Passover begins at sundown, Monday April 18, by the secular calendar for 2011 CE. Long before Dr. Atkin’s carb-free regimen, observant Jews have abstained from eating leavened bread in order to keep the feast called Passover—only matzo, which contains no yeast.
At the Pesach Seder, three matzo have a place of honor on the table, regally, and somewhat cryptically, kept in a linen bag. The Seder climaxes with the eating of a broken piece of matzo, called the “afikomen”.
There is mystique, mystery, possibly misunderstanding, lots of discussion and scholarly argument about the meanings and origin of the afikomen tradition.
Some traditions encourage hiding and ransoming the broken piece, rewarding the children who find it. In some parts of the world, a bit of the afikomen is preserved, kept as a talisman against (you guessed it) the evil eye, even tossed into the sea to calm the waves before ocean-travel.
Let’s start with the obvious: the word itself. Like many other words in our vocabulary—let’s say, “Sephora”—it may “sound” like Hebrew. In context, we may think it’s Hebrew—sounds good, as in, “Please allow me to introduce Miss Sephora Bindefeld of Great Neck, New York.”
But unlike “Sephora”, which is a completely made-up word (kudos to those clever marketing people!), afikomen is a Greek word. Depending upon who you ask, this Greek word means literally “nothing”, or “what comes after”, or something else entirely. For the record, Christian scholars who study Greek give the word a specifically Messianic interpretation.
Most people would translate “afikomen” as “dessert”, because this is how it’s used at the Seder table: “Bring out the (flourless) dessert!”. (For all the moms and other Passover bakers out there, check out these flour-free, Passover-perfect dessert recipes from smittenkitchen.com: http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/04/17-passover-dessert-ideas/)
A more complete reference is the law of Passover: “Ein maftirin ahar he-pesah afikomen”, usually translated as “One may not eat dessert after the Passover offering.”
Another reading is more to the effect of “Do not go out after eating the Paschal lamb.” Okay, wait a minute. You may be thinking to yourself, Hey, I’ve been to a lot of Seders, and we’ve never eaten lamb, although Moses makes reference to the traditional sacrificial lamb whose blood was used to mark the doorways, protecting the families within. You know the story by now.
But lamb was edited out of the Seder menu after the destruction of the Temple. Now matzo stands in its place, since without the Temple, proper sacrifice could not be offered.
Some scholars draw on the interpretation of Rav, who wrote that the phrase means that after the Passover meal, one should not wander from group to group. Rashi interpreted this to mean that we are commanded not to take our utensils from the table and go off for a nosh, elsewhere.
Oy, the opinions. There are more esoteric interpretations, too. Shemuel and R. Yochanan, for instance, describe the word as meaning “mushrooms for me and pigeons for Abba” (?), dates, “parched ears” (which we’re thinking is like toasted wheat and barley…), and nuts. Finger-foods? Snacks? You decide.
In modern times, this familiar Talmudic passage has also been interpreted as a reference to a slightly different Greek word, “epikomazein”, transposed into Hebrew as “epikoman”. This may refer to the fact that the Hellenic Greeks were terrific partiers, and frequently stopped by the homes of friends after dinner for a few goblets of the grape, maybe some ouzo, some dancing, a few laughs.
Here’s a sharp division between the Hellenic world and the Hebrew world. Passover is not the time, the Talmud tells us, for getting rowdy. Although Passover is absolutely a time of joy, the holiday keeps its solemnity. It is a time to connect with the Almighty—a different sort of celebration.
Okay, right now I happen to be swooning over the recipe for Chocolate Caramel Crackers made with matzo on www.smittenkitchen.com. It’s frum-yum, but indeed, the last taste in our grateful mouths at the end of the Seder is the taste of matzo—an “olive-sized” bite, as the Talmud tells us. Not dessert in the conventional sense. It indeed is sweet, not literally but symbolically, and, it’s a mitzvah—a commandment.
I’m still thinking about those mushrooms for me…. and pigeons for Abba.
April 18 – April 25, L’chaim ! Next year in Jerusalem!