The Pesach Seder and the Lord’s Supper: Explorations on the Messianic Interpretation of the Afikoman

by Geert ter Horst

 

 

Afikoman Bag

Afikoman Bag

1. Introduction

 

A tradition that has developed in Messianic Judaism is to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at the Pesach Seder. This tradition is based on the interpretation that views Yeshua’s Last Supper as a Passover Seder meal. A more particular tradition that has developed in conjunction with this interpretation is to celebrate the Supper at the Tzafun part of the Seder, and to use the Afikoman matzah and the the cup of thanksgiving — i.e. the third cup of the Seder, over which Birkat HaMazon is recited — as the two elements of the Lord’s Supper.

 

In his Messianic Jewish Manifesto David Stern endorsed this way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper and the theological interpretation of the Afikoman on which it is based. Stern wrote: “If we use the found half of the Afikoman and the third cup of the Passover Seder for Communion, non-Messianic Jews may object; but we can defend ourselves on the ground that this is what the Messiah did. If we point out that the three matzot represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that the broken middle matzah represents Yeshua’s body, broken for us, we have theological grounds for what we do. In fact, there is good chance we have historical grounds; many scholars believe that these customs were started by Messianic Jews and invested with the meanings we have noted here, but somehow the customs were absorbed into non-Messianic Judaism and stripped of their Messianic significance” (pp. 171-172).[i] He adds a  valuable remark about modifications in ceremonial, or in the interpretation of ceremonial practices: “It would be wise for us to make such modifications only after much thought and prayer. For we are dealing with ceremonies weighted with intellectual, emotional and spiritual meaning. Ad hoc changes are likely to prove tasteless, offensive, theologically erroneous, or all three” (ibid.).

 

In his Glossary of Hebrew Words and Names at the end of his Manifesto Stern gives the following explanation of the term ‘Afikoman’: “the half of the middle matzah which is hidden at the beginning of the Seder and recovered at the end to be the final food eaten before after-dinner prayers. Messianic Jews regard it as symbolizing Yeshua the Messiah, who appeared two thousand years ago and will again appear in the acharit-hayamim but is hidden now” (p. 269).

 

In the March/April 1997 issue of First Fruits of Zion magazine another symbolic meaning is applied to the Afikoman. It is said to be “a picture of Yeshua both in his burial and resurrection”  The word ‘Afikoman’ is explained here as “He came” (p. 37).[ii]

 

Stern’s remark about ceremonial modifications cannot take away the fact that the interpretation he gives of the Afikoman ceremony of the Pesach Seder is to all probability historically incorrect and theologically erroneous. Historically it is very dubious whether there existed a proceding order of the Seder as we know it in Yeshua’s time. Prior to the time of the Mishnah there may not have been a fixed liturgy for the Seder night. There were of course the Korban Pesach, the matzah, the maror and the telling of the story of the Exodus. Pre-Mishnaic sources such as Philo and Josephus mention these elements, but they don’t mention a specific liturgical structure of the Seder. Because of this lack of early sources it may well be that in second Temple times the mitzvot of Passover night were performed in a free style manner, and did not follow a strict liturgical format.

 

It is even more dubious whether an Afikoman ceremony as we now have it was part of the Pesach Seder in second Temple times. As Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin points out in his famous work, The Festivals in Halachah: “The original and essential mention of Afikoman is in a negative sense. The Mishnah tells us, “After [the eating of] the Pesach sacrifice, one may not add an Afikoman”. That is to say, the feast of Pesach night may not be concluded with a dessert, or Afikoman, since it is forbidden to eat anything after the meat of the Pesach sacrifice. In our time when there is no Pesach sacrifice, it is a matter of disagreement among the Amoraim whether or not one may “add an Afikoman” after the matzah. The Halachah is that one may not; one finishes the feast with a kazayis of matzah, after which one may not eat at all. This final kazayis is considered either a reminder of the matzah that was eaten with the Pesach sacrifice, or a reminder of the sacrifice itself, which had to be eaten on a full stomach, i.e. at the end of the meal. In the course of time, the term Afikoman came to be applied to this final piece of matzah itself, the reason being, according to Beis Yosef, that after it no Afikoman may be added” (820-821).[iii]

