As stated in the last entry, three pieces of matzah are brought to the feast table and handed to the father of the household. They are wrapped in perfect, snow-white linen. Some claim that these are for the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), but the most popular explanation is that they were named after the three tribes of Israel as it was divided after the Babylonian exile: Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. The comparison between these tribes to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is remarkable. We will explain briefly how that is, so readers can understand how intense the relationship is between Christ and the afikomen custom.
Moses’ brother Aaron was chosen to be the high priest, so his descendants were the Kohenim (priests), and it was from this bloodline the Kohen tribe continued to serve at the highest level in the temple. The Kohen Gadol (“high priest”) was the most holy and pious man in all of Israel subject to the strictest laws of purity. He wore the eight temple garments, one of which was the hoshen (priestly breastplate). On the outside of the hoshen was twelve stones, each inscribed with the name of one of the original tribes of Israel. On the inside, behind the stones, was the Urim VeTumim, meaning “light and truth,” a piece of parchment paper with the ineffable Holy Name of God (the Tetragrammaton—“YHWH”) written upon it.
If one were to consider the three matzahs with the Trinity in mind, the Kohen has a “Father” feel to it—like One who is the spiritual leader over all His people whose names are written on His heart, who embodies and upholds the essence of all that the holy temple stands for like the ultimate Kohen Gadol, who literally bears the ineffable Holy Name Yahweh upon His chest. Tuck that in the back of your mind for a minute as we move on to the second matzah, the Levi.
When Moses wasn’t as quick as the Israelites wanted him to be in coming down from Mt. Sinai, the golden calf debacle occurred, and the Levites refused to be any part of it. For this, they were “set apart to the Lord” and “blessed” in an exclusive position of intimacy with the Father (Exodus 32:26–29). The Levites were priests of the temple, journeyed as teachers (rabbis) of the Torah (their unique travel harmonizes with the fact that they were never given land to cultivate like the other tribes), and they were known for being the greatest servants to the rest of their people. Literature compiled by scholars, historians, and Jewish sages acknowledge the Levites to have been supremely devoted to God, collectively representing “a universal ideal for people of pure faith, ready to abandon the world and cultivate a life of inner tranquility and supreme wisdom.”[i]
Aaron was a Levite, and therefore all Kohenim are Levites, but not all Levites are Kohenim: “Leviim are believed to be the direct patrilineal descendants of Levi, while Kohanim are Leviim who descend directly, through their fathers, from Aaron.”[ii] This is why, though the two are “one” in a way, Levites are considered a separate category of tribe than the Kohenim. Compare: Jesus is God, just as the Father is God, but the Father is not Jesus and Jesus is not the Father. Jesus is a “descendant” of the Father, though the two are “one.”
The comparison of Jesus, the Son of God and second-listed member of the Trinity, to the Levi matzah is fairly obvious: Just like the Levites and the golden calf, when tempted, Jesus refused to worship anyone or anything besides the Father (Matthew 4:10). He was more devoted to and intimate with the Father than any entity in the history of the eternal cosmos (John 17), as He and the Father are “one” (John 10:30). Scripture repeatedly outlines Him as a priest and High Priest (references are rife throughout the entire book of Hebrews). Nobody would question whether He was the absolute Rabbi (or Rabboni), as He was commonly called as He traveled about and journeyed to minister and teach; John 3:2, one of many examples, candidly refers to Jesus as “a teacher come from God.” Like the Levites, He both taught and demonstrated servanthood to those around Him as one of the highest priorities (John 13:4–17, Mark 10:45). And of course, He stands as the “universal ideal for people of pure faith.”
This leaves the third matzah, the Yisrael. Anyone of Israel who was not a Levi or Kohen, and who therefore did not work in the temple, was considered Yisrael—the “congregation” as it is sometimes called. In other words, Yisrael represented all the tribes together, undivided, without favoritism: 100 percent equal in importance to and “one with” Kohenim and Leviim, but highly versatile and flexible in service to and for God.
Similarly, the Body of Christ operates with many “parts”: different people from different “tribes” all over the world working together for the universal Church, impartial to backgrounds, racial divides, social statuses, and so on. Versatility and flexibility in service to God is vital. How is this accomplished? Through the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the giver of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8–10, Romans 12:6–8). He inspires personal service to God in many ways and to any believer. With the Holy Spirit, the “division of tribes” (to speak in equivalent terms) is irrelevant, as we are all one congregation called the Body of Christ. By itself, this would be enough to satisfy a reasonable comparison of the Holy Spirit as the One whom the Yisrael matzah represents, but there is more to it than merely this. The timing surrounding the Resurrection, Ascension, and Day of Pentecost also plays an unusual role in the afikomen custom. The Holy Spirit’s role as the Yisrael matzah continues on through that.
