Eretz Yisrael Time

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Sometimes it's easy to play the Grinch of Pesach (like a certain left-wing liberal Jewish blogger). But let's discuss the Jewish origin of the word Afikomen and the reasoning behind it.

After 4 cups of wine I asked my wife the reason and origin of the Afikomen, and if it had any connection to the Greeks. In response she asked me what I actually did in Yeshiva for so many years. My brother -in-law expanded on her answer (without the insults).

First off let's start with the word Afikomen itself. It's not Greek, but basic Aramaic.

"My Nafka Mina," my wife said to me, "Didn't you learn that in Yeshiva, 'What comes out from this?'"

"Afiku" means to take out. We say that word in an important Tfilla (which she asked me if I skipped this year).

And that is the origin of the word, Aramaic. Not Greek.

Moving on, why do we eat the Afikomen at the end of the meal?

Because the Afikomen is a Zecher l'Karban Pesach, and we would only eat the Karban once we nearly finished with the meal and "satisified".

Why specifically the middle matza of the 3?
In honor/remembrance of Shevet Levi that continued to serve Hashem in Mitzraim, and their descendents who prepared to Karban Pesach.

And why not then the top Matza (Cohen)? So that we would have 2 shleimim (whole matzas) for Lechem Mishne (top and bottom).

Hence the reason we take out the middle matza from the 3 "Afiku Mina" - "Take it out from them".

And that is a Jewish Answer.


tafka PP said...

My Ancient Greek teacher burst the bubble for me at school... Quite a blow, to discover we'd been lied to- yeah, maybe that was the beginning...

Moadim LeSimcha

Dan said...

I thought you would appreciate this blog post and would want to share it with your readers

Thank God We Live in A Generation Where People Eat Bread on Pessah!

JoeSettler said...

pp: Welcome back.

What was the lie?
That it was or wasn't from Greek?

There is no problem either way.
On one hand we have a number of Greek loan words (apitropus) and even Egyptian loan words too (!). On the other hand, Aramaic was the trade tongue at the time and Aramaic words entered other vocabularies besides our own.

Chazal may actually had both languages in mind and were doing a nice play on words.

What I found idiotic about his post is his idea that we took the seder structure from the Greeks, and then included a warning not to have lewd entertainment after the meal like the Greeks used to do.

Furthermore, he finds it tough to imagine that the ~1000 years we were eating the Karban Pesach before we bumped into the Greeks (as Greeks and not as Philistines or Sisera) that some sort of structure to the meal didn't evolve on its own, or was an original part of our tradition.

I assume he is just trying to be contraversial for the pageviews.

Anonymous said...

I don't know - I think my answer is pretty Jewish -

While I don't have a problem with claiming it comes from Aramaic, even the wise son gets told that we don't finish eating with an "afikoman".

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why pointing to the obvious Greek origins of the word (as Dave=Balashon does) is any less of a "Jewish" answer. There is a lexicon of several thousand Greek words which appear in the Talmud. Judaism's highest court, the Sanhedrin, was blessed with a Greek name.
The Gemara's explanation of אפיקו לי underscores how far removed Sassanian Babylonia was from Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara's other explanation though, of hopping from group to group, indisputably corroborates the Greek etymology, even though the meaning of the word was long forgotten.

JoeSettler said...

lmoc: The point wasn't actually the origin of the word Afikomen, but the origin of the Seder itself. It was written as a (partial) response to another blog who wrote that the Seder is a copy of a Greek Symposium and the Afikomen refers to the "lewd dancing after the meal" and excluded any answer that didn't jibe with his.

We have Sukkah hopping today, and it could be that that is what it meant then.

Lurker said...


Sorry, but with all due respect, you're way off the mark on this one. The word afikoman is most definitely Greek, and purely Greek, in origin. This fact can be found in plently of meforshim on the Mishna and Gemara. Furthermore, the etymology you present is both problematic and wrong, for a variety of reasons:

The word afikoman appears in the Mishna in Pesachim 10:8: "Ein maftirin achar ha-pesach afikoman". This clearly has nothing at all to do with matza (middle or otherwise), which alone is sufficient to demonstrate that your etymology cannot possibly be correct.