 

If the Afikoman of the Seder as we now have it is a reminder of the Pesach sacrifice, or of the matzah that was eaten with it, then obviously there was no need for an Afikoman in those times when the Temple was standing — except perhaps in diaspora situations — which could mean that there was no Afikoman ceremony in Yeshua’s times, and that Yeshua did not use it to institute his Supper. Against this it can be argued that Yeshua may have used the matzah that was eaten with the korban Pesach to institute his Supper. For our days this would imply that the returned Afikoman — which reappears at the end of the Shulchan Aruch of the Seder — should be used to symbolize Yeshua’s body in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper would thus find its proper place in the Tzafun part of the Seder.

 

In the following I’ll try to explore some difficulties inherent in this opinion. In these explorations I’ll assume pro tempore and for the sake of the argument that Yeshua’s Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Although this can be heavily doubted, and doesn’t reflect my own position, for the investigation at hand this has to be our working assumption.

 

 

2. Problems of the Common Practice

 

If one chooses to celebrate the Tzafun part of the Seder as the Lord’s Supper, as is common among Messianics, then the first problem we face is that haMotzi doesn’t occur at that moment, but long before, at the beginning of the Seder meal (after the Maggid). In all accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the NT, however, the words of the institution are said in close conjunction with the haMotzi blessing, and cannot easily be separated from it. It seems that Yeshua took bread at the beginning of the meal and said the blessing haMotzi over it, and added the words: “This is my body being given for you” (Lk. 22:19). Luke gives a more detailed account of the procedure followed at the Supper than the other Synoptics. He mentions a first cup (probably a kiddush) in 22:17-18. Then follows what seems to be haMotzi (in 22:19): “And taking a loaf, giving thanks, he broke, and gave to them, saying, This is my body being given for you. Do this for my remembrance”. Thus it seems that Yeshua did not take the Afikoman matzah to institute the Supper but instead the loaf of bread used at the beginning of the meal, over which haMotzi is recited.

 

The second problem is that the returned Afikoman is only a part of a matzah, which therefore seems unfit to symbolize the unity of the Body of Messiah signified by the fact that a whole loaf or matzah is taken to say the blessing haMotzi and the words of the institution over it. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:16-17): “The bread which we break, is it not a partaking of the body of Messiah? Because we, the many, are one bread, one body, for we all partake of the one bread”.

 

And there is a third problem: If the Afikoman is used for the Lord’s Supper then the Seder meal itself (the Shulchan Aruch part) is no longer in between serving the bread of the Lord’s Supper and serving the cup of thanksgiving. For the cup of thanksgiving (the third cup of the Seder) follows immediately after Tzafun. Both the serving of the bread and the serving of the cup are now placed after the meal, whereas in the accounts of Luke and Paul only the cup is after the meal, and the bread is before it. Luke 22:20 has: “In the same way the cup also, after having supped, saying…”. 1 Cor 11:25 has: “In the same way the cup also, after supping, saying…”.

 

One can try to solve these problems by having the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper switched to the beginning of the Seder meal, at haMotzi-Matzah. In that case there is a whole matzah over which haMotzi and the words of Yeshua (“Take, eat this is my body…”) can be recited. And also the Seder meal is now in between the serving of the matzah signifying Yeshua’s body and the serving of the cup of thanksgiving signifying Yeshua’s blood, in accordance with the order reported above by Luke and Paul.

 

It may be asked, however, whether this solution doesn’t have the disadvantage that the Afikoman ceremony — which uniquely refers to the korban Pesach and to its fulfilment in Yeshua — now loses its typical relevance for the Lord’s Supper. The whole Seder is now a celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the Supper is no longer reserved for the Tzafun part. Does the Afikoman not lose its function by shifting the institutional words of the Lord’s Supper to the haMotzi-Matzah part of the Seder?

