prof. Saul Lieberman connected the explanations of Afikomen with the cultural background as follows:

When the partying would reach its peak, they used to burst into other houses and cajole the occupants to join them, and continuing the celebration there. This was called epikomazein and the Mishnah warned that the rite of the Passover sacrifice should not be concluded with an epikomon, i.e., "afikomon". This is the explanation given in the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds: One should not arise from one group and enter another group. The later Ashkenazic scholars already understood this correctly, relying also on the Yerushalmi which explained: "types of singing."[8]

This being the case it would appear, that the explanations of the Afikomen as types of food reflects the same cultural tradition. Nuts, dates and roasted grains mentioned by Samuel are in fact the various kinds of desserts (tragema)[9] which were brought to the table as a final course in the Roman banquet, in order to whet the appetite for drink.[10] The foods served as "Afikomen" thus became identified by the same name. Interestingly, the Greek word epikomos underwent a similar linguistic change.[11]

However, the semantic shift from a phenomenon to a food promoted a Halachic discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 119b), whether the prohibition to eat an Afikomen was in force only after the Passover sacrifice was eaten or was it still applicable after the destruction of the Temple when the obligatory food to be eaten last on the Seder night was the Matzah. This question presumed that the prohibition of the "Afikomen" was originally connected to the Passover sacrifice, for if the prohibition meant to prevent the Seder from becoming an occasion for wild behavior, there would be no reason to differentiate between a Seder in which there was a sacrifice and one where there was no sacrifice. The question itself therefore teaches us that the Talmud assumed the prohibition stated that nothing should be eaten after the Passover sacrifice. The Talmud took the reason for this to be that the taste of the sacrifice should remain with us. There was, therefore, a further legitimate question whether one who eats Matzah at this time, when there is no Passover sacrifice, would also need to have the taste of the Matzah remain afterwards.[12]

Various opinions on this were quoted in the name of Samuel. According to one of them Samuel said: "There should be no Afikomen after the Passover sacrifice" (Pesahim 119b). However, Rav Yosef quoted Samuel as saying the exact opposite: "After the Matzah there is an Afikomen" (120a), viz. it is permissible to eat an "Afikomen" after the Matzah. The Talmud is undecided as to the explanation of the opinion of Samuel according to Rav Yosef, whether there is a difference between the sacrifice and the Matzah. It presents the possibility that Samuel would permit having an Afikomen even after the sacrifice.

In any case the accepted halachah is that Matzah is equivalent to the sacrifice and no Afikomen comes after it, i.e., nothing should be eaten after it. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 478,1). Obviously this prohibition does not take effect immediately after eating the first Matzah. It is therefore necessary - even in the opinion of those who hold that the main obligation of eating Matzah occurs in the begining of the meal - to eat Matzah again at its end. This is done so that there will be a "final Matzah" after which nothing more may be eaten. This halachah reinforced the tendency to create an obligation to eat Matzah at the end of the meal.

It would seem that the earliest source which uses the word "Afikomen" to refer to Matzah eaten at the end of Seder night meal is in books which originate among the students of Rashi. They related that once their teacher forgot to eat the "Matzah of Afikomen" at the end of the Seder and remembered it only after the recitation of the blessing after the meal (Birkat Hamazon) (Responsa of Rashi, 304, p.326). From then on the usage of the word Afikomen as a term for Matzah eaten at the end of the meal became widespread. The Aruch Hashulchan suggested that at the end of the Seder we call for "Afiko min" meaning "This alone is to be brought out to be eaten and no more" (Aruch Hashulchan 478,3). Thus the term Afikomen ceased to represent something forbidden and became something which there is an obligation to do - and to do so in a big way![13]

[1] This line also appears in the Mekhilta; however in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim 10,4,p. 37d) it appears as the answer to the foolish son! As for it's meaning, see - J. Tabory, The Passover Ritual Throughout the Generations, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1996, p. 317- 18, note 37.

[2] Some scholars interpreted ein maftirin achar hapesach Afikomen - It is forbidden to go out, because after the Passover sacrifice there is Afikomen" (Tabory, ibid., p.61, note 116).

[3] Babylonian Talmud, ibid.,: Yerushalmi, ibid. On the meaning of the words see Shalom, Meir Ayi, pp. 74-76; Leff, Tzimchei Hayehudim, A. 33-34, 74-76. Nahmanides in Milchamot Hashem explained that R. Yochanan and Samuel disagreed as to the types of food prohibited for eating after the Passover sacrifice.

[4] This was a natural practice. In the Bible we find hints that "male and female singers " (Ecclesiates 2:8) were hired to provide entertainment after the meal (C.Z. Hirshberg, "Achilah" Encyclopedia Mikrait, I, pp.279-281). Others tried to interpret "Types of singing" as also connected to food. Z.V.Rabinovitz , Sha'arei Torat Eretz Yisrael, p. 240, explained that this refers to excellent fruit from the term "zimrat ha'aretz " ( the best fruits of the land, Gen. 43:11), thus also the Pnei Moshe explained that "minei zemer" were kinds of utensils used for eating, based on the Biblical term vehasipot vehamizamrot ( I Kings 7:50). Compare also Tamar, Alei Tamar, Moed A, p. 310.

[5] Xenophon, The Banquet, 4-7; A detailed description based on classical sources can be found in: Joachim Marquadt, Das Privateleben der Rmer (Handbuch der Rmischen Altertmer, vii) ed. by A. Mau, Leipzig. 1896, pp. 331-340.

[6] Philo, On the Contemplative Life, 57-65, pp. 194-196.

[7] See: E. Guhl and W. Koner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans (translated by F. Huffer), London, (1872) p. 267

[8] Lieberman, Yerushalmi Kifshuto, p. 521. For other suggestions as to the meaning of the word "Afikomen" see my book (op.cit., note 1) under "Afikomen" in the index.

[9] See Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshutah, I, pp. 57-58.

[10] See: Ugo Paoli, Das Leben im Alten Rom, p. 125

[11] Atheneaus, The Wisemen of the Banquet, 7:525, 8, pp.172-173. Cf. also S. Krauss, Lohnwrter, II, p.107.

[12] Among the Rishonim there are those who explained that the prohibition of eating after the Passover sacrifice was designed to ensure that the sacrifice would be the last thing to be eaten in the meal , so that it should be eaten to satisfaction and/or so that no bone should be broken in it. Therefore it was decreed to eat Matzah at the conclusion of the meal in remembrance of the Passover sacrifice. Others explained that the taste of the sacrifice must remain in the mouth so that the obligation to say Hallel afterwords will not be forgotten, and this applies also to the Matzah eaten at the conclusion of the meal. For a Summary of the various views see: Talmud Babli with Halachah Berurah, Jerusalem, 1985, (Birur Halachah p. 146).

[13] On the development of the obligation to eat two "Zeitim" (i.e., a quantity of two olives) of Matzah for Afikomen, see Tabory (op. cit., note 1) p. 127, n.727.

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