The next few details are really unbelievable.
The “Promise of the Father” Prize
So, once the Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael matzah pieces are brought to the table in white linen, the father of the household takes hold of only the middle (Jesus/Levi) piece, blesses it, and then breaks it in half. The smaller half is placed back in the middle of the two other matzah pieces, while the larger half, now called the afikomen, is placed in a separate white linen wrapping and hidden somewhere dark in the house.
Remember: Jesus’ body was broken, placed in its own white burial linen (Mark 15:46, John 20:5), and hidden away in a dark tomb.
After the meal, the children go in search of the afikomen. Once it is found, it is customary that the child only gives the matzah piece back to his or her father in exchange for a prize. The refusal to surrender the afikomen until a prize has been agreed upon is called a “ransom”; the prize is called—and we quote—“The Promise of the Father.”
Remember: Through the sacrifice of the sinless, “unleavened” Savior’s broken body (and the “precious blood”; 1 Peter 1:18–19), He paid a “ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). Actually, He paid a “ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). Actually, He paid a ransom for people from “every tribe” (Revelation 5:9). The entire Bible points toward, and shows fulfilment of, Jesus Christ as the Promised Messiah, sent from the Father. Jesus literally is “The Promise of the Father” whose afikomen body “ransomed” us all.
Now, the father of the household takes the afikomen and breaks it into as many pieces as there are people gathered, and each partakes of the piece in remembrance of the paschal lamb whose blood was shed to cover their sins.
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Remember: Jesus instructed us to break bread together and partake in remembrance of Him, the Lamb whose blood was shed to remove our sins.
Some orthodox Jewish scholars have tried throughout the years to explain how all this correlation is mere coincidence. They attempt, from every angle, to point out ways that the afikomen does not resemble the Messiah, but despite their greatest efforts, people continue to, understandably, think the similarities are too great to ignore. One of the most frequent arguments is that the paschal lamb and unleavened bread are literally to be eaten, and the Messiah was/is obviously not. But, the fact that Jesus personally symbolized Himself as the unleavened bread and wine, using the very words “eat” and “drink” in reference to His body, cancels that case and even argues for greater attention toward the afikomen as a representative of the Messiah. Nevertheless, what comes next takes it to yet another level…
Exactly forty days from the child’s afikomen ransom-exchange, the father of the child gives the gift agreed upon. An additional ten days later (fifty days total from Passover), the Feast of Pentecost (or “Weeks”; Hebrew Shavuot) is observed. The Feast of Pentecost/Weeks is, in part, a celebration of the day the Israelites were given the all-guiding Torah from the Father, “when God made Israel one people in the Law.”[iii] (More on this later.)
Remember: Exactly forty days from the Resurrection, Jesus gives the apostles another gift, telling them, word-for-word, to “wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). An additional ten days later (fifty days total from the Resurrection), the Day of Pentecost (Greek word for “fiftieth”) occurred. The Day of Pentecost was the day the early Church was given the all-guiding Holy Spirit from the Father, when God made the Church one people in equal efficiency toward the Gospel’s Great Commission (Acts 2). (And thus, the third Matzah, Yisrael, the Holy Spirit, comes round about through the delivery of the promise of the Father!)
Once the Communion-style partaking of the final matzah is over, nobody eats or drinks anything else; the Passover meal is finished. As Jesus hung His head on the cross, He acknowledged specifically that the redemptive work of His sinless, broken, “unleavened,” afikomen body was “finished” (John 19:30). Yet “finished” here doesn’t just mean something is over; it is from the Greek tetelestai, which translates “paid in full.”
The Jews awaited and looked for their Messiah, just like their children today await and search for the afikomen. Jesus was, is, and always will be the Promised Messiah, whose body was broken for us and hidden away, but whose Resurrection revealed Him once again. Jesus is therefore the sovereign Afikomen: broken, hidden, and revealed.
It’s absolutely beautiful.
Through Jesus, the blood redemption transaction is paid for. The afikomen, for those who believe in Christ, can no longer mean “that which comes later,” for the Messiah has already come, paid the price for our sin, risen from the dead, and ascended to heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus Christ is our “rediscovered Afikomen.” Now you can see why we felt we had no choice but to address the meaning of this rare word after we showed the symbolism between it and Jesus.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the etymology of this term was as easy as seeing Jesus assign it new meaning. As is usually the case with etymological pursuits, a good dig for origins will reveal unexpected gems.
