Afikoman Or Bust

No dessert after the afikoman? Maybe not:

“Afikoman” clearly comes from Greek, which lent a large vocabulary to the Hebrew that was spoken and written in Palestine in the early centuries C.E. The two words it is generally considered to come from are epi komios, “for a festal procession.” (A komos — a word related to Greek komedia and English “comedy” — was a band of revelers singing and dancing in the streets.)

The explanation given for this is that, in the ancient Mediterranean world, it was common practice after a banquet for the participants to go reveling to other houses for a few more desserts. When the Haggadah says, therefore, “eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. afikoman,” this is to be translated loosely as, “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal to go reveling.” Eventually, however, as Mediterranean culture became Christianized or Islamized, the custom of the komos vanished and Jews forgot all about it. Medieval Jewish commentators generally took “afikoman” to refer to dessert itself, and interpreted the Haggadah to be saying, “One does not eat dessert,” or “One does not eat anything else,” after finishing the Seder. And in time, “afikoman” lost the meaning of “dessert,” too, and came to designate the matzo that is the final item on the Passover menu, after which nothing more is to be eaten.

Pilologos goes on to refute a messianic Hebrew explanation of the term, and concludes:

Beyond all this, there are two simple linguistic reasons that the afikomenos theory doesn’t wash and the epi komios theory does. In the first place, substitute “the coming one” for “revel” or “dessert” in the Hebrew phrase eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. afikoman, and you get nonsense; it just doesn’t mean anything. And second, this Hebrew phrase is puzzling in its own right, because it seems to be missing a preposition. If afikoman, that is, is to be construed as a simple noun meaning “revel,” “dessert,” “the coming one” or whatever, the Hebrew should be eyn maftirin ah.ar ha-pesah. le-afikoman, or be-afikoman, i.e., “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal to [or with] an afikoman.” As it reads in the Haggadah, however, the Hebrew, literally translated, seems to say, quite ungrammatically, “One does not send off [one’s guests] at the end of the Passover meal afikoman.”

What happened to this missing preposition? The answer is that it’s not missing at all, because it’s there in the epi, meaning “for” or “to,’ of the Greek epi komios. There’s no other explanation of why the Hebrew is the way it is, and that’s enough to clinch the matter in itself.

In other words, what was meant to discourage house-to-house revalry has morphed into shoving a piece of dry cracker bread into one’s mouth and swallowing without benefit of water or drink, all in order to “remember” a custom that never was. Cute, nu?

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Afikoman Or Bust

  1. Yochanan Lavie

    Now that’s historicism I can accept! The Haggadah is beautiful, but it’s the work of Man. The rabbis didn’t know what we know about linguistics, so I’ll go with Philologus (and Shmarya) on this one.

  2. Neo-Conservaguy

    Nonsense! Every crown on every letter of the Haggadah was whispered into Moshe’s ear at Sinai – after all, haShem knew in advance about the second temple destruction, so he well prepared his beloved people to… oh, never mind.

    Good writing Philologus and nice find, Shmarya. I am not afraid.

  3. Anonymous

    ROFLMAO. Now divine for us wether or not Davy Crockett survived the Alamo battle and was executed by Santanna. Tell us oh great slayer of myths.

  4. Isa

    Regarding the comment:
    “Davy Crockett survived the Alamo battle”
    The Alamo survivors were shot and all their bodies were burned. So at the battle of San Jacinto when Santa Anna was captured, the mood was to hang all the Mexican officers, but Sam Houston had a better idea. Santa Anna granted independance to Texas, not that it was recogonized at the time BUT it on paper.
    Isa from Texas

  5. mikhaelmeir

    I asked Philologos a question months ago, and he hasn’t answered it yet. It was w eird question, and I thought of it after reading this article in the NY Times, about how an Algonquin dialect was recreated by linguists for the Terence Malick movie “The New World” about Pocohantas. The article can be found here:

    http://tinyurl.com/qn75b

    If you click on the graphic, there is a list of Algonquin Indian words that have entered English, including “Pushimim”, meaing “husked fruit” becoming the English “persimmon”. Now, I always thought persimmon was the same word as Hebrew “afarsimon”. So I asked Philologos about the history of these words, and he never got back to me. (I think “afasimon” comes to Hebrew from Greek? Anyone know?)

  6. Shmuel

    The more Greek, science, history, etc. I learn, the more I laugh. I am beginning to understand why charedim are so scared of academic scholarship. At a certain point, it just becomes…depressing.

  7. Yochanan Lavie

    I guess it’s all Greek to them. I love how they distort the story of Chanukkah. One would think that Israel went to war against the nation of Greece. Actually, it was our old pals, the Syrians.

  8. Yochanan Lavie

    Hellenophobia is not new. Azariah de Rossi was excommunicated centuries ago. Among other things, he reintroduced Philo to the Jewish world, and tried to institute scholarly history.

