Afikoman– Secret of Faith and Trust

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Matza wikicommonsThere is an obligation to eat an olive-size piece (כזית) of matzah twice during the Seder, once when we make the blessing of על אכילת מצה after maggid and a second time after the meal (the afikoman). Which is the more important of the two is a matter of dispute among the Rishonim. Some consider the eating of the matzah at the beginning of the meal as the primary fulfillment of the mitzvah, since this is the matzah upon which we make a blessing. This is the opinion of the Tosafot and Rosh (R.Asher b. Yehiel, ca. 1250-1327). Rambam and Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi, 1013-1103), however, hold that ‘the afikoman is the more important of the two portions and that the blessing of  על אכילת מצה is made earlier only because it is inappropriate to recite this blessing after we have already consumed matzah. A practical difference between these two views is the procedure to follow if one has only enough  מצה שמורה(the kind of matzah that is used at the Seder) for only one כזית- olive-size piece. Should one eat it before the meal or save it for the afikoman?

While one can explain the two divergent opinions on purely halakhic grounds, one can find a deeper, philosophic basis for the controversy. In Exodus 16 the Torah speaks of the manna – the matzah from heaven that sustained the Israelites during their difficult sojourn in the desert. The Torah regards the manna as a test “whether the people will walk in accordance with God’s Torah or not” (verse 4). How did the manna, test the faith of the Israelites? Ibn Ezra explains that since the manna could not be stored, for it would spoil if kept overnight, the Jews never had sufficient food for the next day. Thus, they never had a real sense of security. Who knew whether manna would fall the next day? Only faith and belief in God’s kindness allowed them to have any peace of mind. Thus the manna was regarded as a kind of test of אמונה (faith).

The Orhot Hayyim says the opposite. He insists that the manna provided the most utopian system of plenty. There was no fear of want because the people knew each day that no matter what they did or did not do, abundant food would come raining down from heaven. Only under such circumstances of bounty can there be a true test of faith, for when the Jew is in need; it is but natural to turn to God. When one is in the depths of despair, he has no other choice. “There are no atheists in a foxhole,” as the popular saying goes. In the desert, however, when the Jews “waxed fat,” they were indeed tested by the manna to see whether they maintained their faith in God as the ultimate Provider.

Bearing in mind these opposing explanations, we can explain the difference of opinion between the Tosafot and Rosh on one hand and Rif and Rambam on the other. Matzah is called לחמא דמהימנותא because it is a symbol of our faith. The Tosafot and Rosh find in the matzah the greatest sign of faithfulness and devotion to the Almighty. They find it in the הא לחמא עניא : ”Here is the poor bread that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” There, the Jews were constantly hungry, constantly tired, constantly thirsty, and still they reached out to God. Hence the first portion of matzah must be eaten בתיאבון – with hunger -since it represents the commitment of the Jew even though he is hungry. This constitutes the basic fulfillment of the mitzvah. Therefore, we recite על אכילת מצה   on the broken piece of matzah, which is the לחם עוני, and we eat it in a hungry state, as a deprived person would.

Rif and Rambam agree that the matzah represents commitment and faith, and that without these there can be no redemption, but they argue that the matzah also serves, especially in our times, as a kind of sacrificial offering at one’s Seder. As we have pointed out, on Seder night the Jew is transposed to the Holy Temple of old. He wears the white kittel, he becomes a priest, he sits at his table of plenty with his family around him, singing songs, reclining, and drinking wine. But this also represents the greatest danger to Judaism because in the midst of plenty the Jew is most likely to forget those in need. He is even 1ikely to forget God and to fall prey to assimilation. The real test of faith, the לחמא דמהימנותא, comes then. Hence the fundamental mitzvah of matzah is to eat it על השובע – in a state of satiety – and thus the afikoman.


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