Many reasons are given to explain the custom of children stealing the Afikoman from the head of the Seder and hiding it from him.
One year, when the Chasam Sofer’s son Shimon was seven years old, he asked his father to explain the custom. To Shimon’s great surprise, his father ignored his question and continued with the Seder as if the question had not been asked. The boy understood not to ask again and moved on.
When the Seder ended at 4 a.m., the Chasam Sofer turned to his son. “You asked me a very good question,” he said. “At the Seder we do many things to remind us of what took place in Mitzrayim. The Torah recounts that on the evening of the first Pesach, as the Jews were removing belongings from the homes of the Mitzriyim, their dogs should have barked at the thievery that was going on in front of their eyes. But Hakadosh Boruch Hu made a miracle and not one dog barked. The custom to steal the Afikoman was instituted to remember that miracle which took place many years ago on this night, which Hashem conducted to allow the Jews to retrieve things from the Mitzri homes.”
The boy accepted the explanation, but asked his father a question. “I asked my question many hours ago, during yachatz. When did you think of the answer?”
“As you were asking,” the father answered.
“So then, dear father, why did you wait until the end of the Seder to tell me the answer?”
The Chasam Sofer answered, telling the boy who was to grow up to be the famed rov of Krakow that the night of Pesach is all about emunah. The explanation of emunah is to do what we have to whether or not we understand why we are to do that action. We do it because Hashem – and in this case our chachomim – told us to do it.
“Sometimes,” said the Chasam Sofer, “a person will say, ‘I don’t understand it, so I won’t do it.’ That is why I did not answer you. I wanted you to take the Afikoman even though you did not understand why you were taking it. Now you have seen that it is possible to do an action that you do not understand, and you have experienced another part of emunah that is fundamental to our existence as the Jewish people.”
The Gemara in Pesochim (120a) quotes Rava, who rules that the obligation to eat matzah the first evening of Pesach is a de’Oraisa, a Biblical obligation. The obligation to eat maror in our day is derabonon, rabbinic.
This is because there is a posuk – “ba’erev tochlu matzos” – which obligates the eating of matzah on the first evening of Pesach, but there is no posuk that obligates the separate eating of maror.
The reason we ate maror at Pesach Mitzrayim and in the time of the Bais Hamikdosh is because the posuk states, “Al matzos umerorim yochluhu,” that the Korban Pesach must be eaten together with matzah and maror. But there was no specific obligation to eat maror.
The Rambam writes in Sefer Hamitzvos (56) that there is a mitzvah to eat matzah and there is a mitzvah to eat Pesach, and maror is tangential to the Pesach and there is no mitzvah to eat it.
The Ramban (Shemos 12:8) writes similarly that the mitzvah was to eat the meat of the korban and matzah, and there was no mitzvah to eat maror.
We see that maror never played a leading role in the Seder, and even today, in our golus status, when we are obligated to eat a kezayis of the bitter vegetable, it is a requirement imposed on us by the rabbonon.
Why is that? Doesn’t the Seder commemorate our painful existence in Mitzrayim, as well as the miraculous redemption? Why do we minimize the aspect of the Seder that elicits the biggest purely physical emotion and play up the matzah, which, the posuk says, reminds us “ki bechipazon yatzasa mei’eretz Mitzrayim,” that Hashem removed us from the bitter life so quickly that the dough for the bread they were planning to bake for the trip was not able to rise?
Today, before we depart for a trip, we go shopping and buy everything we think we will need to keep us fed and nourished and keep the children occupied. Everything is much simpler these days. Then, if you wanted to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a trip, you had to procure wheat, grind it into flour, add the other ingredients, wait for it to rise, and bake it. As for the peanut butter and jelly, that was a whole different story, besides that peanuts weren’t around yet in that part of the world.
And even at the first Seder, which took place in Mitzrayim before the Jews left in haste and their bread didn’t rise, there was matzah because the korban and the matzah were the foundation upon which the seder was formed. Even back then, when the bitterness and pain were freshly seared in their memories, the maror was but a sideshow.
Maror, which symbolizes the bad times and the periods of suffering, doesn’t play a major role in the Seder, because we are to view those times as temporary and fleeting.
We begin the Haggadah by proclaiming, “Ha lachma anya,” on the matzah, which is referred to as “lechem oni,” because we recite the Haggadah over the matzah. This is because our permanent situation is to be geulim.
Rabbeinu Mano’ach (on the Rambam, Hilchos Chometz Umatzah 7:6) says that this is the reason why, after we recite and hold aloft the Pesach, matzah and maror, we proclaim, “Bechol dor vador, in every generation, a person has to view himself as if he has left Mitzrayim.” This is so that if a person will feel down when something unfortunate happens to him, he will trust that Hashem will help him in his time of need. And just as the tzaros of suffering in Mitzrayim were so intense that Hashem redeemed the Jews earlier than had been planned. Similarly, all the anguish we experience in our golus will serve as a justification for Hashem to quickly bring about the final redemption. The maror gave birth to the matzah.
Just the same, if a person endures suffering in their personal life, the lesson of Mitzrayim should bring them strength and emunah that the pain will soon end and they will go on to lead a happy and successful life. The maror will bring on the matzah.
Hashem did not bring us to this world to suffer. Rather, He created us to be kind to us and to allow us to enjoy the blessings of His beautiful world. We are reminded of this every time we perform a mitzvah, and also when we recite in Kiddush, “Zeicher l’Yetzias Mitzrayim.” Just as Hashem saved us from the evil Mitzriyim, so will He save us from those who torment us and cause us pain.