 

In a sense the proposed solution is logical, for the Afikoman stands for the absent korban Pesach — or for the matzah accompanying it — and is only a substitute reminder of it. That doesn’t take away the fact that the korban Pesach obviously refers to Yeshua and his sacrifice, but it was not the korban Pesach over which Yeshua’s words: “This is my body …” were spoken. The ceremony of the Afikoman seems to symbolize the Pesach lamb which once was, in Temple times, and will be, in future Temple times, but now is absent. In a Messianic context this symbolism can be applied to Yeshua, who once was here and was the true korban Pesach, and in the future will appear again, in the Messianic Kingdom, but in the meantime is absent. It may even be that the symbolism of the Afikoman can also refer to the death and resurrection of Messiah, although the resurrection normally is not to be celebrated at the Seder — which in liturgical time occurs between the death and the resurrection of Messiah — but at its own proper liturgical time, which is the first day of the Omer.[iv] (However, the resurrection can be silently hinted at, in a anticipatory manner, by means of the Afikoman ceremony.) All elements of the Seder point to Yeshua and his sacrifice in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean that they all have an institutional relation to the Lord’s Supper. As being said, the existence of an Afikoman ceremony in Yeshua’s days may be doubted.

 

Now, if one chooses to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in conjunction with the Pesach Seder, perhaps the best way to to so is to have haMotzi in conjunction with the words of the institution of the Supper, and so have the Seder meal in between the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper. In this way the Lord’s Supper is a real meal. If one chooses for the other option, then the Supper is somewhat dissociated from the meal, because the words of the institution are now separated from haMotzi.

 

 

3. An Additional Problem

 

A specific demand that presents itself in celebrating the Lord’s Supper at the Passover Seder is that one should take care to invite only believers to the Seder. Paul warns us that partaking of the Lord’s Supper requires self examination (1 Cor. 11:26-29): “For as often as you may eat this bread, and drink this cup, you solemnly proclaim the death of the Lord, until he shall come. So that whoever should eat this bread, or drink the cup of the Lord, unworthily, that one will be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and let him drink of the cup; for the one eating and drinking unworthily eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord”.

 

These words of Paul may in fact plead for a distinction between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover Seder. Unbelievers in Messiah (e.g. orthodox Jewish family members) and children, and all those who are unable to “discern the body of the Lord”, are by these words apparently excluded from the Supper, while at the same time it is clear that they are not excluded from the Seder. The only Scriptural exclusion the Seder knows about is the exclusion of the non-circumcised stranger (ger) from eating the korban Pesach, as was recently pointed out in a paper by Daniel Lancaster. Paul’s words, and his account of the institution of the Supper, also seem to imply that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is exclusively a congregational matter. This is not the case with the Seder, which is primarily a family affair.

 

 

4. Messianic Afikoman Speculation Refuted

 

It has to be said here that a lot of mystification regarding the Pesach Seder and the  Afikoman has occurred in Messianic circles. Under the influence of biblical scholars such as Robert Eisler and David Daube many Messianics have accepted a speculative derivation of the word ‘Afikoman’ from ‘afikomenos’, the aorist of the Greek verb ‘afikomenai’, ‘to come’. Thus the ‘Afikoman’ in ancient times would be a reference to the yet to come Messiah, and mean: ‘the coming one’. And this thought was then connected with an even more speculative Trinitarian idea about the reason for the traditional number of three matzot used at the Seder. The middle matzah, from which the Afikoman is taken, was viewed as a representation of Yeshua and the other two matzot consequently were related to the Father and the Holy Spirit as Yeshua’s co-members in the Trinity.

