Unknown Origins

Yachatz (the breaking of the middle matzah before Maggid and the leaving of the larger of its pieces to be eaten as the Afikoman) is one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the Seder, especially among many of its younger participants.  The origins of this custom, however, are far from clear.  In contrast to most of the other sections of the Seder which have ancient roots found already in the Mishna, there is no explicit reference to the institution of Yachatz in either Tannaitic or Amoraic literature. The RitvaHaggadah Shel PesachAbout R. Yom Tov b. Ashbel, in fact, notes:

ובגמרא אין זכר לדבר זה, ולא ידענו למה פורסין אותה עכשיו.

Interestingly, Rambam's Mishneh Torah also betrays no awareness of the existence of such a custom.1  What, then, is the source for the tradition, and what is the significance of the practice? 

The Way of the Poor

When discussing the meaning of the phrase "‎לֶחֶם עֹנִי,"‎2 Bavli Pesachim 115b-116aPesachim 115b-116aAbout Bavli Pesachim states:


דָּבָר אַחֵר: ״לֶחֶם עוֹנִי״, עָנִי כְּתִיב, מֶה עָנִי שֶׁדַּרְכּוֹ בִּפְרוּסָה, אַף כָּאן בִּפְרוּסָה.

 Alternatively, in the verse, “leḥem oni” is actually written without a vav, which means a poor person. Just as it is the manner of a poor person to eat a piece of bread, for lack of a whole loaf, so too, here he should use a piece of matza.

According to this explanation, using just a piece of a matzah, rather than a whole loaf, symbolizes that it is "poor man's bread".  The Gemara does not provide any practical application of this statement and never mandates that one is therefore required to break one's matzah into pieces before eating it.  R. Papa in Bavli Berakhot 39b, however, attests to the fact that on Pesach it was customary to bless over both a whole and broken piece of matzah:


אמר רב פפא הכל מודים בפסח שמניח פרוסה בתוך שלמה ובוצע מאי טעמא (דברים ט"ז:ג') לחם עוני כתיב.

Rav Pappa said: Everyone agrees that while fulfilling the mitzva of eating matza on Passover, one places the piece inside the whole and breaks. What is the reason? With regard to matza the phrase “Bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3) is written.

How does the concept of eating only part of a loaf relate to the practice of breaking the matzah at Yachatz?  If the two are connected, why is the matzah not broken right before fulfilling the mitzvah of matzah?

"חוטפין מצה"

Tosefta Pesachim 10:6 speaks of a different custom designed to keep the children awake:3

ר״א אומר חוטפין מצה לתינוקות בשביל שלא יישנו. ר׳ יהודה אומר משמו אפילו לא אכל אלא פרפרת אחת, אפילו לא טבל אלא חזרת אחת, חוטפין מצה לתנוקות בשביל שלא יישנו.

It is not clear what the practice of "חוטפין מצה" entails, how it was meant to arouse the children, or when it was to take place.4 As the root "חטף" means to "snatch," it would seem to relate to a grabbing of the matzah,5 though the manner and motive of such grabbing is left unstated. In more modern times, this statement has been associated with the practice of "stealing" the Afikoman, at Yachatz.6  Is this, though, the original intent of the words "חוטפין מצה"?  If not, when and how did the practice of "stealing" the Afikoman evolve?7 Might the concept of "חוטפין מצה" nonetheless relate to the institution of Yachatz? 

Additional Questions

  • Middle matzah – The common custom today is to break the middle matzah specifically.  Is there any significance to the choice? 
  • Placement in the seder – Why is Yachatz performed right before Maggid?  Does it relate to the passage of "הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא" which immediately follows it, or is it simply one of the preparatory steps of the Seder?
  • Focus of the action – Yachatz entails both breaking the matzah and putting away one of the pieces; but which of these two is the primary objective?8