  9. Shmuel

    Now that you’ve mentioned Chanukah, I just want to say that we were posting quite a bit back in December about the cruise of oil and its miraculous discovery. Shmarya wrote that maybe it never happened, and I contributed classnotes from a lecture I attended by Rabbi Adam Mintz. Rabbi Mintz quoted an Israeli Professor, Vered Noam of Tel Aviv University. I just came across the article she published, from which article I presume he quoted. You can find it in the Hebrew Union College Annual 73:191-226 (2002) and it’s titled “The Miracle of the Cruise of Oil–The Metamorphosis of a Legend.” Shmarya, perhaps we ought to post this source back there (in our Chanukah posts) so people can find it.

  10. Anonymous

    This comment is on the post. It may be that the author is correct about the phrase. However, it is not conclusive, especially since there is a possibility that the correct reading of the Mishna should include a preposition. This would not be the first time a Mishna is missing a word or phrase.

    It is also possible that the meaning used by Palestinians Jews was similar, but not exactly, as used by the Greeks. As the author points out, meanings change over time.
    The original Greek meaning is hardly conclusive as to how the author of the Mishna used the term.

    More to the point, the author appears unfamilar with the Gemara in perek Arvei Pesachim on this phrase. Rav’s interpretation, that the Mishna means one should not go (and eat) from chabura to chabura (group to group), fits in well with the Greek interpretation supplied by this author; yet he never mentions it. Why?

    The din of Rav is based on the prohibition of eating the karbon pesach in two chaburas, not on reveling, per se. It is a siyug (fence). The speculation that the halacha was meant to prevent reveling is not proven. Pesach is a festive occasion and the Rabbis would have little reason to discourage rejoicing on a Festival; to the contrary, it is commendable. I know of no Gemora which expresses concern with merriment on Pesach getting out of hand.

    As for the halachah, the oldest explicit source for the prohibition against eating after matza is a braisa, which explicitly says that a kizais matza must be eaten “biachrona.” For the plain meaning folks, this braisa certainly supports the halacha of Shmuel, and may be why we pasken like Shmuel over Rav, when the general rule is the halacha is like Rav in matters involving prohibitions. The braisa is not interpreting the Mishna. The authority of the braisa is independent of what the actual meaning of the Mishna was. In addition, there are actually two variant traditions as to whether or not Shmuel applied the prohibition to Matza or limited it to the Kurban Pesach, which we no longer have.

    There is more to say on this topic, but one has to learn the Gemara first. I have tried to be as brief and to the point as possible.

  11. Thaks! Good comment.

    “It is also possible that the meaning used by Palestinians Jews was similar, but not exactly, as used by the Greeks. “

    We’re familiar with how Jews used Greek. His arguments based on this are not speculation.

    What Rav is saying as you point out forbids eating the korban Pesach in 2 (or more) different groups – no more, no less.

    Saying that a brita (circa 200 CE) is definative when the term afikomon predates that brita does not rectify the problem.

    As Philogos points out, to make the sentence work in any language, afikoman must mean what he says it does.

    To recap, you have a weak brita (circa 200 C.E.) to build your case. Afiloman predates that brita by as much as several hundred years.

    You may note that in all of Tanach, there is no reference to eating an afikoman or anything like it, and no description of anything that matches later rabbinic understanding of Peasch night (other than eating the korban Pesach as described).

  12. Anonymous

    You missed my point. The braisa is not interpreting the Mishna. It states a halachah independent of the Mishna. It is therefore authority for the halachah of not eating after the Karban Pesach (and possibly after the last Kizais matza in our times), whatever the Mishna means. If I somehow did not make that clear it should now be clear.

    I do not know how you can date the braisa, since it is undated and anonymous. The use of a Greek word may help identify the Mishna as being old, but I will leave that speculation to the historians.

    I do not believe that we have any idea as to how local Jewish Palestinians used any particular Greek word. Even the author of your article does not make that claim.

    My point about Rav is that the author’s argument supports Rav’s view of the meaning of the Mishna, that one should not leave and go elsewhere to eat. Rav, as made clear by the commentators, means any eating, not just the Karbon Pesach. This is a fence against one eating the Karbon in two groups. Rav himself does not limit his halacha to eating of the Karban Pesach in two groups and would not rely upon an ambiguous Mishna to tell us a halachah which is mandatory from the Torah.

    As to exactly how Pesach was celebrated in the time of Tanach, Tanach is neith a do it yourself manual nor a halachic guide. There is every reason to believe that the celebrants were misapher byztias mitzraim, although they undoubtedly did not say the hagada as we know it, and that they ate matza and moror. (I do not know whose hashgachah they had on the matza, but that is a different story.)

