Jewish Journal

Are You Not Entertained?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

April 8, 2014 | 8:31 am

It’s time for that annual Pesach contest: "Find The Real Translation of Afikomen."

And why does it matter? Because the fate of the Jewish mind depends upon it.

No one is quite sure what the word afikomen really means. Neither are we sure what language it really is. Is it Greek or Aramaic? The Talmudic Encyclopedia defines the afikomen as "a slice of matzah which must be eaten at the end of the meal on the seder night on Passover.”

Fine. But why should we break it in the first place? Here goes. Three matzot at the seder, corresponding to kohen, levi, and Israelite. The middle matzah represents the tribe of Levi. There is a  tradition that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Levi. Therefore, when you search for the afikomen, you’re actually searching for the Messiah. This would fit the scholar Robert Eisler’s translation of afikomen as the Greek term for “the one who comes.” 

I find that interpretation to be enticing --  that the whole purpose of the seder is that it is a search for the Messiah, or the Messianic Age, which is why Elijah "comes" at midnight, at the precise moment when it is neither today nor yesterday, a moment out of time, at the precise moment when our ancestors left Egypt.
But there are other translations of afikomen. Some say that it means “dessert.” And then, there is the translation in the CCAR “Baskin Haggadah.” It translates afikomen as “entertainment,” as in “after the Passover meal we do not go to other kinds of entertainment.”

So, this could mean that we don’t rush through the seder in order to watch television (why do you think that God invented the DVR, fer cryin’ out loud?), or post on Facebook, or tweet, or play video games, or go to the movies.

So, let’s talk about the Torah of entertainment -- which, I admit, is a little risky and edgy to do in a blog "located" in Los Angeles. 

One of my favorite books is Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by the late, lamented Neil Postman, who was professor of communications arts and sciences at New York University. Postman bemoaned the fact that entertainment had essentially colonized every aspect of American culture -- education, politics, and even religion. Already in 1985, Postman noticed that the new religious orthodoxy in America is that what we experience in church or synagogue must be entertaining.

If religion is to be entertaining, then it must conform to the rules of entertainment. It cannot be too demanding. Its texts must give easy answers. Its music cannot be too complex or too sophisticated or too ancient. It must be about what and who is attractive. It cannot make too many waves. It must make us feel good. 

And – it can’t be too “long.”

Believe it or not, Judaism has never thought that overly-long worship services were meritorious. The ancient sages praised biblical figures who used short prayers. Worship services cannot be so long that they burden the congregation. Reform Judaism shortened the service by removing passages about the sacrifices, the coming of the Messiah, and obscure liturgical poems.

This is what they thought: we should get rid of all of that “stuff” because it no longer makes sense in our modern context. And, as a side benefit, if we shorten the service, more people would come.

Sure – except have you ever noticed that synagogues that have the most worshippers in them – also have the longest services? How do you say “What’s up with that?” in German?

Back to Pesach. I have no empirical evidence for this (Ph.d candidates – heads up – here’s a great dissertation topic), but I have come to suspect that the average American Jewish seder has actually shrunken in length over the past few decades. Again, with no empirical evidence, I think that it is entirely possible that many Jews are simply not returning to the haggadah after dinner – which means, among other things, that fewer doors are getting opened for the prophet Elijah, which cannot be making that ancient Judean prophet very happy.

If you want proof of that, just check out how many “thirty minute seders” are available online. One of them advertises itself by saying that it is “refreshingly brief.” “Refreshing” – for whom? And for what? Is this the ultimate triumph of fast food culture?

No thanks.

Now, it’s not as if people don’t have zitzfleish (literally, “sitting flesh,” or the ability to sit) anymore. I used to believe that the culture of entertainment had hacked apart the attention span of the average person, but I no longer believe that. Not when you have millions of people binge-watching the adventures of Frank and Clair Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards” – two, three, four (!) shows at a time – four hours straight! That’s the equivalent of two Yom Kippur morning services at one sitting.

When you’re doing the Jewish thing well, “clock-time” evaporates and spiritual time takes over. It’s like in the world of play and the world of delight. In a baseball game, it is not three o’clock in the afternoon; it is the bottom of the sixth. When lovers are engaged with each other, it’s not eleven o’clock in the evening, but somewhere between the second and third kiss. 

The medieval Jewish poet Yehudah Halevi, put it this way: “The servants of time are slaves of slaves.”

Maybe we can break free from the Pharaohs of clock time -- and of entertainment.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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