Some Belated Thoughts About Afikoman

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 05, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Passover Seder may be behind us, but reader Saul Newman is still thinking about it. That is, he’s thinking about the afikoman, the piece of matzo hidden away by the head of the family (and stolen for bargaining purposes, if they can find it, by the children at the table), whose shared consumption marks the formal end of the Seder meal. “Afikoman” clearly comes from Greek, which lent a large vocabulary to the Hebrew that was spoken and written in Palestine in the early centuries C.E. The two words it is generally considered to come from are epi komios, “for a festal procession.” (A komos — a word related to Greek komedia and English “comedy” — was a band of revelers singing and dancing in the streets.)

The explanation given for this is that, in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was common practice after a banquet for the participants to go reveling to other houses for a few more desserts. When the Haggadah says, therefore, “eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. afikoman,” this is to be translated loosely as, “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal to go reveling.” Eventually, however, as Mediterranean culture became Christianized or Islamized, the custom of the komos vanished and Jews forgot all about it. Medieval Jewish commentators generally took “afikoman” to refer to dessert itself, and interpreted the Haggadah to be saying, “One does not eat dessert,” or “One does not eat anything else,” after finishing the Seder. And in time, “afikoman” lost the meaning of “dessert,” too, and came to designate the matzo that is the final item on the Passover menu, after which nothing more is to be eaten.

Mr. Newman, however, has encountered another explanation of “afikoman.” On the “messianic Jewish’ Web site www.hebrew-streams.org, he reports, there is an article, titled “He Who Is Coming: The Hidden Afikoman,” which proposes an alternate etymology for “afikoman.” Drawing on the work of such biblical scholars as Robert Eisler and David Daube, this article contends that the source of “afikoman” is Greek afikomenos, an aorist form of the verb afikomenai,” to come,” that has the meaning of “the coming one.” This, the argument goes, was a reference to the messiah, whose “longed-for” appearance, according to Eisler, was symbolized by the piece of matzo hidden away at the Seder’s start. In the words of the article that Mr. Newman has sent me:

“When the hidden afikoman emerged from invisibleness at the end of the Seder, it symbolized the coming of the Messiah in the midst of his people…. Thus, when Yeshua [Jesus] lifted the unleavened bread [at the Last Supper, which was a Passover Seder] and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body,’ he was in effect saying: ‘This broken and hidden matza, which has for our people symbolized the Messiah, is fulfilled in me. I myself am the Afikoman the Coming One whom you expect’…. This messianic symbolism was subsequently lost to Jewish tradition…. Hence the later definitions ‘dessert’ and ‘after-dinner entertainment’ were put forth….”

And Mr. Newman adds: “I wonder if you have any thoughts about this.”

My thoughts are that this is a highly unlikely scenario. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would the Jews of the Second Temple period, when the Seder came into existence, have developed such an abstruse way of expressing their messianic hopes instead of doing so directly, in an open prayer for the messiah’s coming? And even if they did do such a thing, why would they have referred to the messiah by a Greek term? (Greek borrowings in ancient Hebrew generally involved words for items of material culture and almost never were used for Jewish religious concepts.) And even if they did that, too, and then repressed the memory of it because of Christianity, why didn’t the early Christians make much of this? Although the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, why does the word afikomenos appear nowhere in it in connection with the Last Supper?

Beyond all this, there are two simple linguistic reasons that the afikomenos theory doesn’t wash and the epi komios theory does. In the first place, substitute “the coming one” for “revel” or “dessert” in the Hebrew phrase eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. afikoman, and you get nonsense; it just doesn’t mean anything. And second, this Hebrew phrase is puzzling in its own right, because it seems to be missing a preposition. If afikoman, that is, is to be construed as a simple noun meaning “revel,” “dessert,” “the coming one” or whatever, the Hebrew should be eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. le-afikoman, or be-afikoman, i.e., “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal to [or with] an afikoman.” As it reads in the Haggadah, however, the Hebrew, literally translated, seems to say, quite ungrammatically, “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal afikoman.”

What happened to this missing preposition? The answer is that it’s not missing at all, because it’s there in the epi, meaning “for” or “to,’ of the Greek epi komios. There’s no other explanation of why the Hebrew is the way it is, and that’s enough to clinch the matter in itself.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.