Among the highlights of Seder Night is the afikoman. This is especially true for children, who have adopted the custom of ‘stealing’ the afikoman, and ransoming it for some attractive prize or other.
This custom is not without a source. Based on the ruling of a Tosefta (Pesachim 10:6), the Gemara writes that the matzah of Seder Night is ‘grabbed’. The reason for this is that the children should be induced into asking questions, and staying awake for the duration of the proceedings.
Many commentaries understand the word ‘grabbed’ to mean that the matzah is hurried. One doesn’t take one’s time, but gets on with the Seder (see Rashi, Pesachim 109a). Others, however, write that the matzah is literally grabbed from one person to another (see Meiri, Pesachim 108b), a type of Seder Night pass-the-parcel that is sure to attract the kids’ attention.
The modern incantation of this custom is that the father puts away the afikoman matzah (the larger part of the matzah divided in Yachatz), only to have it ‘stolen’ by the kids, who return it in return for a promised reward. Naturally enough, the method is fairly effective in keeping children awake.
In this post-Pesach article, the question we wish to address is the obligation of parents to keep their afikoman pledge. A promise is, of course, a promise, and telling the truth is always a worthy attribute. But is there a full halachic obligation to honor one’s promise, or can a parent somehow wriggle his way out of paying the potentially pricy afikoman ransom?
The Obligation to Honor Promises
The basic obligation to honor an afikoman promise is based on a ruling of the Gemara (Bava Metzia 49b), whereby one who does not keep his word is considered as ‘lacking faith.’ Although this ruling is presented as a dispute among amora’im, Rav Papa explains that even Rabbi Yochanan, who rules that merely not keeping one’s word is not considered unfaithful, agrees that a promise to give a ‘small gift’ must be honored.
The reason for this distinction is that by contrast with a large gift, the intended beneficiary of a ‘small gift’ fully anticipates the fulfillment of the giver’s promise. Because the recipient has complete faith in the giver’s promise, the promise carries greater weight, and it is therefore obligatory to keep one’s word.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 204:6-7) rules in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan, explaining that the obligation to honor one’s word applies specifically to the promise of a ‘small gift,’ but not to a large gift, whose receipt the beneficiary does not fully anticipate.
Because the distinction between a small and large gift is contingent on the trust of the recipient, it follows that a ‘small gift’ must be defined by the subjective circumstances of the particular recipient and giver. The amount for a poor giver and wealthy recipient will not be the same as the amount for a wealthy giver and a poor recipient.
Torah or Rabbinic Requirement
According to some authorities, the obligation to keep one’s word in the case of a ‘small gift’ is a full Torah mitzvah, which is derived from a verse in this week’s parashah.
Dwelling on the Torah instruction, “you shall have a just hin (a measure of volume)” (Vayikra 19:36), the Gemara (Bava Metzia 49a) cites the explanation of a beraisa: “Your ‘yes’ (hen) shall be just, and your ‘no’ shall be just.” Some maintain that even according to Rabbi Yochanan, this implies a Torah obligation of keeping one’s word with regard to ‘small gifts’ (see Ittur, cited in Mordechai, Bava Metzia 451; Baal Hame’or 80a; Ri Mi-Korbil, cited in Shita Mekubetzes, Kesubos 86a).
According to other authorities (including Ramban and Rosh, as based on Rif), Rabbi Yochanan interprets the ruling of the beraisa to mean one’s speech should always be wholehearted. The Mordechai (Bava Metzia 311-2) writes that according to this opinion, the obligation to honor promises (for a ‘small gift’) is derived from a verse in Zephaniah (3:13): “The remnant of Israel will not perform iniquity, nor will speak falsehood.” Because the verse does not appear in the Torah itself, this would not imply a Torah obligation, but only a rabbinic requirement founded on a scriptural verse.
Although the Sema (204:12) quotes the Torah verse of hin tzedek as the source of the obligation to honor one’s promises, it remains possible that this does not imply a full Torah obligation. As Tosafos Yom-Tov (end of Shevi’is) writes, the reference to the verse can be understood as an asmachta. The Talmudic statement (also quoted in Shulchan Aruch) whereby the wise are ‘dissatisfied’ with one who breaks his promises also indicates that no full Torah prohibition is involved.
Promises in the Absence of the Recipient
As noted, the prohibition of breaking one’s promise is contingent on the degree of the recipient’s reliance. Based on this assertion, there is room to question if the obligation can apply even to a promise made in the absence of the recipient. Surely, if the recipient does not know of the promise, he does not rely on it, and the obligation to keep the promise would not apply?
The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (Laws of Sales 6) cites an explicit ruling of Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 243:1-2), which states that the law of ‘lacking faith’ applies even to a promise made in the absence of the recipient, yet questions the rationale behind the ruling (Tziyunim 53). Surely, there is no reliance on the part of the unknowing recipient, and there should therefore not be any prohibition?
