Afikomen – The Origins and Tradition

Since the Passover meal Seder, it is tradition to place a stack of three matzahs at the table. Families break the center matzah into two pieces during the ceremonial meal. The larger of the two parts, known as the afikomen, is set aside and eaten after the meal. Many families hide the afikomen. Either the children hide it and the parents search for it, or the parents hide the afikomen for the children to find. Usually, the person who finds the afikomen receives a prize. If you want to learn more about this fascinating tradition, then keep reading! You can expect to learn all about:

  • The customs of the Seder meal
  • The importance of matzah
  • The history of the afikomen
  • The symbolism of hiding the afikomen

The Customs of the Seder Meal

Seder marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover. It is a ceremonial meal that consists of certain foods, wine, reading, storytelling, and socializing. The seder meal usually takes place on the first two nights of Passover. However, those in Israel only do it on the first night. The traditional foods coincide with the 15 different steps that make up the seder meal.

The meal itself contains wine, as well as many other foods. Each food of the meal contributes to the 15 different rituals. This includes four cups of wine; the meal also contains raw vegetables dipped in saltwater, matzah, and bitter herbs dipped in charoset- which is a paste of fruit, nuts, and wine. Along with the foods used for the steps, families prepare a festive meal with some of their favorite foods to be shared. 

The seder meal commemorates the Exodus- the fleeing of the Jews from Egyptian slavery over 3,000 years ago. The 15 steps of the seder remind participants about the journey from their oppression in Egypt to their freedom of today. 

The matzah is broken in step four- called the Yachatz- and the smaller piece goes back onto the table. The bigger part- the afikomen- is then hidden or set aside to be eaten after the meal. The afikomen is a symbol of the Paschal lamb, which the Israelites ate during the first seder meal.

The Importance of Matzah

Matzah is an unleavened bread that has a cracker-like texture. The Jews ate matzah while the Egyptians enslaved them, and they were told by God to eat matzah the night before their escape. The food also comes into play while they flee. As they fled Egypt in such a hurry, the Jews had no time to let their bread rise. Therefore, they ate traditional matzah. 

Together, the symbolism of the matzah represents the contrast between oppression and freedom. The Israelites ate unleavened bread while enslaved as well as after they had escaped. Overall, the matzah represents two opposing ideas that, together, help symbolize the Israelite’s journey from slavery to freedom.

The History of the Afikomen

The Jewish tradition of Passover is rooted in a deep history, as are the origins of the afikomen. It is an essential part of the seder meal that contains lots of symbolism. The source of the word itself is said to be Greek. Many are unsure of its specific definition. Some say that it means “I have come.” Others say that it comes from the name of a Greek tradition called “epikomion.” This tradition comes from a pagan background where people would travel from party to party after dinner. Rabbis gave the name of afikomen to distinguish the differing customs.

The matzah symbolizes the body of Jesus. During his last Passover, Jesus gave his disciples matzah. In the traditional seder, the matzah is unleavened, wrapped in linen, and hidden to then be found. These actions are similar to the body of Jesus. He was covered in linen and then “hidden” for three days after his death. He reappears after his resurrection.

The Mishna- also known as the Oral Torah- states that Jews should not eat afikomen after the Passover sacrifice. However, different interpretations have led to the tradition of eating the afikomen at the end of the seder. Some rabbis interpreted the statement quite literally, whereas others believed the statement referred to revelry. After many years, rabbis began to follow the tradition of eating afikomen at the end of the seder. As a result, the traditional seder practiced today always ends with eating the afikomen. It acts as the dessert of the meal.

The Symbolism of Hiding the Afikomen

While the afikomen itself has its symbolism, the action of hiding it has symbolism as well. One of the main reasons for hiding the piece of matzah is to set it apart from the rest. In doing so, it is easy to identify which part of the matzah the family eats at the very end. When it is hidden, tradition says that Jews should wrap the afikomen in cloth or a napkin. This action harkens back to the way that the Jews escaped Egypt with their unleavened bread that would eventually become the traditional matzah. 

Hiding the afikomen also symbolizes the liberation of the Jews from oppression and slavery in Egypt. Although, it is not a complete liberation because they still wait for the final redemption with the arrival of Moshiach. By hiding the afikomen, Jews recognize that their ultimate freedom, brought by Moshiach, is still hidden.

The practice of hiding the afikomen is optional, and the decision depends on the family. Some families believe that by allowing their kids to hide the afikomen, they are instilling a sense of theft. However, families that permit the practice offer prizes to the children who are successful in finding the afikomen. This tradition is included in the seder to allow the children to engage and interact in the ceremony. The seder is a lengthy ceremonial meal, so it can be challenging for children to pay attention the entire time. However, they learn the importance of the afikomen in the seder meal and Jewish history. 

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