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Can Liberal Jews still believe in a Messianic Age?
Last uploaded : Sunday 20th Apr 2014 at 20:48
Contributed by : Rabbi Alexandra Wright


Can Liberal Jews still believe in a Messianic Age?

Shabbat Chol Ha’Mo’ed Pesach
19 April 2014

On Tuesday morning, the first day of Pesach, we held an open pulpit and members stepped up to this spot to talk about their own personal memories of childhood and other sedarim they had enjoyed in the past. Jenny Nathan’s words about illustrated Haggadot reminded me about the first children’s Haggadah I owned with little paper strip pull outs so that the figures moved and told a story. My favourite one was the little boy, first seated at the Seder, slipping underneath the table to hunt for the Afikoman and then re-appearing triumphantly with the hidden matzah in his hand. There was something quite magical in the sequence of those pictures.

Hunting for the Afikoman is a magical and rather fun moment during the Seder, although it seems rather absurd that half a matzah, usually wrapped in a paper serviette is hidden by one of the adults while the children run about looking for it in the most remote places.

However, the origins of this custom are shrouded in mystery. There is nothing in the early rabbinic sources about children hunting for hidden matzah and quite a bit of disagreement about what the word Afikoman actually means. So, as a way of prolonging our seder, I wonder if we might review those sources and then ask ourselves a key question that arises from the custom of hiding the matzah.

We begin with the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s so-called Code of Jewish law from the C2nd CE and a passage in which the participants are instructed to pour the third cup of wine. The Mishnah then raises a question about whether one is allowed to top up one’s glass and drink in excess of the four official cups. It seems to be all right to have the odd glass early on in the meal, but between the third and fourth cups, the Mishnah is clear, there should be no extra drinking. There is clearly some anxiety that by the end of the meal participants might be getting a bit tipsy. You’ll see why this is relevant to the Afikoman in a moment.

Then the Mishnah (which was written after the Destruction of the Temple, but which frequently invokes the memory of the Temple and its practices) continues by forbidding dessert to be eaten after the Pesach sacrifice has been offered. The section concludes with the famous response given to the Wise Child of the Haggadah: - “One does not conclude the Pesach meal with Afikoman” (m. Pesachim 10:8).

The big question that bothered the Rabbis is: what is it that the Mishnah forbids? Today, we all know that the Afikoman is that hidden piece of matzah found and ransomed by the children and with which we do conclude the meal, so that the taste of matzah is on our lips as we leave the seder? But was it always thus?

Here are the theories which emerge from the texts that mention the Afikoman. Number 1 is the Mishnah itself, which offers no explanation of this strange, Greek-sounding word. One might deduce from its context immediately after the forbidding of more wine between the third and fourth cup that it refers to some kind of revelry. No pub crawls, no extra drinking should follow the Pesach meal. You don’t conclude the Pesach meal with Afikoman – that is – with any kind of gallivanting or carousing.

The second text to mention the Afikoman is the Tosefta (10:11). The Tosefta, from a similar period as the Mishnah, either a little earlier or later, is structured in a similar way with six orders and tractates, although with more explanations. If we look at the parallel passage regarding the Afikoman, the Tosefta helpfully adds a bit more detail:
zekilda weqrl mc` aiige zeilwe mixnze mifeb` oebk onewit` gqtd xg` oixihtn oi`
:eicinlz oial epia ezia oial epia elit` gqtd
“One must not conclude after the Pesach meal with Afikoman, such as nuts or dates or parched grain. A person must occupy himself with the laws of Pesach even with his household [this is interpreted by some to refer to a man’s wife] or with his students.” So here, the Tosefta gives a definition of what Afikoman might be – sweets or desserts such as nuts or dates which should not be eaten at the very end of the Seder. Instead one should spend the night studying the laws of Pesach, the prescription that seems to be linked to the answer given to the wise child in the Haggadah who is to be taught all the laws of Pesach.

Text number 3 comes from the Palestinian Talmud (jPesachim 10:4) and is one of three versions of the midrash of the Four Children that exist in very slightly different forms. Unlike the Haggadah in which the law of the Afikoman is addressed to the wise child, in the Palestinian Talmud, this law is given to the tipesh – the stupid child (in the Haggadah he is the simple child) - with the explanation that he shouldn’t remove himself from one Pesach meal and go off to another. This view might seem to follow the implication of the Mishnah that one should stay put at the end of the meal and not uproot oneself to go off with friends to another Seder to enjoy more eating and drinking.

