Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Passover

The Broken Matzah

For centuries during the Passover seder in Jewish homes, one of three pieces of unleavened bread, matzah, is broken in half, wrapped in a napkin, hidden, and later retrieved to be served as the last morsel of food eaten at the end of the lengthy observance of this ancient Jewish feast. This bit of unleavened bread is called the "afikomen". It symbolizes the Passover lamb. For Jewish children, the afikomen is used to hold their attention until the end of the seder. In some families the children "steal" the matzah and are paid a ransom in order to get it back to the table. In other families it is hidden and the children search for it and are rewarded. Some Jews from Middle Eastern countries saw the afikomen as having special powers and kept a piece of it as a good luck charm. (Some of this information concerning the afikomen was found in "The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays, by Dalia Hardof Renberg, Adama Books, New York, (c)1985, pages 152-153.)

Though the Passover lamb was central to the feast as described by Moses in the Torah, today there is no lamb eaten at Jewish Passover seders. Why? Because after the destruction of the Temple the Passover sacrifice could no longer be properly made, and so lamb was no longer eaten at the feast. This last piece of matzah, called the afikomen, is substituted for the lamb: it even has to be eaten before midnight, just as Moses commanded, "You shall let none of it remain until morning" (Ex. 12:10).

Three matzahs sit prominently on the Passover table. Why three? some see them as symbolic of the three divisions of the Jewish people: Priests, Levites, and Israelites. Others see them as a reminder of the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The middle matzah, the one broken, the one symbolizing the Passover Lamb, would correspond to Isaac. How interesting that Isaac, the miraculously born son of Abraham, was taken to what would become the Temple Mount to be offered as a sacrifice! (See Genesis 18:13-14, 21:1-2, 22:1-18 and 2 Chron. 3:1.)

Why is this final piece of matzah called the "afikomen"? It is curios to find a Greek work in the middle of a Hebrew feast. Its Greek meaning can be understood as "that which is coming", i.e. dessert, yet some have seen the possibility of taking it as "he who is coming." According to Jewish tradition, Messiah will come at Passover to bring a redemption like unto the redemption brought through Moses. This is why a place is left at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah (Malachi 4:5).

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