 

Such ideas are pure speculations, without any real theological or historical basis. Even apart from the fact that the Scriptures don’t know a doctrine of the Trinity, there is an easy halachic explanation why there are, traditionally, exact three matzot, and not one or two, in the Passover Matzah Tasch. In Tractate Pesachim 116a of the Babylonian Talmud we find that the matzah referred to as the bread of poverty (lechem oni) in Dt. 16:3 should be broken because it fits a poor person to eat only pieces of bread, not a whole bread. According to the Tosafot, however, the requirement for two whole loaves on Shabbat and Yom Tov (lechem mishneh) is not diminished because of the broken matzah of lechem oni. That is the reason behind the traditional requirement of three matzot at the Seder. Two are designated as lechem mishneh, and one as lechem oni.

 

This conclusion was not followed by all, and there were some who followed a different practice, and this difference in practice still exists today. Rambam judged that only two matzot are required, and the Vilna Gaon followed his opinion. There is a real halachic conflict here because the Vilna Gaon not only followed the opinion of the Rambam in deviation from the custom adopted by the majority of the people, but he disqualified the traditional practice of using three matzot. The Gaon argued that this traditional practice undermines the lechem oni requirement of Pesachim 116a. By having two whole matzot, and a broken matzah, the set of lechem mishneh of the Seder night becomes superior to the lechem mishneh of all the other Yamim Tovim, whereas the purpose of the requirement of lechem oni is to have an inferior set of lechem mishneh.[v]

 

Here we have before us a consistent halachic explanation for the traditional practice of having three matzot. This practice is not related to Trinitarian theology in whatever manner. Such a relation would lead us to assume that the minority practice of those following the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon is related to Binitarianism, which is simply ridiculous. If the number of divine Persons were to be symbolized by the number of matzot used at the Seder, we could only have one matzah in the Tasch which never was to be broken!

 

In a similar manner the ‘afikomenai’ explanation of the word ‘Afikoman’ is mistaken. If one tests this explanation by substituting ‘the coming one’ for ‘Afikoman’ in the traditional text of the Haggadah recited over the Afikoman, “eyn maftirin achar haPesach afikoman”, one easily sees that this doesn’t make sense. The text clearly wants to say that one may not have an Afikoman, i.e. a dessert or other post-meal delicacies (and activities), after the consumption of the korban Pesach. Thereby it is indicated that ‘Afikoman’ is not derived from ‘afikomenai’ but from ‘epi komios’, ‘for a dessert’. This derivation also explains why the Hebrew text is missing a preposition here, for it says literally: “One does not send off [the guests] at the end of the Passover meal afikoman”. The missing preposition is in the ‘epi’ of ‘epi komios’. And thus the text should be read as: “One does not send off [the guests] at the end of the Passover meal for (or ‘to’) a dessert”.[vi]

 

Notice that this doesn’t deny that the Afikoman in a specific manner refers to Yeshua. But this reference, which from a NT perspective is clear, should not be based on a mistaken derivation of the word ‘Afikoman’. It should instead be sought in the inherent symbolism of the Afikoman matzah. If this matzah symbolizes the korban Pesach, and if the korban Pesach symbolizes the crucified Yeshua, then obviously the Afikoman matzah too symbolizes our crucified Master.

 

 

5. A New Argument for the Common Practice

 

Because of the strong Messianic symbolism inherent in the Afikoman ceremony one could, at this point of our explorations, see in this symbolism a new argument for the option to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at a distinct part of the Seder, at Tzafun. An interesting spiritual or symbolic argument presents itself in favour of this option because of a halachic problem contained in Tzafun itself.

 

In the order of the Seder the Afikoman is separated and hidden right at the beginning of the Seder, and thus long before haMotzi. This legitimately raises the question whether the blessing haMotzi, which is said later on, also applies to the Afikoman. To my knowledge there is no (other) halachic example of saying haMotzi over hidden bread. In all normal cases haMotzi is said over bread that is visible and actually on the table. This is even more clear from the halachah of the Kiddush ceremony. The Kiddush over wine at the beginning of a meal can only be said if the bread is covered. For if it were not covered, the bread would have the prerogative of being first in having the required blessing said over it. It must be hidden — so that in a sense it is absent — to delegate that prerogative to the cup, which occurs in solemn and festive meals. This seems to imply that if there is still some bread hidden while haMotzi is being said, this hidden bread is not part of the meal because the haMotzi blessing didn’t apply to it. Yet this rule is not followed in case of the Afikoman of the Seder, for according to the Haggadah the haMotzi blessing is not repeated when the Afikoman is eaten.

 

The halachic solution of this problem is that it is declared that the eating of the Afikoman was indeed implied by the earlier haMotzi blessing because the intention to eat it is an inherent part of the Seder, and may be presupposed. It is an uncostested halachic rule that bread may never be eaten without a blessing. Therefore one must assume that the Afikoman, although it was not on the table at haMotzi-Matzah, was “covered” by the blessings recited at that point of the Seder.

 

The absence of the necessity to repeat haMotzi at Tzafun may have still another reason, a spiritual or symbolic reason relevant for a Messianic interpretation. It may be that haMotzi is not recited in order to accentuate the symbolic fact that the Afikoman “is” not bread, but “stands for” the korban Pesach. Therefore the attention should not be drawn to what the Afikoman is (bread), but to what it represents. In this way the Afikoman shows a resemblance of the function assigned to the bread of the Lord’s Supper. For in the Supper the bread “is” not bread, but “stands for” the Lord Yeshua’s body. If these considerations make sense then the Afikoman ceremony shows the first traces of the later development of the Lord’s Supper becoming a distinct “Sacrament”. It certainly goes too far to call the Afikoman ceremony a Jewish transsubstantiation, but yet there are conspicuous resemblances in it of the “Holy Communion Service” of later Church history; for instance the requirement that the Afikoman should be eaten uninterruptedly and silently, in a pious and reverent manner.

 

One should realize that the option to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a distinct part of the Seder, at Tzafun, subtly implies that the Supper may eventually be completely severed from a meal and be held as a ceremony on its own. For by being separated from haMotzi and the Seder meal the real ties that connect the symbols of the Supper, bread and wine, to a meal in between, are already enfeebled. This separation needn’t to be wrong. It could be just a legitimate practical development in celebrating the Supper. My point is that one should be aware of the implications and consequences of one’s preferred option of celebration.

 

If one prefers to celebrate the Supper at Tzafun, one should not recite a new haMotzi blessing over the Afikoman. For, as I said above, the Afikoman is already “covered” by the blessings recited at haMotzi-Matzah. The only thing required of the returned Afikoman according to this option is to have the words of the institution (“This is my body…&c”) recited over it. If one prefers to celebrate the entire Seder meal as the Lord’s Supper one has to recite the institutional words earlier, at haMotzi Matzah.

 

 

6. Comparison of the Two Options and Conclusion

 

By comparing the two options hitherto considered we see that they are not completely equivalent. The haMotzi-Matzah option is the more comprehensive of the two and seems to be more in line with the procedure followed by our Master at his Last Supper than the Tzafun option accepted by so many Messianics. Duly considered, the haMotzi-Matzah option doesn’t exclude the unique function of the Tzafun part of the Seder. For one of the consequences of the fact that the Afikoman is comprehended in the haMotzi blessing of haMotzi-Matzah is that it is also comprehended in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, if these words are said at haMotzi-Matzah. In other words, if the words of the institution are said at haMotzi-Matzah, then every piece of matzah eaten at the Seder, including the Afikoman, is designated as Yeshua’s body, and in this case the whole Seder is a celebration of Lord’s Supper. The specific function of the Afikoman in this case is still to accentuate Yeshua’s role as the fulfilment and final purpose of the korban Pesach.

 

The Tzafun option is the more exclusive one, and, as already noticed, this option separates to a high degree the Seder from the Supper. In this case the Supper is only a small — and particularly sacred — part of the Seder. This may lead some to think that this option is the better one because by partly separating the Supper from the Seder itself the Supper seems to be better “protected”, in a way, against eating it an unworthy manner.

