Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Afikomen

Those who have attended a Passover Seder, know that one of the most beloved Seder traditions is the hiding* of the afikomen, a specially designated half-piece of matzah. But what exactly is the afikomen?

The word afikomen is of Greek origin and, while its exact translation has been lost, seems to refer to after-dinner deserts, drinks and entertainment. In reference to Passover, the Mishna states (Pesachim 119b-120a) that “One may not conclude the Paschal meal [by saying] ‘Now to the entertainment’...it was taught as Rabbi Johanan, ‘You must not conclude after the Paschal meal with dates, parched ears and nuts [desserts].”’ (don’t eat anything more...)

Initially, the halacha was that the eating of the Paschal lamb marked the conclusion of the seder feast. After the destruction of the Temple (since the Paschal lamb can no longer be brought), the sages ordained that matzah must be the last taste one has at the seder. Since this matzah was eaten in lieu of the afikomen (meaning dessert, drinks and entertainment) it assumed the name “afikomen.”

While the afikomen is involved in several steps of the seder (Yachatz - when the middle matzah is broken in half and set aside for the afikomen, and Tzaphun, when the afikomen is eaten), it is only vaguely mentioned in the haggadah.

There are many differences in customs involving the afikomen, depending on one’s background. Ashkenazim hide the afikomen (and find it) as a means of keeping the children interested. Iraqi Jews conduct a dialogue while holding it (“Where are you from?” “Egypt.” “Where are you going?” “Jerusalem.”) Many North African Jews wrap the afikomen in white and carry it around the room on their shoulders.

*an Ashkenazi tradition

Monday, March 3, 2008

Beauty and the Greeks

What does Noah’s son Yaphet have to do with the story of Chanukah and the mitzvah of circumcision?

When the Syrian-Greeks sought to force the Hellenization on the Judeans, one of the first mitzvot that they outlawed was brit milah, circumcision. In fact, performing a brit milah on one’s child became a capital crime. The Syrian-Greeks found circumcision particularly offensive because of their own culture’s devotion to the beauty and perfection of the human body. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their sculptures and naked athletics. From the perspective of the Hellenistic culture, the male body represented perfection. It was therefore unconscionable that the Jews should alter it, or maim it, especially by Divine decree.

The Greeks are known in the Bible as “Y’vanim,” the people of Yavan. They are, according to the sages, the direct descendants of Yavan, the son of Yaphet, the son of Noah.

Noah had three sons: Yaphet, Ham and Shem. Very little is written about Yaphet other than the fact that, following Shem’s lead, Yaphet covered his father’s nakedness, which had been exposed by Ham. For this noble act, Yaphet is praised. (See Genesis 5).

There is, however, much one can learn about a Biblical personality through his/her name. The name Yaphet derives from the Hebrew root (y-ph-h), which is the base of the word Yafeh, beautiful. Thus, beauty, and the admiration of beauty, are part of Yaphet’s nature. Consequently, Noah blessed him: “May God grant beauty to Yaphet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).

Yaphet is associated with beauty and adoration of the human body, the two cultural traits that came to define Yavan-Greece. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that they abhorred the dedication of the Jews to the mitzvah of brit milah.