FOR JEWISH CHILDREN, “stealing” the afikoman and its subsequent ransom has been a Seder highlight for many generations. What is the basis for this seemingly odd custom? Do we wish to teach our children to act (even if only on this night) contrary to one of the most basic ethical principles? And then, as if to add insult to injury, we instruct our “precious little ones” in the art of extortion?
The Talmud in Pesachim states: “… matzot are snatched on the night of Pesach so that the children will not fall asleep.” Many of the classic commentaries explain that the Gemara means only that the matzah should be taken in haste or grabbed off the table. This is just another of the evening’s numerous atypical behaviors designed to pique the interest of children.
The first to actually use the term “stealing” to explain the Gemara was the Maharam Chalva (1290–1370), who wrote: “… it is customary to steal the matzah one from the other.”
It seems that the custom evolved over generations (particularly among Ashkenazim); first to steal the matzah from the children (as recorded in the earliest sources) and then to its present-day form, whereby children are the ones to steal the matzah.
Others explain the custom symbolically: on the night of Pesach, the Torah records that the dogs did not bark (Shemot 11:7). It was a common practice for homeowners to station guard dogs whose barking would scare away potential intruders. Perhaps the reason the dogs were silent is that Pesach night is a night of watching (ibid. 12:42), — hence no need for protection against thieves. To commemorate this, the children are given license to effectively “steal” the afikoman.
Although this custom is widespread and supported by many authorities, the custom is not without its detractors. It is reported that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk and the Rebbes of Chabad discouraged this practice for the reason cited: it teaches young children that stealing is sometimes permissible. Others have recommended that even while preserving this custom we should restore the terminology of the Talmud, “snatch” vs. “steal,” so as not to describe explicitly criminal behavior.
Obviously, we must always consider the appropriateness of each circumstance. Some have suggested that this custom only be maintained between close family members, where it is clear that no genuine stealing is taking place. Not so between friends and acquaintances, and certainly not with guests or strangers.
An American student in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem was invited to the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s home for the Pesach Seder. When it came time to eat the afikoman, the Rosh Yeshiva looked for but was unable to locate the afikoman that he had set aside. “Where is the afikoman?” he asked those assembled. The post-graduate student responded that he had stolen the afikoman and would not return it until the Rabbi would grant him a blessing. “Return the afikoman and I will grant your request,” the Rabbi promised. Once the afikoman had been safely returned, the Rabbi blessed him: “May you be granted more sechel (common sense)
As with the many beautiful and sometimes even odd customs associated with Pesach, each family is encouraged to embrace the customs of its ancestors. “And you shall communicate to your child on that night” (ibid. 13:8). This night is about transmission of our heritage, each generation to the next—all the way back to Egypt and forward to our ultimate salvation—may it come speedily in our days.