The Passover tradition of the afikomen

Rabbi Warmflash explains the Passover Seder custom


One striking tradition that is widely observed by Jews at their Passover Seders involves the afikomen, a piece of matzah broken off near the beginning of the evening and eaten by participants “for dessert” after the meal.

In many homes, the afikomen is hidden at some point prior to the end of the meal so that the Seder leader can ransom it back from the children who find it. The children, who are aware that the Seder cannot be completed without the afikomen, are permitted — and often even encouraged —to exploit their hold over the proceedings to extort a promise of a present from their parents.

This pervasive custom is really quite surprising. It seems to encourage children to exploit a sacred religious ritual for personal gain! How can we account for it? One explanation found in some classic commentaries is that the afikomen serves as an educational tool providing an incentive for the children to stay awake and pay attention during the Passover Seder. The price that is “extorted” is really just a reward for their involvement.

I would like to suggest an additional explanation, one that reflects the essential nature of the Seder as a commemorative celebration of God’s deliverance of the ancient Israelites from slavery to freedom.

Perhaps the Passover custom of encouraging children to bargain with their parents for the afikomen evolved in order to dramatize the empowerment of the powerless, the core experience which Passover celebrates. At a critical moment in the Seder, we yield control over the progress of the evening to our children and, in so doing, give those who least powerful in our midst a taste of the heady experience of freedom and power fulfilling the rabbinic dictum: “In every generation each person should feel as thought he or she personally went forth from Egypt.”

The drama of the afikomen reminds us that our obligation to empower others necessarily entails giving up a certain amount of comfort and control over our lives. As we enter into negotiations with our newly empowered children and teach them the responsible use of freedom, we are also being reminded that our obligation to address the inequalities in contemporary may require that we sacrifice some of our own comfort ,power and control in order to achieve justice.

Rabbi Andrew Warmflash is the spiritual leader of Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre/Congregation Etz Chaim in East Rockaway