Rabbinic scholars sensed the oddity of reciting a motzi over a broken piece of unleavened bread; they wondered why the middle matzah and not the other two were broken, and why it was broken into two uneven parts with the larger part saved for the afikoman. Their explanations are largely legal, based upon the position of the Rambam, the Rif, and other sages. For others, the “stealing” or hiding of the afikoman was designed to keep the children awake with play.
In the outline of the seder ritual, the division of the middle matzah–yahatz–takes place early, before the great declaration, “This is the bread of affliction.” The eating of the retrieved matzah comes after ransoming it from the children at the end of the seder. The ritual of eating the afikoman is called tzafun, which means “hidden.” The afikoman is eaten in silence, without benediction, before midnight. After the afikoman, no food or drink is to be taken except for the final two cups of wine.
Brokenness is a symbol of incompletion. Life is not whole. The Passover itself is not complete. The Passover we celebrate deals with the past redemption of our people from the bondage in Egypt. That redemption heartens us because through its recollection we know that our hope for future redemption is not fantasy. It happened once and to our whole people. A small slave people witnessed the power of a supreme divine agency to snap the heavy chains around our hands, and to break the yoke upon our necks. At the Seder we relate the testimony of this act.
But it is toward the Passover of the Future that our memories are directed. The redemption is not over. There is still fear and poverty and sickness. There is a trembling on earth. Around us are the plagues of pollution, and images of fiery nuclear explosions in the clouds, not like the cloud of glory and the pillar of fire that led our ancestors through the wilderness. The broken matzah speaks to our times, shakes us by the shoulders and shouts into our hearts, “Do not bury your spirit in history. Do not think it is over, complete, and you have nothing to do but to wait for the Messiah to come, to pray, to believe.”
The history of our liberation is not for the sake of gloating over the past but for confirmation of our hopes. Even as we retrieve the past, the future is held before us. We begin the story of our past affliction with an appeal for present help and with an eye set upon the future. Three time dimensions are mentioned in one opening paragraph. “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat ; all who are in need come in and celebrate the Passover. Now we are here, next year in Israel. ”
The silence before the breaking of the middle matzah and before the eating of the afikoman suggests that something secret is expressed in the ceremony. We know that the idea of a Messianic era was considered a threat to regimes for whom there was no messiah but the Emperor, no redeemer but Rome. To dream of an era of peace, an end to slavery, is a revolutionary critique of the status quo. Jews disagreed among themselves as to who the Messiah will be or when the Messiah will come, but one thing they all knew. This was not the Messiah, now was not the fulfillment of the Messianic era. In silence, without benediction–for one does not bless that which has not yet occurred–they broke the matzah hidden between the two whole ones, anticipated its recovery, and eating it affirmed their belief in the Passover of the Future.
The hidden matzah is the greater part. The promise of the future is greater than the achievements of the past. It is no game to keep the child awake. It is the vision of messianic times toward which we live and struggle. Rouse the child from his slumber. Without his find the seder cannot be completed.
DIRECTIONS: After the Afikoman is successfully ransomed back, it is distributed amongst all present and eaten in silence, after which no food may be eaten during the evening.
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