Those who have attended a Passover Seder, know that one of the most beloved Seder traditions is the hiding* of the afikomen, a specially designated half-piece of matzah. But what exactly is the afikomen?
The word afikomen is of Greek origin and, while its exact translation has been lost, seems to refer to after-dinner deserts, drinks and entertainment. In reference to Passover, the Mishnah states (Pesachim 119b-120a) that “One may not conclude the Paschal meal [by saying] ‘Now to the entertainment’…it was taught as Rabbi Johanan, ‘You must not conclude after the Paschal meal with dates, parched ears and nuts [desserts].”’ (Don’t eat anything more…)
Initially, the halacha was that the eating of the Paschal lamb marked the conclusion of the seder feast. After the destruction of the Temple (since the Paschal lamb can no longer be brought), the sages ordained that matzah must be the last taste one has at the seder. Since this matzah was eaten in lieu of the afikomen (meaning dessert, drinks and entertainment) it assumed the name “afikomen.”
While the afikomen is involved in several steps of the seder (Yachatz – when the middle matzah is broken in half and the larger piece is set aside for the afikomen, and Tzaphun, when the afikomen is eaten), it is only vaguely mentioned in the Haggadah.
There are many differences in customs involving the afikomen, depending on one’s background. Ashkenazim hide the afikomen (and find it) as a means of keeping the children interested. Iraqi Jews conduct a dialogue while holding it (“Where are you from?” “Egypt.” “Where are you going?” “Jerusalem.”). Many North African Jews wrap the afikomen in white and carry it around the room on their shoulders.
*an Ashkenazi tradition
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