Light from the Sidra

Pesach ('Passover'). 19 April 2014. 19 Nissan 5774

Torah: Exodus.12:21-51:30; Numbers 28:16-25. Haftarah: Joshua 5:2-6:1.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

The coming one

In case you didn’t know, we are over half way through Passover. Even secular Jewish families celebrate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt through the Seder, a multi-sensory teaching experience developed over the centuries to inculcate the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

The first Passover Seder, according to the book of Exodus, was a simple affair consisting of a meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Over the centuries the rabbis added several symbolic elements to the meal such as candles, four cups of wine, raw horseradish, a roasted egg, the shank bone of a lamb and three pieces of matzah or unleavened bread. Early in the Seder, a mysterious ritual takes place in which the middle of the three pieces of matzah – the afikomen – is broken in two and the larger half hidden away. At the end of the meal the broken matzah is brought back and shared by everyone at the table as a dessert. The origins of the ceremony and the term ‘afikomen’ are shrouded in mystery. The earliest occurrence of the word ‘afikomen’ occurs in the Mishnah in Pesahim 10:8. Philip Blackman’s translation reads: ‘… no food may be eaten after the [matzah afikomen].’

Although there is disagreement over what the word’ afikomen’ actually means, most scholars agree that it is a Greek not a Hebrew term. Some think the term is derived from the Greek word for ‘dessert’, epikomoi. Others suggest it comes from epi komon, a call for after dinner entertainment, while others think it derives from epikomion, a ‘festival song’. All these suggestions, however, are probably incorrect.

 In 1966 David Daube, a Jewish scholar at Oxford University, argued that the term afikomen is derived from the Greek verb afikomenos meaning ‘the Coming One’ or ‘He who has come’ and that the ‘Coming One’ was none other than the Messiah. Daube set forth a powerful case that the unleavened bread Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper was the afikomen. When Jesus said that the bread was his’ body’, said Daube, he was using an existing prophetic tradition to reveal himself as the Messiah. According to Daube, the messianic symbolism was eventually lost, deliberately distorted or possibly suppressed by rabbinic authorities, giving rise to the later interpretations of the word as a ‘dessert’ or an ‘after-dinner entertainment’.

None of this, of course, explains how, why or when the afikomen was introduced into the Passover. But if the breaking of the middle matzah was an established part of the Seder ritual at the time of Jesus, why and when was it introduced?

To answer that question, we must first turn to the book of Daniel. In chapter 2, Daniel interprets a dream of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon in which he saw a statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a torso of bronze and legs of iron. From out of nowhere, a stone cut without hands struck the image and toppled it.

In verse 44 Daniel informs the king that ‘in the days of these kingdoms, the God of Heaven will establish a kingdom that shall never be destroyed . . . it shall crumble and consume all these kingdoms, and it will stand forever’. When the Romans invaded the land of Israel, those who were aware of Daniel’s prediction knew Rome was the final kingdom. The venerated Jewish commentator Rashi comments on Daniel 2:44: ‘When the kingdom of Rome is still in existence . . . The kingdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, which will never be destroyed . . . will crumble and destroy all these kingdoms.’

The Talmudic tractate Megillah states that ‘the Targum of the Prophets was composed by Jonathan ben Uzziel under the guidance of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi and that ben Uzziel sought to reveal the inner meaning of the Ketuvim, the section of the Bible that includes the book of Daniel. However, says Megillah 3a, a Bath Kol, a voice from heaven, forbade ben Uzziel to reveal the inner meaning of the Ketuvim because in it ‘the date of the Messiah is foretold’!

Secondly, when Jesus was born, angels appeared to a group of shepherds, instructing them to go to Bethlehem to see the new-born Messiah. After seeing him, they spread the news of his birth far and wide. It would not take long for the news of the Messiah’s birth to reach Jerusalem. Then, two years later, Herod and the city of Jerusalem are perturbed when a group of magi from the east arrive at the royal palace demanding to know where the King of the Jews is so they can ‘worship’ him. The two announcements, coming two years apart, would not be easily forgotten.

About thirty years later, a fiery young preacher called Johanan begins calling Israel to repentance because the ‘kingdom that shall never be destroyed’ is at hand, and all Judea goes to the Jordan river to be immersed by him as a sign of their repentance. And some, remembering the news from thirty years before, ask the young prophet if he is the Messiah, the King of Israel. To this day, Passover is linked in Jewish thinking to the coming of the Messiah and at every Passover Seder a place is set at the table for Elijah, Messiah’s forerunner.

It would have been natural for Jewish thinkers living in the time of the fourth kingdom between the announcement of Messiah’s birth and his revelation, to introduce a new element to the festival so the people could be reminded every year that the One who would redeem Israel by establishing the kingdom of God was coming. How ironic, therefore, that at every Passover meal, although the Jewish people partake in a ritual that points them to the Messiah they fail to see his signs. The Good news is that Israel need no longer look for the Coming One because the ‘Coming One’ has come already.

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