The Hidden Matzah

What is viewed as a game by children can have deep significance for adults.

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Reprinted with permission of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, May 1986.

I was five, perhaps six years old, when I found the matzah that my grandfather had placed in a linen napkin and hidden in the bedroom. I had glued my eyes on him from the moment he performed the yahatz ceremony, breaking the middle matzah into two unequal parts and replacing the smaller part in its original position. When he returned to the table, I looked forward to the search and retrieval. I knew, as did all my cousins around the seder ta­ble, that he who found the concealed larger part, the afikoman, could hold out for any prize.

That Passover night the seder ran exceptionally long and I was sleepy because of the cups of wine I had drunk and the lateness of the hour. I hid the nap­kin-covered matzah beneath the pillow of the bed and promptly fell into a deep sleep. I remember being roused by my mother who, with some urgency in her voice, insisted that I return the matzah so that the service could be completed. As I did so I sensed that this was no child’s play, that behind the hide-and-seek lay a more serious meaning. They were serious and I, who knew where the broken matzah was, held some true power in my hands. 

Through the years I sensed more and more the mystery of the yahatz act. Every other ritual ges­ture was preceded by a benediction–over the wine, the washing of the hands, the parsley, the matzot, the bitter herbs mixed with haroset. But there was no berakhah [blessing] recited over the yahatz, not even an explanation such as the one given before eating the Hillel sandwich.

Rabbinic scholars sensed as well the oddity of reciting a motzi [blessing for bread] 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” of the afikomanwas designed to keep the children awake with play. But none of the explanations satisfied me. As in the case of opening the door for Elijah, I knew that more than the amusement of children was meant.

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Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.

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