Matzah Tray For PassoverFor those who have never been to a Seder before- the Jewish festive meal on the first night of the festival of Passover- there will surely be many, many interesting customs to be observed. Intriguingly, after the participants finally get to the meal, as “dessert” they eat a last piece of Matzah- one would think that after the entire Seder they’d eaten enough of the hard-to-digest food so what is the reason behind it?

What is the Afikoman?

The name given to the intriguing dessert of the Seder is “Afikoman” and it consists of a broken piece of Matzah. At the beginning of the Seder, the middle of the three Matzahs that are placed before the leader of the Seder, is broken into two and the larger piece is tucked away for later. This piece is then eaten after the meal, in the part of the meal referred to as “Tzafun” which means “hidden” due to it being hidden away until the time comes to eat it.

Why is the Afikoman eaten?

According to the Mishnah in Pesachim, the Afikoman serves as a substitute for the Korban Pesach- just as the Korban Pesach was the last thing eaten at the Seder in the time of the First and Second Temples, so too it is the last thing eaten at our Seder. After eating the Afikoman nothing else is eaten so that the taste of the Matzah will be the last taste in our mouths at the Seder.

What are the laws associated with the Afikoman?

According to Jewish law, each person as the Seder should eat at least an olive-sized piece of Matzah in fulfillment of eating the Afikoman. It is common for people to eat an additional olive-sized piece of Matzah with it- the first piece representing the Korban Pesach and the second piece representing the Matzah eaten together with the Korban Pesach in the days of the Temple. As with all the other Matzah eaten at the Seder, the Afikoman is eaten while reclining to the left.

In addition, the Afikoman must be eaten before midnight just as the Korban Pesach was eaten before midnight in the days that the Temple stood in Jerusalem. As mentioned earlier, after eating the Afikoman no other food may be eaten –only the two remaining cups of wine may be drunk.

Etymology of the word “Afikoman”

According to the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the Greek word on which the word Afikoman is based has two meanings. The Babylonian Talmud explains that the word is derived from the Greek word for “dessert” whereas the Jerusalem Talmud argues that it comes from the Greek word meaning “after-dinner revelry”.

Customs associated with the Afikoman

  • Some people have the custom to hide the Afikoman until it is needed in a pillow or cushion. The commentator Rokeach explained that this custom may be based on the verse in Psalms that states “How great is the goodness that You have hidden for those who fear You.” By hiding it in a cushion, we symbolically guard it and thereby fulfill another Biblical verse from Exodus “And you shall guard the Matzot.”
  • Some have the custom of taking a staff in hand and eating the Afikoman hastily in accordance with the verse in Exodus, “Thus you shall eat it [the Paschal offering]; your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, your staff in your hand, and you shall eat it in great haste.”
  • There is a custom in Israel to wrap the Afikoman in a white cloth, place it on the right shoulder and then transfer it to the left shoulder. It is then passed around the table from one to the other. The last one to receive it recites the verse, ” Their kneading trays were bound in cloths on their shoulders” (Exodus). He then takes four steps and is asked, “Where have you come from?”, he responds, “From Egypt”. To which the response is, “And where are you going?” “To Jerusalem.” Then all the participants say together, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
  • A well-known custom is for the leader of the Seder and the children present playing a game of hide-and-seek with the Afikoman. The leader of the Seder will hide the Afikoman and the children will look for it. This is one of the many tricks used to keep the children and awake and involved in the Seder.