Furthermore, AFAIK, your explanation of afikoman as meaning "take out the middle matza" has no basis in any traditional Jewish source.

The Bavli (Pesachim 119b) gives two interpretations for the meaning of "ein maftirin achar ha-pesach afikoman": According to Rav, it means that you cannot get up at the end of the meal and go join someone else's korban Pesach group (chabura). According to Shmuel, it means that you cannot eat after-dinner snacks (i.e., desserts) after eating the korban Pesach. The Yerushalmi also cites the opinions of Rav (anonomously, in Pesachim 10:4) and Shmuel (also in the name of R. Yochanan, in 10:6). (Shmuel's opinion is also cited anonomously by the Tosefta, in 10:11.) The Yerushalmi (10:6) also quotes a third opinion in the name of R. Inaini b. R. Sisai -- that afikoman means entertainment with musical instruments (minei zemer).

These interpretations dovetail perfectly with the well-established idea that the structure of the Seder is heavily derived from that of the Greek symposia: At the end of a symposium, it was traditional for the participants to proceed over to someone else's house where they would conduct after-dinner merry-making, with delicacies and music. This practice was called epikomion, which means "after-dinner activities" or "after-dinner entertainment". I.e., because someone might think that we can also borrow this idea from the symposia, the mishna makes a point of telling us that it is forbidden to follow the meal with an epikomion. The three interpretations in the Gemara imply three different reasons for the prohibition: According to Rav, its because you're not allowed to eat from the korban Pesach of someone else's chabura. According to Shmuel, its because you're not allowed to eat anything else after the korban Pesach. And according to R. Inaini b. R. Sisai, it would seem to be either on account of (a) the inappropriateness of having musical entertainment after eating the korban Pesach, or (b) the rabbinic prohibition against playing musical instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

You are correct that there is a connection drawn between the word afikoman and the Aramaic word afiku. But you are mistaken in attributing this to Chaza"l (assuming that by "Chaza"l", you mean the Tannaim and Amoraim): There is no etymology of the word afikoman to be found anywhere in all of Sha"s -- not in the Mishna, the Tosefta, the Bavli, or the Yerushalmi. The explanations of the word afikoman using the word afiku are found only starting with the Rishonim, in their comments on "ein maftirin achar ha-pesach afikoman": The Rashbam (Pesachim 119b) explains Rav's opinion with the expression afiku minaichu ("take them out"), as in "take out your utensils from here, and let's go eat in another place"; and the Rav mi'Bartenura (Pesachim 10:8) explains Shmuel's opinion with the expression afiku minei metika ("take out [various] types of sweets"). Note that nobody says anything about afikoman meaning "take out the middle matza", since the mishna's use of the word is completely unrelated to this. Furthermore, these expressions used by the Rashbam and the Rav are not intended as etymologies of the word afikoman; they are simply mnemonic devices (notrikon). R. Kehati states this explicitly in his comments on 10:9 -- after he explains that the word afikoman is Greek in origin.

I find it strange that you would suggest that citing the Greek etymology of afikoman is un-"Jewish": The simple fact that this word is Greek can be found in the Tiferet Yisroel (Yachin, Pesachim 10:8, note 51), as well as the Tosafot R. Akiva Eiger -- who actually criticizes the Rav mi'Bartenura for not having known (or cited the fact) that afikoman is Greek! The Greek source of the word is also described in Kehati (see above), as well as Steinzaltz. Would you say that the explanation given by all these meforshim is not "Jewish"?

