Seder night. An apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, over six decades ago.
My Uncle Shmuel, then a young boy, had stolen my Zeiydi’s afikoman and hidden it, as is customary in Jewish homes on Seder night. But then, as the Seder wore on, Uncle Shmuel fell asleep. When the time came to eat the afikoman, Bubby and Zeidi tried to rouse Uncle Shmuel, to at least tell them where he had hidden the afikoman. But all of their efforts notwithstanding, they could not rouse the youth from his slumber. Alas, Zeidi had to settle for taking a different matzah to eat for afikoman.
When the Seder finally ended and Zeidi lay down on his bed, he heard a resounding crunch beneath him. The afikoman had been found.
The afikoman is a symbolism
of how a Jew lives his life –
with the realization that all of our struggles to maintain a life of holiness will warrant us the greatest of dividends in the future
In the Staum home, my father always insisted that we could not steal the afikoman and then demand a present for its ransom, because Jews never reward stealing, even for a mitzvah. He would insist that the afikoman could be “hidden” but not “stolen.” The truth is that it didn’t matter much anyway, because after breaking the middle matzah during Yachatz, my father would always sneak out and hide the afikoman himself. Then it became our job to look for it. If you ask me, that’s stealing the afikoman…from your kids!
My father’s assertion is echoed by Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l. In the back of his incredible sefer on T’filah, there is a section of insights from Rav Schwab about the Haggadah. There it says: “I, personally, do not care for the term “stealing the matzah.” It is un-Jewish to steal – even the afikoman.” Rav Schwab explained that there is indeed an ancient custom for children to hide the afikoman in order to maintain their excitement at the Seder so they should remain awake. But that should be presented as “hiding” the afikoman, not stealing, which is inimical with Torah values.
There are notable personalities, however, who do discuss the custom of “stealing” the afikoman. Rav Nosson Gestetner zt”l (Sh’eilos U’T’shuvos L’horos Nassan) notes that Seder night is the anniversary of when Yaakov Avinu solicited the blessings of his father Yitzchak Avinu, at the behest of his mother, Rivkah Imeinu. This was done to ensure that those blessings would not be given to Eisav. Rivkah understood that those blessings rightfully belonged to Yaakov because it was he who had accepted upon himself the yoke of maintaining the legacy of his father and grandfather. However, to attain them he would be forced to employ a method of deceit, and it would seem like he was “stealing” the brachos from Eisav. To symbolize that profound event, there is a custom for children to steal the afikoman on Seder night. [Apparently, those who are proponents of calling it “stealing” the afikoman are confident that children can recognize the difference between “stealing with permission” and real thievery.]
Rav Schwab relates a beautiful lesson that he heard from his father regarding the custom of hiding the afikoman. We instruct our children to take the bigger half of the matzah and hide it for later, symbolizing our faith that our true and ultimate reward for all of our efforts is “hidden away” and awaiting us in the World to Come. It is a symbolism of how a Jew lives his life – with the realization that all of our struggles and challenges to maintain a life of holiness and integrity will warrant us the greatest of dividends in the future.
A Jew always lives with hopes and expectations of a better future. A nice afikoman present is definitely an exciting incentive, but the ultimate afikoman present transcends anything we can ever imagine.
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as guidance counselor and fifth-grade rebbe in ASHAR, and Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.stamtorah.info.