Indeed, Peri Yitzchak (Vol. 1, no. 51) rules that “if a person makes a promise to himself that he will give a gift to somebody else, and the recipient does not know of the promise, there is no prohibition whatsoever on retracting the promise.” The Machaneh Efraim (Ona’ah 28) extends this to all promises that the recipient is unaware of: “All this applies when the giver informed the recipient of his intention to give him a ‘small gift,’ so that he relies on the promise.”
Promises to Children
Rav Meir Arik (Minchas Pittim, Choshen Mishpat 204:8), who discusses the above question (promises that the recipient is unaware of), writes that the same question applies to promises made to children. A child lacks daas—the level of cognition required for Torah legal actions—and a promise made to a minor is therefore equivalent to a promise made in the absence of the recipient. He thus quotes from Mahari Algazi (Kehilas Yaakov, Tosefes Derabanan 7), who rules that breaking a promise made to children does not carry the stringency of ‘lacking faith.’
Yet, there is room to distinguish between the cognition required to enact legal actions, and the level required for basic reliance. Although a ten-year-old cannot enact a Torah kinyan, it is possible that he relies on his father’s promise no less than his thirteen-year-old brother. Provided the child is older than three or so, there is therefore room to argue that the prohibition would apply.
In addition, the Gemara warns that it is forbidden to lie to children, for this will train them to lie (Sukkah 46b), and a promise made to a child must therefore be kept. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Salmas Chaim, Vol. 2, no. 79) was asked why the Gemara requires a special prohibition of training children to lie: Surely, the regular obligation to keep promises ought to apply? To this, he responds that “it seems that the principle of a ‘small gift’ applies to an adult, and not to a minor.”
If we assume that the obligation to honor promises applies even to children, the ruling of the Gemara could be explained as referring to cases in which the obligation does not apply, such as a large gift, or a case in which there is no reliance on the part of the child.
Promises Under Duress
A further point worthy of note is the question of promises made under duress.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 264:7) rules that monetary commitments made under duress need not be honored (based on Bava Kama 116). Although some rule that this principle is limited to instances where the recipient performs a mitzvah (and is therefore obligated to perform the action for free), such as returning lost property, the majority ruling is that the principle applies to all cases of duress. Perhaps the afikoman promise, made under ‘duress’ of getting the matzah back, is therefore void?
It is unlikely that the duress argument is valid with regard to afikoman gifts. Unlike the classic cases of duress (such as somebody who is escaping from aggressors and needs a boat to ferry him across a river), the afikoman game is part and parcel of Seder Night, and the father generally makes his promises by his free will. Only in very extreme cases, where the afikoman was used as a means of extortion to gain extravagant promises, could the duress argument be relevant.
In conclusion, it seems that under normal circumstances, there is an obligation to keep afikoman promises.
As we have seen, there is a full obligation to honor promises of ‘small gifts,’ and based on the subjective definition of a ‘small gift,’ afikoman promises will almost always fall into the category. Although some rule that the obligation does not apply to children (under bar-mitzvah), a parent must avoid lying to his children, for fear of teaching them ways of falsehood. Therefore, the promise must in any case be honored.
For very young children (for instance a three-year-old), who has forgotten about the promise, or who can be persuaded to forgo the gift for a bar of chocolate (cheaper than a new BMX bike), one can certainly be lenient.
We end with an amusing anecdote. The renowned Rav Heschel, who later became one of the leading luminaries of his generation, was known for his sharpness even as a young boy.
One Seder Night, Rav Heschel’s father stretched out to take the Afikoman, and found it to be missing. All eyes turned to the young Heschel, who duly produced the Afikoman, and demanded a silk garment in exchange for its return. The father agreed, and the matzah was returned.
When the father began to allocate the matzah to the participants, he skipped Heschel, causing the boy to cry out in dismay: “Father, why have you not given my any Afikoman?” The father explained that he was fully prepared to give Heschel part of the Afikoman, but only if the boy would forgo the promise of the silk garment.
At hearing this, Heschel reached into his pocket, and took out a piece of matzah. “I suspected, dear Father, that you would try to repay me in turn, so I kept some of the Afikoman for myself.” To his father’s dismay, Heschel proceeded to pronounce, loud and clear: “Hineni muchan u’mezuman lekayem mitzvas achilas afikoman…”
Afikoman promises, it seems, were not born today (Rav Heschel lived in the early seventeenth century). Under ordinary circumstances, they are just another part of our Pesach expenses.
 Mekadesh Yisrael (Pesach p. 249) writes further that if a child of any age (under bar-mitzvah) forgets about the promise, there would no longer be an obligation to honor it.