by Mark Robinson
The highlight of the entire Passover Seder is the drama surrounding the afikomen. At the beginning of the evening the leader of the Seder will lift up the tri-compartment matzoh bag, and remove the middle board of matzoh. This middle piece is then broken and the larger part is wrapped in a white linen napkin, and becomes known as the afikomen, which is then hidden somewhere in the home. After the meal the children will search for the afikomen, and the finder is rewarded with a gift. For a child, this is the most exciting part of the entire evening.
The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. had a major impact on the format of the Passover and the afikomen. The birth of Christianity and the surrounding culture, now that the Jewish people were in diaspora, also played a role in the way Passover evolved. Chaim Raphael in his A Feast of History: The Drama of Passover Through the Ages says, “[The Seder] was more sharply defined in its present form in the century after the destruction of the Temple – say between 100 and 150 C.E.” Raphael reveals the influence Greek thought had on the development of the Seder later in his book. The origin of the afikomen ritual is ancient, most likely predating the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Jewish scholar David Daube1 argues persuasively that this is the case in his writings on the subject. Of extreme importance is his establishment of the afikomen with Messianic identification. He states that “…the decisive framework for a Messianic ritual is there, in the early sources” in arguing not only for a Messianic understanding of the afikomen, but for the use of the afikomen before 70 A.D. It is highly unlikely, though, that the drama of the matzoh bag of today was practiced before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Daube dates today’s routine as late as medieval times.
Simplistic beginnings of the afikomen have evolved to the present usage. Although various explanations are given for the three boards of matzoh, the primary explanation is that they represent the Kohanim, the Levites, and the Israelites. The Messianic identification of the afikomen is important in understanding this ritual. Quoting Daube again, “…granted the likelihood that the triplication of the cakes and their naming after the three estates [Kohanim, Levites, Israelites] are of medieval provenance, both are plainly developments of an initial, simpler rite – which already contained the representation of the people and its Messiah by the unleavened bread ceremoniously eaten at the supper.” The afikomen thus represents the Messiah. Additionally, some Jewish sources also identify the afikomen with the Passover Lamb. The meaning and importance of this can now begin to take focus.
Of the different explanations offered for the present ritual of the afikomen, only one has any basis in historical events. This is the one offered by Jewish people who believe in Jesus. The matzoh bag and its three matzoh do not represent the unity of Israel and the Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites. Rather, the bag represents the One God of Israel and the three persons of the Tri-unity2: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These persons are identified in Isaiah 48:16.
It is the middle matzoh, representative of the Son, that is removed and broken, just as Jesus left heaven, became a man, and died for the sins of the world. The larger piece of matzoh is then wrapped in a linen napkin, which becomes the afikomen, representing the Messiah, as Jewish sources establish.
The afikomen is then hidden, and the child that finds it receives a reward or gift. After his death Jesus was hidden away (buried), but rose from the grave, and those who find Him, accept Him as their personal Messiah, receive the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23).
Finally, even the meaning of the word afikomen (which is Greek) argues for the Messianic understanding of this routine. The common Jewish meaning of this word is either dessert or entertainment. Daube questions this understanding. He even makes the statement, “The Talmudic interpretations of the word Aphiqoman are wide off the mark – maybe deliberately so.”3 The Greek word for afikomen is aphikomenos, used in an aorist tense, and thus means “He has come.”
When the background of the afikomen is understood, its impact is enormous. It speaks of the Messiah who came, was cut off and buried, brought back, and the finder of Him receives a gift. This is the biblical portrait of the work of the Messiah which is developed in detail in Isaiah 53, and corresponds with the ritual of the afikomen in the Passover Seder. The only one in history who fulfills this picture is Jesus.
1. The following quotes of David Daube come from a written version of his address at St. Paul’s Lecture founded by the London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding.
2. For a more detailed consideration of this, contact Jewish Awareness Ministries Outreach Ministries for the author’s pamphlet “One God: or Three?”; John Metzger’s book The Tri-Unity of God is Jewish; or Stan Rosenthal’s book, One God or Three?
3. Daube, David, The Significance of the Afikoman, Pointer, The Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, Spring, 1968.