The invention of the Afikoman, for example, was a mark of genius. A piece of matzah, the major symbolic food of Pesach, was broken off and hidden away, then surreptitiously snatched from its hiding place by an alert child. Only for a fitting reward could the Afikoman be finally restored to the celebrant.
Amazing how expensive a scarce commodity like Afikoman suddenly becomes! But there is no alternative. You have to be prepared, if necessary, to pay a king’s ransom for the sorry-looking piece of matzah, for without it the Seder cannot continue. Yes, our ancestors knew a great deal about psychology.
Yet the Afikoman as we know it appears to be based on a misunderstanding – two misunderstandings in fact. The first concerns the custom of snatching the Afikoman.
There is a rabbinic statement, Chot’fin matzah b’lellei p’sachim bish’vil tinokot shelo yish’nu – “one should hasten to the matzah on the nights of Pesach for the sake of the children, so they will not fall asleep” (Pes. 109a). Chot’fin was playfully interpreted as “they snatch”, and hence developed the innocent game of Snatch the Matzah which has never yet failed to keep Jewish children awake. (It must have been known at least as early as the time of Maimonides in the twelfth century, since in his Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:3 he records, “They snatch the matzah from each other’s hand”.)
The second misunderstanding has to do with the name Afikoman itself. To us it is something we are required to have at the end of the Seder meal. But this is in complete conflict with the original sense of the term. The Mishnah Pesachim 10:8 states, Ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman – “we do not conclude with (or break off for) Afikoman after the paschal lamb”. So significant is this rule that it is expounded by way of answer to the question of the wise son. But though Afikoman is something to be avoided, the exact meaning of the word was a matter of debate in the time of the Talmud (Pes. 119b).
Rav derives it from afiku manaichu, “take out your vessels”, since there is a prohibition against going from one company to another to eat; the paschal lamb must be eaten in one place. Shmuel derives it from afiku man, “bring in food”, and sees it as a prohibition of eating dessert, even if one did not budge from the place where the meal had been eaten. By not eating anything else after the lamb (in post-Temple times, the matzah), a Pesach taste would remain in the mouth.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Pes. 37d) explains the term as minei zemer – “types of music” or according to some, “various dessert fruits”.
The word is, however, Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew. It probably denotes after-meal entertainment, komos: “a jovial festivity with music and dancing; a revel; a carousel; merry-making” (Liddell and Scott). If this is what the Mishnah is protesting against, what may have been happening was that pressure was building up to turn the Seder into a Greco-Roman symposium, an after-dinner talk feast at which the wine flowed and there was entertainment and jollification. This would clearly change the nature of the Seder and its sanctity as leil shimmurim, “the night of Divine watchfulness” (Ex. 31:42).
If the law is that one should not have Afikoman after the final piece of matzah, there must have been a transference of meaning so that the matzah after which there should be no Afikoman came to be called Afikoman itself.
The folklore of many communities made much of the idea of the Afikoman. Yemenite tradition sees the word as an acrostic of foods which may not be eaten after the meal. Some believed that a piece of Afikoman guarded against the evil eye, especially when carried in a corner of the arba kanfot or in a pocket, or kept in the house. Some even thought a piece of Afikoman hung on the wall would help to prevent fires, or regarded it as an aid to finding a marriage partner, to easy childbirth, or to longevity.
One does not have to be superstitious to appreciate the idea of the Afikoman as we know it, nor in the long run does it matter so much that our ancestors took poetic license and gave the word, and the game associated with it, a new, extended meaning. For the children who are kept awake by attractive thoughts of father ransoming the broken piece of matzah are, all unconsciously, playing their part in Jewish continuity and survival.