Pesachim 119

And the winner is...

I am not bragging — merely stating fact — when I say that I am a master of hiding the afikomen. One of my favorite parts of the seder is sitting in my rocking chair in the living room watching our guests, young and old, search for the cloth-wrapped piece of the middle matzah. (My favorite hiding spot of all time was my otherwise empty freezer — it took them a good fifteen minutes.) In our house, the finder returns the afikomen to the leader of the seder in exchange for a prize and bragging rights — at least until the next seder. Then we all tuck into one final bite of matzah before moving on.

This ritual will, no doubt, be familiar to many readers. But, how did it originate? The mishnah on Pesachim 119b states:

One does not conclude after the paschal lamb with an afikomen.

That’s right — NO afikomen. So how did this become an iconic ritual of the seder?

If you’re familiar with Hebrew, you can probably tell that the word afikomen is foreign. The Gemara immediately asks: 

What is the meaning of “afikomen”?

The resulting discussion makes it clear that the afikomen with which we are familiar — the half of the middle matzah broken during the yachatz portion of the seder — is not what the rabbis of the Talmud have in mind. They are referring to dessert (afikomen is likely a Greek word): any of the typical delicacies used at the time to end the meal, from mushrooms (Shmuel) to chicken (Rav) to dates, roasted grain and nuts (Rav Hanina bar Sheila and Rabbi Yochanan). Today, we might add fruit, Passover brownies and meringues to this list. One is supposed to conclude the meal not with ordinary treats, but with the paschal lamb itself.

But today, we actually do conclude the festive meal with an afikomen, by which we mean the last bite of matzah we eat before reciting Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) and continuing with the third cup of wine and the rest of the seder. How did we get from the Gemara’s understanding of afikomen (dessert) to our understanding of afikomen (matzah)?

It probably has to do with this tradition found at the bottom of today’s daf:

With regard to unleavened sponge cakes, cakes fried in oil and honey, and honey cakes (all presumably unleavened), a person may fill his stomach with them on Passover night, provided that he eats an olive-bulk of matzah after all that food. 

In the absence of the paschal offering, matzah, the bread of affliction, has become the emblem of the seder. So no matter what other delights we consume, we conclude with matzah. It is the afikomen — the final course.

Modern commentaries take this a step further. After we have been symbolically (and literally) freed over the course of the seder, and after we’re stuffed from the sumptuous seder meal, we need that final taste of matzah to remind us that we once were slaves and that there is still work to do. The shattered crumbs of matzah serve as a reminder of the need for tikkun olam – repairing our broken world. Even amidst the great freedoms we as Jews have gained, both in the time of the Exodus and today, injustice and persecution are still rampant throughout the world. Our work is unfinished.

Read all of Pesachim 119 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 20th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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