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Why Afikoman Instead of Pesah?

April 24, 2016

(Hebrew version)

Lately I have been troubled by the lack of the korban pesah at the seder. The centerpiece mitzwa of the holiday is missing, and its absence has left an indelible mark on the the entire corpus of ritual that is supposed to take place.

Last week, as I began preparing for Passover on both sides of the fence by getting ready to spend the holiday in Jerusalem with a bunch of strangers with whom I had joined in buying a share of a lamb while also preparing to spend the holiday at home, I got to thinking about the replacement mitzwa. According to the Talmud (P’sahim 119-120), when the seder is lacking the meat of the korban pesah, we are to eat a second portion of matza in its stead. Although the word afikoman refers to some sort of dessert they may have wanted to eat after eating the sacrifice, the word eventually came to refer to this second portion of matza that is put aside at the start of the seder to be eaten after the holiday meal. Various laws and customs that apply to the meat of the sacrifice were then transposed to this portion of matza: it has to be eaten in order to complete one’s satiation, nothing can be eaten after it, and it needs to be eaten by dawn (or midnight to play it safe). On the surface this makes sense. The biblical commandment to eat maror is only applicable when the korban pesah is present, so in its absence we have the rabbinic commandment to eat maror even when we can not eat the sacrificial meat. Further, the seder plate is really supposed to have the meat of both the pesah and the sh’lamim on it, but in the absence of those sacrifices, we place a piece of roasted meat and a roasted egg on the plate in their memory. And there are many other rituals that we possess that are in memory of what was and should be, including, according to many, the counting of the Omer, which today is a rabbinic enactment in memory of the true count as prescribed by the Torah.

But korbanoth should be different. We have a general rule of avar yomo batel korbano, if its time has passed, the sacrifice has been missed (B’rachoth 26a), i.e., we do not seek to make up sacrifices that have a set time that was missed. The morning passed without the morning lamb, so there is nothing we can do but make sure to offer any subsequent sacrifices on time. (Sacrifices that are imposed on individuals due to their circumstances, such as by women who give birth and converts upon their conversion, must be brought no matter how late, so when the Temple service is restored every convert will have to bring a sacrifice even decades after his conversion, and every woman will have to bring a number of offerings corresponding to her births.) If we missed the time for offering the paschal lamb, there is nothing we can do to replace it. Further, the sages imposed a rule that roasted lambs and kids not be eaten the first night of Passover (B’rachoth 19a): 

Theodus of Rome accustomed the Roman [Jews] to eat kids roasted whole on the night of Passover. Simon ben Shetah sent to him and said: Were you not Theodus, I would excommunicate you, because you make Israel [appear to] eat holy foods outside [Jerusalem].

Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch rule likewise, and most places have a further prohibition of eating any roasted meat not the korban the night of the seder. If there is no sacrifice, we should not do something that looks like we are eating sacrificial meat in a forbidden place.

Most importantly, we have the concept of studying the sacrifices (M’gilla 31b):

Abraham said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the Universe, perhaps God forbid, Israel will sin before You and You will do to them as You did to the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion? … This is very well for the time when the Temple will be standing, but in the time when there will be no Temple what will befall them? He replied to him: I have already fixed for them the order of the sacrifices. Whenever they will read the section dealing with them, I will reckon it as if they were bringing me an offering, and forgive all their sins.

This idea is reflected in many more talmudic passages. When we know we can not offer the sacrifices, we instead recite and study the relevant biblical and talmudic passages that describe the sacrifices. This is the basis for the daily recitation of the korbanoth before the morning (and afternoon) services and the the musaf prayers. The practice of the Vilna Gaon was to recite all the relevant passages the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, which was the time for the offering of the korban pesah. I would expect that instead of eating something at the seder when the time comes to eat the Passover sacrifice, we would read a relevant biblical or mishnaic passage that describes how the action would/should be done.  Why eat something? We never do that when we can not offer some other sacrifice. We don’t do that for the other sacrifice, the sh’lamim, that is also missing from the seder! Further, assuming that we will therefore eat something at the seder to replace the missing pesah, why would it be matza? Eating matza is its own commandment that we have already fulfilled. Why should we replace this missing mitzwa with one that we have already performed? Strangely enough, the sages of the Talmud make both assumptions, that something should be eaten in memory of the pesah and that it should be matza, and they only argue about how that mazta should be eaten, with maror or without, or maybe all of it should be eaten in one shot at the conclusion of the meal?

I would like to try to offer answers to these questions. As for the necessity of replacing the korban pesah with something that needs to be eaten, we have to look at the nature of the korban pesah. Technically speaking, the korban pesah is the only form of sacrificial meat that a Jewish person must eat. A person can go his entire life without eating from any other sacrifice if the need never arises, but he cannot avoid the pesah. So much so, that eating the korban pesah is only one of two positive commandments that must be performed on the penatly of excision, the other being circumcision. That is, one who does not eat of the korban pesah is as deserving of punishment as one who does not circumcise himself, or one who desecrates Yom Kippur. Further, the nature of the offering of the pesah is fundamentally different from all the other sacrifices. While the main purpose of the sacrifices are the portions that are offered on the altar, the “satisfying aroma,” with the pesah the main purpose is the ritual eating of the meat. Yes, to qualify as a sacrifice its blood and fats need to be placed on the altar, but the commandment is that the meat be eaten at the seder as part of the educational process, and therefore when there is no meat something else should be eaten.

But why matza? I found one line in the classical s’farim that sheds light on the question. After entertaining the idea that perhaps maror should be eaten instead of or along with matza, the Bach offers that matza was the chosen replacement because it is both a commandment and “it is in memory of freedom, just like [the meat of the] paschal lamb.”  I hope that the elaboration is as follows:

Rabban Gamliel says that whoever does not mention three components of the seder has not fulfilled his obligation to tell the story of the Exodus: pesah, matza and maror. The three foods each represent facets of the miracles of the Exodus, and all are to be eaten. Rabban Gamliel’s grandfather, Hillel the Elder, believed that they all must literally be eaten together as a sandwich, and Maimonides rules that such may be done. The pesah represents that God “passed over” our houses in Egypt, an anthropomorphism which Onkelos translates as “He took compassion” on us. That is, the meat of the sandwich represents God’s active salvation. The matza of the beginning of the seder, the broken matza, represents poverty and oppression and was the food of slaves that needed to be baked even before the Exodus, while the matza of the end of maggid, the whole matza, represents the haste that we showed when we left Egypt, when another batch of slave food was prepared not because it was slave food, but because there was no time to allow it to rise. The matza of the sandwich represents our active demonstration of leaving the exile and going home to Israel. The maror of course, represents the bitterness of the bondage, but in the sandwich, it only makes the meat and bread, the deliverance and Exodus, taste better.

So, what if the metaphorical and physical sandwiches of redemption lack the meat, the aspect of God’s compassion which is shown by our ability to offer the sacrifices? No korban means no Temple and no service, which mean we are undeserving as yet of God’s complete mercy. If we were deserving we would merit to have the Temple and the korban pesah. But they are missing. All we have is a rushed, bitter-lettuce sandwich that represents leaving the bitterness of the exile. So what can we do? We should add matza. Enough matza to make up for the missing korban. If we want the restoration of the Temple, we have to show that we are doubling our efforts to leave the diaspora. We double up on matza and the haste to leave the fleshpots of Egypt and America. And that, God willing, will lead us next year to be able to have a complete seder.

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