Text number 4 is the longest of all the texts and presents us with a fairly lengthy discussion about the possible interpretations of the word Afikoman, some of them in agreement with earlier texts. The main discussion is between two scholars of the third century in Babylonia, Rav and Samuel. Rav derives the word Afikoman from two Aramaic words – afiko minaychu – meaning “to take out your eating utensils.” In other words, Rav is following the tradition of the Palestinian Talmud which instructs people not to uproot themselves from one seder to go off in search of another. Samuel follows the Tosefta’s view that Afikoman refers to after dinner snacks, although he suggests that one should not eat any kind of heavy or savoury desserts after the Pesach meal such as mushrooms or truffles (again these words in Aramaic are linked to the word Afikoman).

Most scholars today agree with the interpretation given by both the Tosefta and Palestinian Talmud that the word Afikoman is derived from the Greek word epi komon meaning “dessert” or “after-dinner entertainment.” In 1934, Professor Saul Lieberman referred to the Greek word and the custom of participants at a seder leaving their house at the conclusion of the Pesach meal, barging into another house and forcing the family to join in their merry-making. The point about forbidding the Afikoman at the end of the meal was to distance Jewish practice from this particular Hellenistic custom.

In 1925, the German scholar Robert Eisler suggested that the Afikoman didn’t mean any of these things at all and that the broken matzah represented something quite different, namely the Messiah. Jewish and Christian scholars opposed Eisler’s thesis which was largely forgotten until 1966, when David Daube, a Jewish scholar from Oxford University revived it and argued that the term Afikoman was derived from the Greek verb afikomenos, meaning “the Coming One” or “He who has come” referring to the Messiah. Daube gave a lecture at St Paul’s Cathedral entitled “He that Cometh” under the auspices of the London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding in which he set out the case that the unleavened bread Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper was the Afikoman. When Jesus announced, “This is my body”, said Daube, he was making use of an existing prophetic tradition to reveal himself as the Messiah. Daube says that the messianic symbolism was eventually lost or perhaps suppressed by rabbinic authorities, giving rise to later interpretations of the word as a “dessert” or “after-dinner entertainment.”

Whatever the origins of the Afikoman, the broken matzah which is held up at the beginning of the meal as “the bread of affliction” and symbolises our slavery in Egypt is transformed, by the end of the meal, into the bread of freedom and redemption. So whatever it might originally have meant, it has undoubtedly acquired messianic or redemptive significance.

Of all the festivals, Pesach is probably the most messianic – with the expression of hope that the prophet Elijah will appear to herald future redemption and the concluding words: L’shanah ha-ba’ah birushalayim – “Next year in Jerusalem!” In all our other prayer books, Liberal Judaism expunged the concept of a personal Messiah. Rabbi Israel Mattuck writes, “it was the belief of Judaism and the hope of Jews that a Messiah would come and lead them back to Palestine and ultimately to bring the whole world to the true worship of the true God. The first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was this Messiah; that was why they called him “the Christ,” which is the Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah.” Only a few Jews accepted this belief; the great majority continued to hope for the Messiah and to expect him. And that expectation has continued to modern times. It is still maintained in Orthodox Judaism. But it is not part of Liberal Judaism” (The Essentials of Liberal Judaism, p. 139).
Liberal Judaism may have relinquished faith in a personal Messiah, but it never gave up on its belief and hope in a messianic age - “an age,” as Mattuck says, “when humanity shall be perfected in righteousness” (page 140). And this brings me rather starkly to my question: In a world that sometimes does not seem to move forward to that perfection in righteousness, in which there is still so much injustice, poverty, brutality, slavery, violence and war, can we still subscribe to a view, as the Liberal Judaism Affirmations state, of “human history [as] a drama of progress and setback, triumph and tragedy, yet divinely destined to lead to an age when all worship the One God, good will triumph over evil, and the reign of freedom, justice, love and peace will be permanently established throughout the world?”

Let me state that in the inverse to be clear about what it would mean not to subscribe to that view of human history: it would mean believing that evil would ultimately triumph over good, that slavery, injustice, hatred and war would ultimately win over those values for which we pray, work and hope.

Not to believe in a messianic age in its social-political sense, or in the personal aspiration for spiritual freedom as individuals would be to cut off all hope for a future in which people are treated fairly, have enough to eat, have a right to education, health, work and to religious and political beliefs. It would be a subscription towards callous indifference and catastrophe.

Pesach opens us to the experience of our past, but it also compels us to work for a better future for those still enslaved and deprived of their human rights; it encourages us to be open to a spiritual and political journey not of pessimistic cynicism, but of confidence and hope in a world redeemed. Bimhera v’yameinu – May it come soon and in our days, Amen.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright is senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, London


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