Let’s now turn to, shall we say, “the rest of the story.”
The word afikomen (alternatively afikomen , as Yehuda Shurpin spelled it in his article) has a most difficult origin to trace. We spent days rummaging around the gnarling thorns of misinformation and folk etymology on this particular word before we were able to piece it all together. But without forcing readers to go on that tedious journey as well, we’ll simplify: Nobody knows for sure where it came from.
Jewish tradition expert Dr. Ronald L Eisenberg acknowledges as much in his book, The JPS [Jewish Publication Society of America] Guide to Jewish Traditions, when he says that the “precise meaning is unclear,”[iv] and it was refreshing to read that rare and transparent report. We (especially Donna Howell) found it to be problematic that many writers on the subject made unsubstantiated claims that afikomen meant any number of the following: “dessert,” “food eaten for pleasure,” “revelry,” “evening entertainment,” “festival song,” “after-meal tradition,” and so on, most concepts contextually relating to a food or activity that consummates a ceremony. In sources written by authors wanting to lift up the Name of Christ, it appeared over and over that the meaning was something like “One Who Came” or “I Have Come,” even flatly “Messiah,” and it was stated as a fact, glorified like a miracle. But as much as we might be tempted to pick our favorite definition and take off with it in a study like this, going from “dessert” to “Messiah” without proof or background is journalistically irresponsible (and makes the same mistake as these other sources).
There’s also the issue that many don’t agree on whether the word was Greek first, and then Hebrew, or Hebrew first, and then Greek…and others even claim it was originally Aramaic. (Scholars generally attribute it to a Greek-first origin.) Because the word is so rare in antiquity—leaving hardly a trace of itself prior to the Mishnah—honest scholars will admit that we cannot be sure what culture or people uttered the sound first and what it meant to them. What we can do is look at the closest traceable word derivatives, compare those to contextual uses in literature as far back as we can, and watch as the picture clears a bit.
It appears most likely that afikomen is an early transliteration of the Greek epikomen or epikomion (later transliterated into afikomenos), which generically means “that which comes after.” This is why, when translated from an ancient sentence, it can mean things like “dessert” or “evening entertainment,” etc., because these festive, special-occasion activities come after something else, like a meal or a long day of work. Obviously, “that which comes after” could also easily relate to a Messianic translation of “the One who comes later” or something equivalent.
Breaking this word down further, we arrive at: the Greek epi, meaning “after,” “over,” or “later”; komos, which is a pre-Greek verb (Sanskrit or Proto-Indo-European, some believe), likely meaning “announce,” “proclaim,” or “declare”; and finally, ios, which is the Greek suffix simply meaning “pertaining to.” It’s not a stretch to see how afikomen could be interpreted to mean a special “after-dinner dessert” indulgence, so long as it could also “pertain to” an “announcement” or “proclamation” (such as the news that the hidden afikomen had been found). And considering that the afikomen is the last thing eaten at the Passover meal, the stretch between “dessert” and “unleavened bread” may be allowable in the interest of “after-the-meal” symbolism.
For the Jews, “dessert” eventually became the only definition of afikomen. This would explain why their own “waiting for the Messiah” tradition became harder to trace back to a point of origin predating that of Rabbi Eliezer’s “keep the kids awake” Talmud instruction. Among common households, what could have been an ancient ceremony looking forward to the Messiah could have been lost and replaced with just another thing to eat. Several scholarly sources have considered this as well. Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s heavily sought-after German work, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (“Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash”), agrees with this conclusion, stating that the eventual “dessert” definition was “erroneous,” yet unwavering: “The meaning of the word afikoman was forgotten early on. Already the Tosephta [earlier Jewish Law compilation than the Mishnah or Talmud] understands the word as ‘the dessert.’ This erroneous explanation then held its sway throughout the entire period of Jewish antiquity.”[v]
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We can prove that the rare word stretches back to before the time of Christ, and its meaning gets fuzzier the farther back we travel. We likewise know that it was misinterpreted for a long time to mean an after-dinner treat, when the first word meant something much closer to “a proclamation that occurs sometime in the future [or “after”; “later”; etc.].” But for our purposes of showing Christ’s fulfillment of the whole unleavened bread picture, we need to look at two things: 1) whether “the search for the afikomen” was a Passover observance established well before the time of Christ; and, therefore, 2) whether at, or at least around, the time of Christ, there had been a cultural shift in its interpretation: an explanation behind why, today, Jewish sources say “dessert” and Christian sources say “One Who Came”—both claiming it as fact and neither alluding to the other.