 

Yet it must be acknowledged that both options have the serious disadvantage of excluding Jewish family members who don’t believe in Yeshua from the family Seder. And since the Seder is primarily a family celebration — in contradistinction to the Lord’s Supper, which is a congregational “for believers only” celebration — the best solution seems to be to regard the Seder and the Supper as two distinct observances, not to be mingled together. This solution is supported by the considerable evidence from the Synoptic Gospels that Yeshua’s Last Supper was not a Passover Seder but a meal that preceded the Seder and was held at the night of Nisan 14, not at the Seder night, Nisan 15.[vii]

 

My conclusion thus far is that the identification of the Passover Seder with the Lord’s Supper is not without problems. It is not so easy as it seems at first to find an appropriate place for the Lord’s Supper within the sequence of the Seder. There is a theological problem involved: The Supper is only for believers, while the Seder is for all Israel. From a Scriptural viewpoint the eating of the korban Pesach, or the matzah that accompanies it, is primarily bound to halachic rules and restrictions, while the eating of the Lord’s Supper is primarily bound to a restriction of faith, since it requires explicit faith in Messiah Yeshua. There is also a historical problem involved: The Pesach Seder in Yeshua’s time had not developed to the more or less final form it now has. Seders in Yeshua’s times probably didn’t have an Afikoman ceremony. Yet the later historical development of such a ceremony, after the destruction of the Temple, raises strong Messianic associations and overtones for believers in Yeshua. This state of affair should remind us Messianics of the importance of developing 1) a consistent halachah for our liturgical practices and, 2) a consistent theology of interpreting them.

 


[i] David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, Jewish New Testament Publications — Jerusalem (Israel) · Clarksville, Maryland (USA) 1991 (1988).

[ii] First Fruits of Zion March/April 1997

[iii] R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, The Festivals in Halachah, Mesorah Publications Ltd (New York) in conjunction with Hillel Press (Jerusalem) — Brooklyn 1999 (1981)

[iv] There is one obvious exception. When the 14th of Nisan happens to fall on a weekly Shabbat the first Yom Tov of Pesach and the first day of the Omer coincide.

[v] Cf. R. Josh Flug, “The Mitzvah of Achillat Matzah” In: Weekly Halachic Overview at: http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/The%20Mitzvah%20of%20Achilat%20Matzah.pdf

[vi] Philologos, “Some Belated Thoughts About Afikoman” In: The Jewish Daily Forward: Online home of the weekly Forward newspaper, May 19, 2006, at: http://www.forward.com/articles/1363/

[vii] We’ll study this evidence in another article.

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2 Responses to “The Pesach Seder and the Lord’s Supper: Explorations on the Messianic Interpretation of the Afikoman”


  1. 1 William April 20, 2016 at 10:10 am

    For footnote vii I would like to read this article. Has it been written? As I understand it, the gospel of John seems very clear that Jesus was the Passover lamb that was crucified on the Day of Preparation between 3-6 pm the day prior to the Passover Meal (which was that night according to Jewish accounting of the beginning and ending of a day). The synoptics, on the other hand, seem to show that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his diciples immediately before he was crucified.

    • 2 Messianic613 April 21, 2016 at 12:40 pm

      As you perhaps know, this is a matter of ongoing discussion among even the most renowned scholars. The technical details that are in play can be mind boggling. But I have written a short paper on the liturgical aspects of this question, because in my opinion these aspects are oftentimes not duly considered. You’ll find it here: A Simple Liturgical Reason Why the Last Supper Probably Wasn’t a Passover Seder. And there is an interesting paper by Brian Huie: Was the “Last Supper” the Passover Meal?. Several scholars, in particular Chwolson, have pointed out that the phrase “On the first day of the Unleavened” in the Synoptics must be considered as a mistranslation and that the Greek dative used there should perhaps be interpreted as a dativus causae, so that the phrase should be rendered as: “Because of the first day of the Unleavened”. For, technically and in Torah terminology, the first day of the Unleavened is the 15th of Nisan, which would be far too late to prepare for the Passover. But even if one concedes that it may refer to the 14th of Nisan, it would indicate an extremely short time of preparation, since the Passover lamb was to be slaughtered the same day in the afternoon.


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