What Is the Symbolic Meaning Behind the Afikomen for the Jewish Passover?
The holiday of Passover, or Pesach, commemorates the Jewish people's departure from Egypt, marking the end of a grueling 210-year period of enslavement. Every year, when Jews participate in a Pesach seder, they recall the moment of transition from slavery to freedom by eating special foods, reading and discussing the exodus story and performing certain rituals. From beginning to end, the seder is replete with symbols. The afikomen -- or final matzo eaten at the seder meal -- is one example.
1 Afikomen 101
When the seder begins, three pieces of matzah -- or matzot -- are stacked together on the table. At one point early in the evening, the person leading the seder breaks the middle of the three matzot in half and sets aside the larger half for later. This larger piece of the middle matzah is referred to as the afikoman. Jews derive from the Oral Torah that the afikomen is the last thing eaten at the seder, with the exception of two remaining cups of wine and optional water or tea. This portion of the seder is known as "tzafun" -- meaning "hidden" -- because the piece of matzah that serves as the afikomen remains set aside, or hidden, throughout most of the seder. In many homes, the head of the household literally hides the afikomen. The children then search for it and "demand" some form of payment, such as a toy or game, in exchange for its return.
2 Pesach Offering
At the time of the exodus, every Jew ate a portion of the Korban Pesach, or Passover meat sacrifice. Many commentators claim today's afikomen symbolizes that portion of Pesach meat. Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov writes in "The Book of Our Heritage" that, just as Jews felt great joy when consuming their portion of the Pesach offerering, Jews today should experience a rush of joy and gratitude when eating the afikomen. Other commentators contend the afikomen represents the matzah that was eaten along with the Pesach meat. To satisfy both opinions, some individuals eat a double portion of afikomen at the seder. Others eat a double portion as an expression of how dear the mitzvah of afikomen is. Rabbi Avigdor Miller contends the message of the afikomen -- and what Jews should reflect on when they eat it -- is that at the time of the exodus, God found favor in the Jewish people and sanctified them with the commandments.
3 Future Redemption, Future Reward
Some commentators relate to the afikomen as a symbol of ultimate redemption. Writing for Torah.org, Rabbi Yehuda Prero cites the 18th- and 19th-century legal decisor Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who explains that each half of the middle matzah alludes to half of the seder. The smaller half that Jews eat earlier in the evening corresponds to the first half of the seder, when Jews thank God for their redemption from Egypt. The second, larger half of the matzah -- the afikomen -- corresponds to the second half of the seder, which focuses on future redemption from the current exile. Just as the afikomen remains hidden away until late in the seder, the date of the final redemption remains hidden. Rabbi Shimon Shwab suggests that the smaller portion eaten earlier corresponds to reward in this world; the larger portion, set aside for later, corresponds to the world to come. Rabbi Schwab adds that a Jew must pay a price -- in the form of mitvah observance -- for the larger spiritual rewards of the world to come.
4 Savoring the Moment
Still others explain the afikomen differently. Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, writing for Aish.com, suggests afikomen is symbolic of savoring. Apisdorf claims the act of savoring allows a Jew to become completely immersed in an experience. Jewish law forbids eating anything after the afikomen, just as it was forbidden to eat anything after the Pesach meat offering. The taste of the afikomen should linger in the Jew's mouth. Similarly, writes Apisdorf, the taste of Pesach -- the ideas and feelings conjured by the seder -- should linger. Ideally, a Jew should savor the seder experience, carrying it with him into the rest of the year.