Thanks to a written work by David Daube, we have a lead. The Greek afikomenos appears in the second-century writing Peri Pascha by Bishop Melito of Sardis! And, as this ancient text attests, by the second century, the context of the term most certainly did refer to Jesus Christ as “The Coming One,” “He that has come,” or more directly, “the messiah who has come.”[vi] Daube’s collective work on this subject clarifies that this reference by Bishop Melito refers to “an awaited redeemer who, symbolically united with his people, makes them whole as they contemplate their past, and future, redemption.”[vii]
This fact raises the common-sense question: If the Jews had not been practicing a Messianic element at the Passover feast related to afikomen this whole time—in other words, if, at the time of Christ, the term only meant dessert to the Jews and there was no prior “Messiah” meaning behind the name of their feast custom—then why would Christians like Bishop Melito use that word to describe their Messiah? Why would they name their Savior after the Jewish word for “dessert”?
More blatant than that, however: If the Jews merely set out to instruct parents how to keep little ones awake, why would their ritual look so much like Jesus, both in His redemptive acts as well as the Communion He instructed His disciples to do often in remembrance of Him?
None of this makes sense…unless the Jews held the custom first, and then the Christians continued it while simultaneously establishing Christ as the fulfillment of their antiquated ritual. The Jews’ reaction to that, however, may not have been too agreeable. The Talmud writing by Rabbi Eliezer that came hundreds of years after the Sardis document might have actually been attempting to dumb it down or revive the casual treatment of this word.
Scholars behind the Sheffield Academics’ “Biblical Seminar” series involving one title, New Testament Backgrounds, also subscribe to a similar theory, stating that:
It seems that a ritual involving the afikoman was preserved but over time its meaning was, perhaps even deliberately, distorted.…
How could such an important idea have been lost? It seems likely that as Christianity emerged from Judaism, Jewish ideas which had been taken up and developed by the followers of Jesus were played down or even suppressed by Jewish authorities.[viii]
If these scholars are correct, then: The Jews suppressed a custom from their own feast because Messianic Jews of their day—aka the first “Christians”—believed it to have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The true picture of an early, now all-but-lost Messianic afikomen ceremony was buried under religious bureaucracy and repainted as a “keep kids awake dessert.” All the components that held on past this potential alteration—the breaking, hiding, hunting, revealing, dividing, and eating of the unleavened bread—would become confusing, inconsequential to Jewish descendants who would later understand the symbolism of every other step in the Passover. This one element, which acts as the beginning and the end of the feast (a position of great importance, clearly), is reduced to a teaching by a beloved rabbi who could think of no other tool for parents to keep kids awake than to come up with a new ritual that “coincidentally” parallels Christ’s death.
Thus, afikomen went from “Messiah” to “dessert.” (See why we had to leave etymology until the end on this one?)
Please don’t miss what just happened…and what else it implies. It’s not just that a long-standing Messianic custom would have been fulfilled in Christ. That satisfies why a book like this would show Jesus’ fulfillment of a feast, certainly, but if all of this evidence is properly understood by the theologians who have made it their lives’ work, then there’s something else here that almost everyone misses…
The afikomen ritual was the very first Communion.
UP NEXT: The Mystery of the Afikomen Was Established by Christ, Himself
[i] “Modern Jewish History: The Tribes Today—Kohens, Levis, & Yisraels,” Jewish Virtual Library, last accessed May 13, 2020, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tribes-today-kohens-levis-and-yisraels.
[iii] Nadler, Sam, Messiah in the Feasts of Israel (Word of Messiah Ministries, Kindle ed., 2011), 87.
[iv] Eisenberg, Dr. R. L., The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society; 1st ed., 2004), 288.
[v] Strack, H. and P. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (IV.1; Munich: Beck, 1928), 73; as quoted in Evans, C. A., & Porter, S. E. New Testament Backgrounds (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997; Vol. 43), 96.
[vi] Evans, C. A., & Porter, S. E. New Testament Backgrounds (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997; Vol. 43), 96, 102.
[vii] Ibid., 96.
[viii] Evans, C. A., & Porter, S. E. New Testament Backgrounds, 96–97.