Thus, we also recite, “Vehi she’omdah la’avoseinu velonu.” It wasn’t only the Mitzriyim who sought our destruction, but for all time, in all ages, centuries and continents, the nations of the world plotted against us and sought to destroy us, and every time, we ultimately prevailed. We survive against all odds because Hashem assists us.
The people in Mitzrayim were so beaten, they weren’t able to accept Moshe Rabbeinu’s promise of salvation. Imagine being alive at that time, or at the time of the harugei Beitar, or during the Crusades, or when Polish or Lithuanian peasants came crashing through your town, killing every Jew they could. Imagine being in Chevron in 1929, or in Itamar only ten years ago. Or more recently, in Yerushalayim at a bus stop, or in a kosher supermarket in Paris, when a crazed Arab with a knife came looking for Jews to kill. Imagine the feelings of anguish and agony. Their whole world darkened and closed in on those Jews. While they were beaten physically, instead of being defeated, they remembered the message of the matzah and carried on with their mission to live Jewish lives. It wasn’t easy. With proper faith, they persevered, and that is why we are here today, celebrating Pesach.
We can’t even imagine what it was like to be in a concentration camp, or on a labor march, fingered for death by the evil Nazis and their killing machines. Just the thought of it can cause a person to collapse. Yet, because people who lived through that inferno retained their faith, upon their exit they were determined to rebuild what had been destroyed and give birth to a new generation that would replace the one that had been wiped out. They pushed aside the maror and embraced the matzah. And that is why we are here, flourishing as never before. For all we know, it was in the merit of the extreme suffering of the Holocaust generation that our people have reached unprecedented heights, in the amount of Torah studied, and in wealth. The maror gave birth to the matzah.
Similarly, Rabbeinu Yonah writes in Shaarei Teshuvah (2:5), “Ki yihiyeh hachoshech sibas ha’orah – Darkness is the cause of light.”
The following story took place on Erev Pesach in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The Bluzhever Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Spira, asked for and received permission to bake matzos in the camp.
After returning to the camp from their body-breaking labor the night before Pesach, the rebbe, along with a small group, assembled an “oven” and ground wheat kernels into flour. They mixed the flour with water and quickly kneaded the mixture, rolling out matzos to bake in their small oven. Flames danced atop the branches fueling the oven and the holy work of baking matzos for Pesach in Bergen-Belsen was underway.
Suddenly, the commandant burst into the room, shouting wildly and swinging at everyone. His eyes fixed on those of the rebbe, whom he beat within a hairsbreadth of life.
The next night, the people sat down to a “Seder” in the rebbe’s barracks. They had everything – well, almost everything. The rebbe knew the Haggadah by heart, and he was going to lead the Seder. For wine, they were going to drink the slop the Nazis called coffee. There was no shortage of maror, with bitterness everywhere. The rebbe let it be known that he was able to retrieve a very small piece of matzah from their failed attempt.
When it came time at the Seder to eat matzah, everyone assumed that the rebbe would be the one to perform the mitzvah and eat the small piece he had rescued.
After proclaiming “motzie matzah,” the rebbe looked around, as he tried to decide who was the most appropriate person to partake of the matzah. A widow stood up and said, “Since upon this night we engage in transmitting our traditions from one generation to the next, I propose that my young son be the one to eat the matzah.”
The rebbe agreed. “This night,” he said, “is all about teaching the future generations about Yetzias Mitzrayim. We will give the child the matzah.”
When freedom came to the camp, the widow approached the rebbe. She needed help. Someone had proposed a shidduch for her, but she had no way to find out about the man. Maybe, she said, the rebbe could help her. “Can you find out who he is? Can you see if he is appropriate for me and if I am appropriate for him?”
“What is his name?” asked the rebbe.
The woman responded, “Yisroel Spira.”
The rebbe said to her, “Yes, I know him well. It is a good idea that you should get to know him.”
She returned to the shadchan and gave her approval to set up the match. When the woman showed up at the right address, standing before her was none other than Rav Yisroel Spira, the man she knew as the Bluzhever Rebbe!
A short time later, they married, and the little boy who ate matzah in Bergen-Belsen became the rebbe’s son and eventual successor.
Which spiritual attributes did the rebbe see in that woman that led him to marry her? When asked, the rebbe answered that in the cauldron of Bergen-Belsen, where the horizon was measured in minutes and the future was a day at a time, a woman who believed in the nitzchiyus of Am Yisroel, that our people is eternal, and who worried for the future generation, was someone with whom it was worthy to perpetuate the golden chain.
It is thanks to people such as the rebbe and the widow and those with them at the Seder that night that we have survived as a people. They never forgot that the maror they were experiencing was temporary. They knew that as strong as they appeared to be, the Nazis would crumble and the Jewish people would endure. No amount of pain and torture could remove the taste of matzah and freedom from their souls and mouths.
Their maror gave birth to their matzah. Their darkness led to great light. Thankfully, our situation is not nearly as dire as theirs was. Historically speaking, our golus is one of the better ones. But we all have holes in our souls and tears in our hearts. We are all lacking and missing and don’t have all we need or want. Everyone has their own pekel of maror and darkness.
We pray that very soon, our maror will lead to matzah and the darkness will lead to the great light that will shine when Hashem finally sends us Moshiach to bring about the final redemption. Amein.