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The Meaning of the ‘Afikoman’

And why children point the way toward our future

Helen Plotkin
April 02, 2020
Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Book illustration, Yaakov Epter, 1922Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Center for Jewish History/Flickr
Book illustration, Yaakov Epter, 1922Center for Jewish History/Flickr

If you ask a Jewish kid to name the best part of the Passover Seder, chances are they’ll answer, “The afikoman!” It’s one of the final rituals of the long evening, coming at the end of the Seder meal, and it tends to involve presents for the children. This custom gives the children something to look forward to, and the anticipation helps them stay awake. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s how it works:

The Seder unfolds between two halves of a broken matzo. At the beginning, we hold up a stack of three matzos. We take out the middle one and break it in half—but matzos never break exactly in half. We put the smaller piece back into the middle of the stack. We wrap up the larger piece in a napkin and put it aside to distribute among the guests as the very last bite of the Seder meal: the “afikoman.” (The origin of the term is obscure; a plausible explanation is that it comes from a Greek word for dessert.) The various afikoman customs in different Jewish communities share a common theme: It is the children who have the job of delivering the second half of the middle matzo to the table at the end of the Seder.

The symbolism of the three stacked matzos taps into deep Jewish imagery. The bottom matzo represents the earthly realm; the top is the heavenly realm. Below, pure physicality; above, pure spirit. The middle matzo represents the human story, straddling above and below. The role of humans is to become the bridge, bringing holiness down into the nitty-gritty stuff of life and, at the same time, elevating the mundane so that it takes on spiritual meaning. When we lift the three matzos on the Seder table, we are holding a schematic model of all reality.

We focus on the middle matzo, representing the human situation. First, we acknowledge that the center does not hold: The middle matzo is broken. We put aside the larger half; what remains is small and ragged. We call it lachma anya—the bread of affliction, the bread of impoverishment and enslavement. We begin the Seder by recognizing that, like the Israelites in Egypt, our need for redemption is great. The world that we inhabit is broken, incomplete, full of suffering and despair. With our first bite of the middle matzo, we internalize this truth.

Food is not simply a background feature of the Passover Seder. The Haggadah guides us through the process of eating a story. We taste the bread of affliction. We put the salty tears of the enslaved Israelites on our tongues. We eat vegetables that evoke the bitterness of forced labor, and we interpret our condiments as mortar on bricks. We lay out the entire story on a plate, creating a mandala of symbolic foods.

That first bite of broken matzo is meant to put us into the story in the most visceral possible way. Like the Israelites at the first Seder, described in Exodus 12, we are in a place of brokenness. And like them, we are standing in the doorway, we are setting out on a journey. In the central section of the Haggadah, called Magid—Telling, we relate the story of a people once confined, held back, going nowhere, stuck in bricks and mortar, now transformed into a nation on its way, with a vision of a promised land.

The Magid section tells the story of an exodus—a leaving of slavery, not an arriving in the promised land. To feel that we ourselves have gone out from Egypt is to feel that we have the freedom to be on our way; not that we have arrived at our final goal. The longest section of the Telling is based on a passage from Deuteronomy 26, in which the Israelites are taught what they should say when they have finally reaped the first harvest of the promised land:

5 A lost Aramean was my father, and he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, just a few folks, and he became there a great nation, strong and abundant. 6 And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and abused us, and placed upon us hard servitude. 7 And we cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our voice and saw our abuse and our suffering and our oppression. 8 And Adonai brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs and with wonders, 9 and brought us to this place, and gave us this land—a land that flows with milk and honey.

But the Haggadah leaves out the final line (verse 9), stopping short of the arrival. The story we tell places us in the wilderness: We have the power to move forward. But we still have a long way to go.

Still in the wilderness, we eat our dinner.

As we approach the end of the Seder, we come to the section in which we find and eat the afikoman, the section called Tzafun, which means “hidden” or “stored away.” The implication is that the afikoman represents something inaccessible, something not available to us in our everyday lives—complete and ultimate freedom, true redemption. Sated with family, learning, laughter, and food, we finally act out the repair of our broken world. When we eat the afikoman, the broken pieces of the human realm will get put back together—they will recombine inside us—they will become us. The bridge between heaven and earth will be repaired.

And this is the secret of the afikoman ritual: Whom must we trust to bring the other half? The children. In the end, the most important piece, the point of it all, the future, our own redemption, is in the hands of the younger generation. We have no choice but to trust them to bring it to the table.

A few pages later, we open the door for Elijah the prophet, whom the tradition imagines will eventually, when we have struggled enough, escort this world into an era of complete perfection. We recognize that perfection is hidden away, but with the ritual of the afikoman we live into our hope—our confidence—that it will be found and unwrapped by our children, so they may eat fully of the bread of redemption. The Seder is about pointing forward. Only the children can taste the future.

Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches at Swarthmore College and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. She edited and annotated In This Hour, a collection of early writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel.