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The Mystery of the Middle Matzah

Article by M. Moore

For more on the Afikomen see our article

He who is coming

At the Passover Seder, the memorial meal they share to commemorate the greatest event in their calendar, Jewish families follow an order of service or Haggadah in which the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and its significance is recounted through stories, songs, questions and symbolic actions. The Passover Seder is 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 Seder table is laden with symbolic items such as candles, cups of wine, bitter herbs, 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, called the afikomen, is taken from the matzah tash – a silk envelope with three pockets – 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 Coming One”
The origins of the ceremony and the name of the afikomen are shrouded in mystery. Jewish tradition sees the three matzah as symbolic of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), or the three divisions of the Jewish people (the priests, the Levites and the people) or even the three measures of fine meal from which Sarah baked bread for the three angelic visitors who, according to tradition arrived at Abraham’s tent on the night of Passover. Many Messianic Jews see the afikomen as a type of the second Person of the Godhead who died and was buried but who returned from the grave. Also, because the matzah is both pierced and scored or “striped”, some Jewish believers see in it a picture of the one who was pierced for our transgressions and by whose stripes we are healed. Some Gentile Christians and even Jewish believers are scornful of what they consider to be fanciful interpretations. The fact is, however, that no consensus exists in Jewish thinking about the significance of the afikomen, so if the rabbis may impose their uncertain interpretations of the meaning of the broken matzah, why should our Messianic brothers and sisters not draw out Messiah-centred parallels in order to place their Lord at the centre of their Seder? Even if they see Messiah where he is not, is that not preferable to not seeing him where he is?


The afikomen is not mentioned in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The earliest occurrence of the word occurs in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic legal rulings codified at the beginning of the third century AD. Tractate Pesahim 10:8 of the Mishnah in Philip Blackman’s translation reads: “… no food may be eaten after the [matzah afikomen]”.


In A Popular Dictionary of Judaism Lydia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok define afikomen as a Hebrew word meaning “dessert”. Although there is disagreement over what the word actually means, most scholars agree that afikomen is Greek not Hebrew. 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 1925, the German scholar Robert Eisler proposed that the afikomen was part of the Passover observed by Jews at the time of Jesus and that the broken matzah represented the Messiah. Eisler’s thesis was opposed by both Jewish and Christian scholars and was largely forgotten until 1966 when David Daube, a Jewish scholar at Oxford University, revived it and produced further documentation to support Eisler’s theory. Daube argued that the term afikomen was 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.


Further confirmation for Eisler’s theory had emerged in the 1930s when a remarkable Greek document called Peri Pascha (“On the Passover”) was discovered. Written by Melito the second-century bishop of Sardis, the biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross described Peri Pascha as “nothing less than a Christian Passover Hagaddah” and in it Melito twice refers to Jesus as the “one who is coming (afikomen) out of heaven to the earth”! On the Passover is available online at http://www.kerux.com/documents/KeruxV4N1A1.asp.


Desperately expecting Messiah
In a lecture entitled “He that Cometh” given at St Paul’s Cathedral under the auspices of the London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding, Daube set forth a case that the unleavened bread Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper was the afikomen. When Jesus announced, “This is my body”, said Daube, he was making use of 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”. Because the disciples of Jesus adopted the existing customs surrounding the middle matzah, official Judaism abandoned them. Also, as the Church became increasingly Gentile and lost sight of its Jewish roots, the Passover elements of the “Lord’s Supper” became submerged under heated discussions about transubstantiation, the “Real Presence” and the efficacy of the sacrament.


None of this, of course, explains how, why or when the afikomen was introduced into the Passover. 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? Christians are so accustomed to talking about “Christ” or “the Messiah” that we forget there is no clear, developed concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament. But from the very first page of the New Testament “the Messiah” (“Christ” in most of our English translations) is on virtually every page. As we read the Gospels, it is clear that in the first century there was intense Messianic expectation:


And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Luke 7:19)
The high priest asked Him, saying to Him, “Are You the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61)
The elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council, saying, “If You are the Messiah, tell us.” (Luke 22:66f).
Why had happened to create the atmosphere of intense Messianic fervour that existed at the time of Jesus? To answer that question, we must turn to the book of Daniel.


The fourth kingdom
My thinking on what follows was stimulated by a conversation with my Orthodox Jewish friend Eliyohu in the unlikely setting of Knowle Park in Sevenoaks. As we strolled among the deer on a beautiful summer afternoon, debating whether Jesus was the Messiah, Eliyohu demanded to know “what happened to Daniel 2:44”. The verse states that, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever”. Eliyohu, like all Orthodox Jews, believes this indestructible kingdom will be established by the Messiah. Therefore, if Jesus was the Messiah he should have established the kingdom of heaven. Since, as Eliyohu saw it, Jesus failed in fulfilling this essential task, he could not be the Messiah. End of argument.


However, Eliyohu had no idea of the context of the prophecy or that the kingdom of God would be established after four kingdoms had appeared on earth. Written in the sixth century BC at the time of the Babylonian captivity the prophecy of Daniel 2:44 was issued as a result of a dream of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon in which he saw a colossal statue made of gold, silver, bronze and iron. According to Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, the four metals represented four kingdoms, of which Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon was the first and finest. In verse 44, Daniel revealed to Nebuchadnezzar that in the days of those kingdoms “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever”.


If Daniel was a true prophet the kingdom must have been established when he said it would be and if Eliyohu could not see that kingdom, the fault lay with him. If he could not see the kingdom, it was because he was outside it.


After his return to the United States, Eliyohu and I continued to debate the matter by e-mail and I drew his attention to the view of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (often referred to by the acronym “Rashi”). one of the greatest Jewish biblical commentators. Rashi interpreted Daniel 2:44 in this way: “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 ninth chapter of Daniel confirms that the Messiah would come in the first century of our era, before Jerusalem and the second temple were destroyed: “…from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks … And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.”


In the first century, the land of Israel was occupied by the Romans and there was great messianic expectancy among the Jews. Rome was the final kingdom of Daniel’s quartet of empires and the kingdom of God had to be established while the final kingdom was in existence. A number of messiahs rose up, the most famous of whom was Shimon bar Kochba but two others are mentioned in Acts 5:36f and in the works of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In Acts 5:36f, the great Rabbi Gamaliel reminded the Sanhedrin: “Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered” (Acts 5:36f).


Similarly, but in greater detail, Josephus records:
Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem . . . besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews…” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, ch 5:1,2).


The second exodus
It is significant that in the Jewish division of the books of the Bible, Daniel is not included in the Prophets nor is the book included in the annual cycle of synagogue readings. Instead, Daniel is found in the third division of the Hebrew Bible known as the Ketuvim, the “Writings”, which includes Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the two books of Chronicles. Nevertheless, in spite of Daniel’s exclusion from the prophetic section of the Jewish Bible and from the synagogue readings, a rabbinic ruling reveals that Daniel is indeed a prophetic book and that his book reveals the time of the coming of Messiah. The Talmudic tractate Megillah informs us 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”!


We possess a targum, or interpretatation, on every book of the Ketuvim except the book of Daniel because, says the Talmud, in that book alone is contained the date of the Messiah. Josephus strengthens the theory that Daniel is the book in which the date of Messiah is contained when he says, “We believe that Daniel conversed with God; for he did not only prophecy of future events, as did the other prophets, but also determined the time of their accomplishment” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, ch 11, v7).


The Dead Sea Scrolls make it clear that the Essene Community at Qumran understood Daniel 9 to contain a revelation of the time of the coming of Messiah. Scroll 11Q13, The Coming of Melchizedek, says:
This visitation is the Day of Salvation that He has decreed through Isaiah the prophet concerning all the captives, inasmuch as Scripture says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion “Your [God] reigns”“ (Isa. 52:7). … “The messenger” is the Anointed of the spirit, of whom Daniel spoke, “After the sixty-two weeks, an Anointed one shall be cut off” (Dan. 9:26). (The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr & Edward Cook, p 457. Also available online at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_scrolls/11Q13)


Back to the future
To this day, Passover is linked in Jewish thinking to the coming of the Messiah. At every Passover Seder, a place is set at the table for Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah, and at the end of the meal, after the afikomen has been eaten, the children are sent to the door to see if Elijah is coming.


At the time of Jesus, Messianic fervour was particularly high during Passover, the festival that commemorated the redemption from Egypt. And there was good reason why this should have been so. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold a second Exodus that would be even greater than the deliverance from Egypt. In Isaiah chapters 40-55, for example, the prophet reveals that as God redeemed his people from Egypt, leading them through the desert by the hand of His servant Moses, he would lead them again through the desert by the hand of a greater Servant.


In first century Israel, Messianic expectation ran at fever pitch. Daniel had foretold the coming of four kingdoms in the days of which Messiah would establish the eternal kingdom of God and the prophets has foreseen an even greater exodus than the one from bondage in Egypt. Which of the two events would be the greater? Which would come first? Would it not be natural for Jewish thinkers to link the second exodus and the Passover to the establishment of the kingdom of God? And would that not increase the longing for Messiah at the festival that commemorated the deliverance from Egypt?
Josephus records that at Passover anti-Roman feeling ran higher than usual among the people of Jerusalem and the pilgrims who were there for the festival, and the Romans always had a full contingent of soldiers present to quell any riots. With the great groundswell of Messianic hope, this would surely be the time for the rabbis to introduce a further messianic element, the afikomen, into the Passover thus reinforcing in the hearts of the people that Israel’s redemption was near (cf Lk 2:25 and 24:21).


When Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper they not only remember the death of the Lord Jesus but also look forward to the final phase of redemption when Jesus comes again. This looking back in anticipation of the future was a feature of the Passover. From the time the afikomen was introduced to the Seder, Passover not only looked back but also forward. The festival was no longer a memorial of deliverance past; it encouraged the Jewish people to look forward to an even greater deliverance.


It is ironic that at every Passover meal, the Jewish people part take in a ritual that points them to the Messiah they have longed for centuries. Every time the middle matzah is broken, the veil that is over their minds prevents them from seeing the one of whom Daniel and the prophets spoke. Christians should pray that the veil which hides Messiah from their sight will be removed, that the Jewish people might truly enter into “the glorious liberty of the children of God”.


This knowledge should enhance Christian appreciation for the Lord’s Supper. The bread we break is the equivalent of the middle matzah which Jesus called his body. While the Jewish people eat the afikomen with no knowledge of its significance, Christians eat it in remembrance of the one who has come and will come again. The next time we participate of the body of the Lord, let us pray that the veil which remains over the hearts and minds of the Jewish people will be removed so they may see that, according to their prophets and even some of their greatest sages, Messiah has come.



Sources:
Philip Blackman. Mishnayoth (Judaica Press, 1963)
Deborah Bleicher Carmichael. “David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder,” in New Testament Backgrounds (Sheffield, 1997)
Lydia and Dan Cohn-Sherbok. A Popular Dictionary of Judaism (Curzon, 1995)
Herbert Danby. The Mishna (Oxford University Press, 1980)
David Daube. He That Cometh (London: Diocesan Council, 1966)
Ronald L. Eisenberg. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Jewish Publication Society, 2004)
Encyclopaedia Judaica (Keter Publishing House, 1972)
Richard Harvey. Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Paternoster, 2009)
Geoffrey Wigoder (Editor-in-Chief) The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York University Press, 2002)
The Soncino Talmud (Soncino Press, no date)
William Whiston (translator). The Works of Flavius Josephus (Milner and Company, no date)
Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, Edward Cook. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (Harper Collins, 1996)