Stealing the Afikomen
It seems to me a very odd custom that children steal the afikomen at the Passover Seder. [Note: The afikomen is the portion of the middle matzah on the Seder plate which is saved to be eaten at the end of the meal. Many families have the custom that the children steal it, and only return it in exchange for a promise of gifts.] On a day which places so much emphasis on educating our children, why of all things are we training them to steal what is not theirs – only to be returned if we meet their demands for prizes?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
You are correct that the practice seems very peculiar. However, the basis for it appears in the Talmud itself (Pesachim 109a) – at least according to one explanation. The Talmud states, "We grab the matzot on the night of Passover, so that the children will not sleep." Various explanations are offered by the commentators as to the exact meaning of “grabbing” the matzot – such as that we lift them up to get the children’s attention or that we hurry to eat them before the children nod off.
Maimonides (Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:3), however, appears to take “grab” literally, writing that we grab the matzah from one another – again to pique the children’s curiosity. At some point in history this practice for some devolved into the children stealing it – although in my family our father OBM would hide it while we stepped out and we would then have to search for it.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig offered an interesting insight as to why such a curious custom took hold in Israel – especially since teaching our children to steal seems so antithetical to how we instruct them to behave the rest of the year. He observed that one aspect of slavery is that a slave owns no property. Typically, whatever a slave owns or acquires belongs to his master. Thus, perhaps taking the afikomen represents that as slaves, nothing we owned was truly ours. The slave of one master could take from his fellow slave with no consequences. This practice is thus another means of demonstrating to our children just what it felt like to be a slave.