Ra’anana Community Kollel
Stealing the Afikoman
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky
There is a beautiful custom that takes place every Passover at the Seder. Immediately after Kiddush, the leader of the Seder breaks the middle matzah of the three which were placed before him and hides it away until the end of the Seder. This is the Afikoman, the final food which will be eaten at the Seder. The term Afikoman is apparently related to the Greek word for dessert and it’s a real pleasure to watch the happy contented faces of the Seder participants munching away at yet another piece of matzah sometime close to midnight. Some people observe it’s even tastier this year then usual. They are eating the cardboard box.
But as all the kids know, before you can reach that exciting conclusion of the Seder, you first have to get the Afikoman. As we know, the children are encouraged to steal the Afikoman and hold it hostage, refusing to return it until their parents promise to buy them the gift of their dreams. Now far be it from me to be the Grinch that stole Passover, but does it make sense to encourage our children to steal, blackmail and extort money from us? Granted, once they get married they’ll be doing it on a regular basis, but is this really one of the values that we want to instill in them at a religious ceremony?
There are those who suggest it’s just a harmless game designed to maintain the children’s interest in the Seder so they don’t drift off. In that case, we would be wise to think up something for the average adult as well. But as far as the kids are concerned, why not just do what we always do; tell them that if they sit quietly they’ll get a prize! Offer them a chance to answer questions about what we read. Thievery and extortion? Isn’t that taking educational aids just a little be too far? Although, in light of what’s going on in the American school system perhaps this might be a good way to prepare them. Maybe we should also teach them how to use assault rifles while we’re at it. But I digress.
The fact is, I think there is a tremendous lesson to learn from the custom of stealing the Afikoman. Let’s take a quick look at the Seder. The Kiddush is followed by a series of unusual activities. We dip a vegetable in salt water, we uncover the matzahs, we recover the matzahs, we remove the Seder plate, we refill the wine cups. Busy as beavers, we are. Finally we get down to business and one of the children recites the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions. When the child finishes, he is returned to his seat at the table where between plotting his Afikoman caper, he throws things at his brother and annoys his sister. But wait, did anyone ever notice that while we’re careful to make sure the child asked the four questions, no one seems to care if he gets any answers?
If we return to the original source of the customs that precede the Ma Nishtana, they all have the same theme - to inspire the children to ask. The child sees the wine cup being refilled, “Hey we made Kiddush already!” The Seder plate is removed, “Is the Seder over already?” Such customs inspire a child’s curiosity until he wants to say, “Hey guys, why is this night different from all other nights?”
Unfortunately, what happens most of the time is that we cover the matzahs, and we uncover the matzahs. We remove the Seder plate, fill the cups and when the child’s curiosity is finally stimulated he can count on receiving the same answer as last year, “How the heck do I know why we’re doing all these things? That’s how your grandfather did it!” A friend of mine in yeshiva once offered a case of beer to whoever gave the best answer to the following question, “Why?” So of course most people gave answers like “Because” or “Why not?”, but the case of beer went to the person with the best answer of all - “Because that’s how they did it in Europe”.
It’s sad that some people can have a Passover Seder every year and never stop and think of all the whys. How can we make this night more special than all other nights? Parents have a commandment one night a year to tell their children what’s really important to them - why we are Jews, the traditions and beliefs of our ancestors, and the meaning and miracle of Jewish survival. And the kids have a commandment to listen. Imagine! One night a year the kids have a mitzvah to ask us questions and actually have to listen to our answers. What an opportunity! But do we take advantage of it, or do we give our children the same tired Seder performance that we did last year?
With all the preparations for Passover, the cleaning, the shopping and the cooking, shouldn’t we spend at least some time preparing our Seder? Thinking about what we want to tell my children. Maybe we should buy some of the excellent classical commentaries on the Hagaddah, most of which are now available in English, and learn through them. See if there is a fresh approach to the Seder that we can share with our children - something that will be meaningful and relevant to our children as they enter the twenty first century . . . Maybe the Y2K Hagaddah?
That, I believe, is the reason for the custom of stealing the Afikoman. Our children just asked four questions, and now they deserve some answers. Maybe they realize that the only way they can get our attention is by stealing it. Maybe the wise men who instituted this unusual custom wanted to remind us that we aren’t going to finish the Seder without the children. “Mom, Dad, remember me? I want some answers. And if I have to blackmail you to remember you have a kid, I’m prepared to do it!”
We all struggle to make the Passover Seder meaningful for ourselves and our guests, but we should be careful to remember that the next generation is sitting at our Seder table.