If you no longer have young children at your Passover Seder, I have a suggestion for an alternative approach to the Afikomen tradition that brings in more of the Jewish sensibility of the ritual invitation to the Seder (Ha Lachma Anya) where all who are hungry are invited to eat. Put simply, make the Afikomen prize a gift card for food, provide one for every member of your Seder, and share with them the mitvah (responsibility) for giving that gift card to a hungry person
Our kids are now in their 20’s – no longer children, and yet not with kids of their own. While we still love our Passover Seders, it still can become awkward when it becomes time for the Afikomen ritual. As background, according to the Mishnah the afikoman substitutes for the Korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice, also known as the Paschal Lamb). What this means is that in the middle of the Seder, a half-piece of matzoh is identified as the Afikomen and set aside for the conclusion of the meal. Judaism can be very practical when it comes to family matters, and so Jewish practice keeps the children awake and excited for the end of the Seder by the tradition in which the kids steal the Afikomen from where it is hidden, and ransom it for a reward before the Seder can conclude.
This wasn’t working for me. I never felt completely comfortable theologically about the stealing and ransoming part (yes, I know, it’s a tradition), but also a $5 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble or Starbucks is both detached from the meaning of the Seder and also not that interesting to people in their early 20’s. So I discussed this with my family. It seemed to me a more important part of the Seder comes earlier, in the Ha Lachma Anya. This is a ritual invitation to the Seder, and it is significant in several ways. First, it is in Aramaic and not Hebrew, using the commonly spoken language at the time to emphasize the importance of making the Seder inclusive, and by Halakha (Jewish legal practice) this invitation must be repeated in the native language of the country. Additionally, the invitation is read by all members of the Seder – the exception to the Talmudic rule that only hosts have the right to invite guests. Instead, everyone participates. Finally, the words of the invitation also speak to empathy and inclusion:
quote: This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover. At present we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. At present we are slaves; next year may we be free.
I came up with the idea of gift cards for food donation, and it was my son who suggested Subway gift cards. He had worked with food banks and disadvantaged populations, and he rightly pointed out to me that in conducting the charitable obligation of tzedakah, it is important to think first of the need of the recipient. Subways have relatively healthy food (in the universe of fast food choices), but equally importantly, they are second only to McDonald’s in the marketplace, meaning that the odds of finding a Subway within walking distance are about as good as anywhere.
We started this tradition last year, and it has really worked well for me. I had extra gift cards, so I have kept use them with throughout the year (one in easy reach in my car, one in my wallet for when I am walking). When you have a tangible thing that you know you must give away, it changed how I felt – I was looking for someone to give to rather than waiting for someone to come to me. Other members from our Seder last year also found it meaningful. The one lesson learned is that it takes a while for Subway to ring up 40 gift cards worth $5 – don’t go at any time close to a lunch rush.
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