Regarding that left-wing liberal blogger who you describe as the "Grinch of Pesach": Yes, his political views are certainly misguided and offensive, but there's nothing wrong or Grinch-like in his comments on this particular subject: Firstly: If one is intellectually honest, it is impossible to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that Chaza"l borrowed ideas from the Greek symposia in formulating the Seder. If you haven't already, take a good look at the article he cites on the subject. Secondly: There's nothing un-"Jewish" about Chaza"l having done so: They borrowed many useful ideas from non-Jews -- particularly the Greeks -- while rejecting the bad stuff. ("Tocho achal, klipato zarak", as R. Meir did with Acher.) Many of the Tannaim clearly saw great worth within Greek culture -- in the yeshiva of Rabban Gamliel [who was the Nasi], they actually studied Greek philosophy side-by-side with the Torah (Sotah 49b). They didn't "copy" the Seder from the symposia, but they appropriated a great many elements, adapting them to the purpose of sippur yetziat Mitzraim, and thus elevating them into the realm of kedusha.

Prior to the time of the Mishna, there was simply the korban Pesach, and the telling of the story of yetziat Mitzraim. But there was no canonized structure or liturgy for the night of Pesach. Detailed accounts of the laws and customs of Pesach can be found in several pre- and early- Mishnaic period works, such as Sefer HaYuvalim (perek 49), as well as Philo and Josephus. They all describe the korban Pesach, the matza, and the maror; and the mitzva of telling the story -- but apart from that, there is no mention whatsoever of any of the elements of our Seder. That's because people used to fulfill these mitzvot in a more free-form manner. It was only around the time of the churban that Chaza"l decided to organize it into a unified form. And it made sense for them to adopt the form of the symposia, since this was what familiar to the Jews of the time. Perhaps they formulated Seder as a sort of "replacement" for the korban Pesach after the churban, not unlike the three daily tefillot, which "replaced" the daily korbanot in the Beit HaMikdash.

I question your assertion that there's something un-"Jewish" about borrowing non-Jewish practices and adapting them to something holy. In the Moreh Nevuchim (III:32), the Rambam goes so far as to say that Hashem borrowed the entire idea of korbanot from pagan cultic practices! I presume that you wouldn't accuse the Rambam of "just trying to be contraversial for the pageviews". Compared to an idea like that, the idea of borrowing a few clever ideas from the Greek symposia for the Seder seems rather tame by comparison, wouldn't you say?

Anonymous said...

Lurker: I stand (partially) corrected (I'll tell my brother-in-law he is completely wrong though).

You, on the other hand wrote a far more intelligent and scholarly responsa than the post I was originally responding to.

Still, among what I found (and find) offensive in his original post and comments - was his statement that the Rabbis were forbidding the lewd "after meal entertainment" and that is what they forbade by Afikomen (unlike what you said which was that it was perhaps referring to musical instruments) - which I'm sorry, is blatantly idiotic - as it goes without saying that lewd entertainment is obviously forbidden.

Furthermore, as you also mentioned we already had a tradition/ritual of the meal and its components for some 1000 years before (such as telling and discussing the story) - even if not organized, and already before Churban B"S Chazal would have begun introducing replacement rituals for the lack of the Karban Pesach.

I have no problem if Chazal took elements from the Symposia (or even the structure to make it a "Seder"), but copying it completely and just taking out the bad stuff - sorry, that is too far-fetched and completely ignores our entire history and that Jews have been sitting down for a millenia before the Greeks to eat the Karban Pesach while telling and discussing the story , and so on.

Kiddush on wine, for instance, was certainly introduced by then, as it was apparently already introduced during the time of the later Neviim - so it wasn't likely a Greek innovation - one might do better to say we got it from the Persians and their wine parties.

Also, thanks for the source of "Afiku Meneichu". I was looking for it everywhere and couldn't find it.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't Afikomen mean "I came" in 1st Century greek. I have bee ntold there is no reason to transliterate to epikomios, but that afikomen is an actual greek word itself?

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right, ἀφικόμην [afikómēn] means 'I've have arrived/come'.
My problem with the epikomion/s theory is that the word is very rare and means 'revel' [Liddell & Scott-]

It would be strange to have epi- changed to afi- in Hebrew, since epikouros appears in Hebrews as apikoros. So the P stays plosive and doesn't turn into a fricative [/p/-->/f/].

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