Breaking Matzah

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As Jews around the globe gear up to celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year, I thought I'd put up a couple Passover-themed posts this week to get everyone in the spirit.

There's a tradition during the famous Passover "˜supper' of breaking a piece of matzah in half and surreptitiously hiding half of it at some point during the course of the meal, or Seder (literally order in Hebrew). This piece of matzo, also known as the afikomen, can only be eaten at the end of the meal, once its hiding place has been discovered.

The word afikomen is not a Hebrew word, as you might suspect, but of Greek origin. In Greek, the word is epikomen and is made up of two smaller words: epi, which means after (as in an epilogue), and komos, which means a banquet or merrymaking, and is the same word that inspired the English word comedy. For centuries, Jews have taken afikomen to mean "that which comes after the meal," more commonly known, of course, as dessert.

There are many reasons offered for the tradition of breaking the afikomen in half and hiding a portion. One is that it helps us remember the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, when they didn't know where their next meal was coming from and would therefore hide a portion of their daily allotment for a future day. Another explanation given is that the broken matzah symbolizes enslavement and freedom, a half for each.

Of course, at the modern Seder table, hiding the afikomen also signifies two additional things depending on who you ask. For children, it's all about fun, secret hiding places and rewards. For adults the afikomen is a great way to keep the kids excited and interested through the lengthy course of the Seder, which, if followed to the letter, can take upwards around four hours!

April 6, 2009 - 1:54am
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