All of us, not merely the children, gasp with awe and delight when they enter the room for Seder. What a feast for the eyes!
In observing the festival, every generation's eyes are opened to the words of the Psalmist, "He remembered His mercy and faithfulness to the House of Israel: All the ends of the earth saw the salvation of our God." (Psalms 98:3)
What a fragrance the house has in the lead-up to the festival. The Seder table is an array of aromas, the sour and the sweet, echoing the mixture of emotions with which we recall the slavery and celebrate the freedom.
Jewish history is redolent with the aroma of long experience. No Jew can turn their back on who we have been, who we are, who we dream of being.
As we handle the special foods, the special dishes, the moments that reconstruct the feelings of our ancestors as they emerged into a new destiny, we pray that we may live to touch and be touched by the beginning of the final redemption.
The stories, the songs, the prayers are old friends, familiar from all the years before, but every year we hear them again for the first time; and through them, we hear the Divine message, "Man is unique, and Man must be free to be himself."
Nothing tastes like the first bite of matzah: nothing is as delectable as the favourite food traditions of the family.
"Taste and see that the Lord is good," says King David (Psalms 34:9). We do not merely theorise, but we taste: we encounter God and Judaism, and we know they are good.
A Boring Picnic If It Goes on Too Long
Some people quote the saying, "Life is no picnic." Our Israelite ancestors certainly learned that freedom is no picnic. Imagine: years and years of slavery and now the release from prison. On your own, fending for yourself, finding things to do. The first few moments are exciting. But then?
With all the freedom, boredom can set in. We vividly recall the feeling when we think of modern-day picnics. Getting ready is fun, enjoying the few hours almost stolen from life - but if it were all day, every day, from now to eternity? Sitting at a picnic is not always a picnic and we actually hanker after the discipline of being at work.
The Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is from tzar, "narrow". Egypt was narrow because we were constrained. When we left, we somehow missed the constraint. At least there we knew who we were, where we were, who was in charge. Out on our own, where would we get food?
In reflection, the poor-man's bread of Egypt seemed like cake. The meat, fish and vegetables seemed like a banquet. We wanted to go back to where we did not need to find our own food. Fortunately, God did not want us to starve, so He gave us manna and the hunger was staved off.
But in the long run, He wanted us to become self-reliant. Abraham dug wells to find water; we had to learn to look for our own water. Not only in the literal sense, but metaphorically too. When Isaiah said, "Whoever is thirsty, come for water" (Isa. 55:1), the sages commented, "'Water' means Torah." Spiritual and intellectual sustenance are necessary, as well as physical nutriment.
Without the nutriment of Torah something is missing. As free people, we have to find a task, a message, a purpose. Without Torah, there is no picnic for the heart, soul or mind.
Afikoman: The Final Taste
"Ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman" - it is one of the shortest, most famous sentences in Judaism, but so full of difficulties. The source is Mishnah Pesachim 10:8. The gist is that after a certain point, there is to be no afikoman. The problem is not just what the key words mean - ein maftirin, achar hapesach, and afikoman – but why our custom is the opposite of the Mishnah rule: though the rule clearly says "no afikoman", we have something which we call afikoman.
But first, why is the rule cited as the answer to the wise son? He asks a complicated question, wanting full details of the practices of the festival. What we tell him is about afikoman. Is it because this passage comes almost at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim and we want him to know the massechta from alef to tav? Or is it that the internal difficulties in the passage need the intellect of a wise son?
The three main internal problems with the passage are the following:
Ein maftirin: The etymology indicates a root p-t-r, "to depart", "to conclude". Is ein maftirin prescriptive ("do not!") or descriptive ("it is not customary")? In both cases, maftirin is linked with the liturgical Maftir and Haftarah, which conclude the scriptural readings of the day and mark the departure from the synagogue after Shacharit (Musaf did not at first follow immediately). Similarly, Leil haSeder must have had a concluding point.
Achar hapesach: Three possibilities - "after eating the korban pesach", "after concluding the Leil haSeder ritual", "after leaving the Seder venue" - all affirm that there is a conclusion to the ceremony. Whichever way we measure it, we must (or do) not proceed to afikoman.
A halachic issue arose once the korban pesach was no longer possible and the matzah became the main food. Could the Mishnah be read as saying "ein maftirin achar hamatzah"? Despite contrary views, it is this which has become the rule.
Afikoman: The Talmud Bavli sees it as a type of food, or a move from one group to another (Pesachim 119b). The Yerushalmi understands it as a type of entertainment and also posits the alternative of a move to another group (Pesachim 10:4; 37d). If the word is Aramaic, it may indicate "take away the food" or "take away the vessels". A Greek derivation would read the word epikomon, i.e. "belonging to the komos" - "a jovial festivity with music and dancing."
The options all come to the same conclusion - that the serious mood and taste of the evening must be maintained and not compromised by after-meal frivolity.
Why did Jewish usage transfer the name afikoman to a final taste of matzah and turn it into a positive requirement despite the Mishnah rule? The wish was to end the Seder with a Pesach taste, using a hidden or stored (tzafun) piece of matzah, to which the name afikoman was carelessly applied.
Hastening to the (wrongly named) afikoman was given a messianic interpretation by some scholars; e.g., David Daube, who says that "tzafun, which may denote both 'that which is preserved' and 'that which is hidden' (is) a suitable designation for the Messiah, waiting in the wings to be summoned to his task."