Sorry, did you say “steal” the Afikomin?


The Artful Dodger practices his trade

“Who pinched the Afikoman at your Seder?,” an acquaintance – we’ll call him Simon – once asked me during the intermediate days of Pesach. The reference was to the custom of children “stealing” the matzah set aside for the end of the meal. In his desperation to retrieve this matzah, which is essential to the Passover Seder, the father is supposed to promise the child whatever prize he or she demands.

I bounced the question back to him. “Who pinched it at yours?”

Simon grinned broadly as he recalled his child’s astuteness, and told me proudly how the thief at their Seder turned out to be his innocent-looking four year old son, whom he had least suspected.

“I was on my guard of course, and aware that the older kids were plotting to distract me and get their hands on the Afikoman, but who would have suspected little Dovi?!,” he gushed. “I noticed them whispering among themselves, and several times I managed to secretly move the matza without their noticing, so that when they reached the hiding place to take it, they found it had already gone!”

“Then Dovi – cute little Dovi – without a word to anyone, crept secretly behind me while I was watching the others, took the Afikoman and hid it!”

He was so tickled by the recollection that it was a few moments before he could continue, telling me how the children subsequently haggled with their father over the cost to him of their returning it.

Now, there is an apocryphal story about the infant Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, in which he agreed to return the Afikoman to his father only in return for an extortionate present, to which his father reluctantly consented. Upon getting it back, he then announced that little Chaim would get no Afikoman unless he relinquished his claim to the expensive prize. With a flourish the boy produced a piece of matza he had not returned with the rest, having anticipated this very outcome!

This story, and others like it, are supposed to demonstrate how a child’s sharpness, and even cunning, can be utilized for the purpose of maintaining his interest through the long Seder service. It also illustrates the natural sharpness with which the Jewish child is proudly credited by some.

For me, however, the idea of making a game out of stealing is disturbing, and brings to mind a very different story.

When the breakfast was cleared away; the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game, which was performed in this way. The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard-chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin in his shirt: buttoned his coat tight round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick, in imitation of the manner in which old gentlemen walk about the streets any hour in the day. Sometimes he stopped at the fire-place, and sometimes at the door, making believe that he was staring with all his might into shop-windows. At such times, he would look constantly round him, for fear of thieves, and would keep slapping all his pockets in turn, to see that he hadn’t lost anything, in such a very funny and natural manner, that Oliver laughed till the tears ran down his face. All this time, the two boys followed him closely about: getting out of his sight, so nimbly, every time he turned round, that it was impossible to follow their motions. At last, the Dodger trod upon his toes, or ran upon his boot accidentally, while Charley Bates stumbled up against him behind; and in that one moment they took from him, with the most extraordinary rapidity, snuff-box, note-case, watch-guard, chain, shirt-pin, pocket-handkerchief, even the spectacle-case. If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets, he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again.

This is how Fagin, the Jewish “fence” in Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist”, cunningly corrupts the minds of his “pupils”, molding them into pickpockets and thieves.

I do not claim that the annual stealing of the Afikomin is going to turn anyone’s children into thieves, but this custom was not practiced in my family or the community I grew up in, and despite peer pressure when our children were young, my wife and I resolved not to allow it into our home.

For discussion: Do you think that adopting this custom and encouraging your child to “steal” the Afikomin and then bargain with you for a present in return for giving it back, might be a useful educational tool for the child to apply in other – permitted – situations in later life where cunning and negotiating skills may be needed, or is it altogether negative for children to do this to their parents?



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