Some Belated Thoughts About Afikoman

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 05, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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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.






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