A recent investigation by elements in the American Jewish leadership has uncovered some irregularities among many observant families concerning an ancient Passover practice.
The problem has nothing to do with eating egg matzah on Pesach, mixing matzah with liquids (gebrokts), eating chocolate-covered matzah or overdosing on macaroons. Nor does it involve examining your romaine lettuce maror under an electron microscope (you’ll find something, I assure you). Finally, the issue in question has nothing to do with either eating the minimum volume of matzah at the Seder or drinking the four cups of wine or grape juice. Those laws are pretty closely observed to everyone’s satisfaction.
No, the custom at the Seder I am referring to is where children hide the afikomen and only return it to their parents in exchange for the parent’s promise to buy them a specified gift.
This custom dates back to antiquity, but in recent years, the number of parents who have reneged on the promised bounty has increased geometrically. The problem has mushroomed, particularly in affluent Jewish suburbs in the New York Metro area.
Rabbi Pinchas Schwartz of Bnei Tefillah in Crescentville, Connecticut, was part of a rabbinic commission that studied this problem and he spoke with us at length Tuesday about his group’s findings:
“At first we though it was a small, innocuous problem; you know, when younger kids, 5, 6 or 8 steal the afikomen, we discovered they often fall asleep during the meal and don’t even participate in the bargaining. If they do, they often forget by the next morning, so the parents get off scot-free; but in other cases, there’s outright deception involved on the parents’ part. Older kids pilfer the matzah in good faith, bargain, only to discover their parents or grandparents never intended to honor the promises they made to ransom the cracked pieces of matzah.”
Whether or not the parents ever intended to fulfill their afikomen contractual obligations or not, the sheer number of “reneges” is estimated to be in the thousands.
Rabbi Schwartz reported that in his community many youths have protested in both school and home against these breaches and there has been talk of bringing their elders to a bet din. Pro bono legal clinics are considering bringing a class action in federal court to redress the losses suffered by countless youngsters in the community:
“You know, we have many lawyers in my shul, and while they’re not particularly litigious, they feel an easy case of promissory estoppel can be made on behalf of most children who are scammed by the afikomen swindle.”
The investigative commission noted in their report that the afikomen issue has caused frequent rifts among families, as illustrated by the following anecdote. The Rosenblum family from an unnamed town in Northern New Jersey held a Thanksgiving dinner at their home this past November where, following the turkey course, several grown children asked their father to explain where the backyard swing set was that he supposedly promised them many years earlier at afikomen time. It’s reported that Mrs. Rosenblum took the children’s side in their protest against Mr. Rosenblum.
“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” said Mr. Rosenblum, emphatically denying his children’s claims.
The issue has become a poIarizing one. In light of the movement to hold parents accountable for their inactions regarding afikomen promises, groups of parents are binding together to defend themselves. Rabbi Schwartz has noted this growing counter-trend:
“I’ve heard of parents forming associations advocating that the entire afikomen process be overhauled, asserting that the cause of parents’ reneging on afikomen promises is directly related to increasingly excessive demands on the part of children at the Seder table.
“I heard of one youngster in Florida demanding an all-expense-paid vacation to Europe; another wanted a car. How can parents afford such extravagance!”
Renowned child psychologist Andrea Bird thinks that the phenomenon of parents not fulfilling promises is a complex one and we may never find an exact cause or solution: “Is it that most parents promise at the Seder table with the intention of never following through or is it all about the moment when the deal is struck and it’s all anti-climactic after that?”
Regardless of the cause, Bird stresses the positives that may arise from the current impasse:
“Ultimately, the fact that even our youngest children get enthused about bargaining over the afikomen guarantees that thousands of Jewish consumers will enter the population over time as “wise shoppers,” skeptical of deals that seem too good to be true. Every cloud does have its silver lining!”
Chag kasher v’sameach!
By Joseph Rotenberg
Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for more than 40 years with his wife, Barbara. He has spent most of that time searching his surroundings for signs of intelligent life. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Joseph’s Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” will be published by Gefen later this year.