  13. “My point about Rav is that the author’s argument supports Rav’s view of the meaning of the Mishna, that one should not leave and go elsewhere to eat. Rav, as made clear by the commentators, means any eating, not just the Karbon Pesach. This is a fence against one eating the Karbon in two groups. Rav himself does not limit his halacha to eating of the Karban Pesach in two groups and would not rely upon an ambiguous Mishna to tell us a halachah which is mandatory from the Torah.”

    Agreed.

    “I do not believe that we have any idea as to how local Jewish Palestinians used any particular Greek word. Even the author of your article does not make that claim.”

    We do – or, at least, linguists, of which I am not one, do.

    Ill try to do some research on this, and on the dating of that braita, if I get time.

    Again, excellent comments. Thank you!

  14. S.

    >Saying that a brita (circa 200 CE) is definative when the term afikomon predates that brita does not rectify the problem.

    Who says that a beraita is circa 200 CE? They are far older. Beraitot were not included in the Mishna, which means that they predated 200 CE. In many cases the Mishna is a reworking of beraitot, which means that they were likely far older than the later formulation, dating to the 1st century CE.

    >We do – or, at least, linguists, of which I am not one, do.

    Not as much as you think. Hillel Halkin (who is Philologos) knows a lot, but he can make mistakes too. As someone pointed out, he should have made mention of Rav, but he probably, you know, wasn’t aware of that Gemara.

  15. And? Even if that particlar brita is that early, how does it change the argument? Greek was used primariy *before* the destruction. The teaching re: afikoman is most likely from that time.

    Halkin is Philologus?! Didn’t know that. Thanks.

  16. S.

    >And? Even if that particlar brita is that early, how does it change the argument? Greek was used primariy *before* the destruction. The teaching re: afikoman is most likely from that time.

    Greek was used for long after the destruction. How do you think Mishnaic Hebrew came to be so chock full of Greek? True, it began centuries earlier, but as late as the 1st century Greek translations of the Torah were being prepared for Jews, namely the Aquila and Symmachus versions, which were meant to supplant the Septuagint, as it had been adapted by the Christians and strayed too far from rabbinic teaching.

    >Halkin is Philologus?! Didn’t know that. Thanks.

    It’s kind of an open secret! 🙂

  17. *Primarily.*

    Use of Greek was dramatically reduced after the Destruction.

  18. Anonymous

    Once again, I feel compelled to explain my comment. I never said the Braisa was definitive as to the maening of the term in the Mishna.

    I said that the Braisa is an authoritative source for the halacha that one should not eat after the last Kizais Matza, which is exactly what the Braisa states. The braisa does not claim to interpret the Mishna.

    As for dating an anonymous Braisa, I would think that to be well nigh impossible.

    In additionn, I reiterate that the absence of a preposition, while bothersome, is not in itself conclusive. The Rabbis in the Gemora well recognized that the text of the Mishnais and Brasas was not sancrosanct, and also supplied words when needed and appropriate, rather than going with a reading that was at variance with Halacha.
    In addition, some Mishais can not be reasonably interpreted without adding words
    (example “hakora mkan vielech lo hisped” where the Gemra says that you do not lose the Brachos of Krias Shima). I think this point is elementary and notopen to dispute.

    I also stick by my view that it is impossible to conclusively state how the author of the Mishna understood the word Afikoman, which may be different from its Greek derivative.

    One last point, Shmuel, who holds the interpretation that afikoman means dessert, was known to ask seafarers the interpretations of foreign words (see the Mishan in Bame Madlikin and related Gemora).

  19. Shmuel lived in Babylonia hundreds of years later. komos was no longer practiced in the area or in most if not all of the middle east.

    And, again, the only logical reading of the sentence – a reading that just happens to coincide with history and mediterranean culture – is as Philologus wrote.

  20. Anonymous

    I am not convinced that a missing preposition is all that important. Convince me otherwise.

    I also find the sentence “you do not send your guests off revaling” to be awkward. The prohibition should be on the guests going off to reval; not on the host sending the guests off.

    If the prohibition is just on revaling, why not a similar prohibition on Succoth or Shevous, or, for that matter, Shabbat. Why the concern now? And what prompted Chazal to prohibit revaling here.

    If they were concerned about excess drinking or eating that concern would be equally applicable if the participants stood at their origibnal eating place.

    And what constitutes the prohibition of revaling. If it is not a defined prohibition, why put it in the Mishna?

    After due consideration, I find that Rav or Shmuel’s reasoning makes more sense. This is not meant to take away from the original analysis, which is interesting but not convincing.

    In any case, there is no reason to think that the halacha metamorphised from a mistaken pshat in the Mishna. There is ample independent authority for the halacha outside the Mishna.

  21. tarshisha

    It is old good book of prof. Shaul Leberman “Yavanit in Talmud”

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