Where Is That Afikoman?

Afikoman and matzah covers can be decorated like this example from the Jewish Museum of Maryland. (Photo provided)

Where is that afikoman hidden? Or, perhaps a better question is, why do we hide it?

The ritual of breaking a piece of the middle matzah off, wrapping it in a napkin or placing it in a special bag to be shared at the end of the Passover Seder meal is a long-standing tradition. But the tradition of hiding the afikoman for children to find varies from place to place, with children of some cultures “ransoming” the afikoman for gifts, while others attach ritual play-acting to the practice.

The meaning and history behind afikoman, even the origins of the word, are in dispute. Some attribute the name to the Greek word “epikomen” for “that which comes after” or “dessert.” Others say it’s Aramaic for “bring out delicacies to end the meal,” which could be dessert too. Still other texts refer to the afikoman as a party after the meal, or even singing. Afikoman has also been thought of as a symbol of the brokenness of slavery and when found, a sign of God’s promise.

Confusion also abounds from an original dictate in the Mishanh Pesachim 10 that says: “They may not add an afikoman after the Pesach offering. If a few of them changed [locations], they may eat. If all of them [changed locations], they may not eat. Rabbi Yossi says: If they nod off, they may eat. If they fall asleep, they may not eat.”

So why do we save the afikoman to eat at the end of the Seder? If the matzah represents the Jews leaving Egypt in a hurry, with no time for the bread to rise, and the deliverance from exile, then the afikoman is seen by some as that next piece of redemption in the future.

A 2016 Haaretz article by Elon Gilad (“Where Does the Afikoman Come From?”) asserts that the stealing of the afikoman came from a misreading of the Talmud.

“We apparently have Maimonides to thank for this,” Gilad wrote. “Misreading a Talmudic passage (Pesachim 109a) in which Eliezer ben Hurcanus said ‘they hasten [the eating of] the matzah in order to keep the children awake,’ Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, took this as saying they snatch matzah from the children to keep the children awake.”

In some cultures, children tie the matzah to their backs, in a reenactment of the Passover flight, then knock on the door and act as if they are “Israel” and have just left Egypt.

As the 12th of 15 elements prescribed for the Passover Seder, the afikoman, representing the Paschal sacrifice, “is ransomed and eaten, officially ending the meal,” according to “Essential Judaism” by George Robinson. “After this, no more food should be eaten.”

For Alison Zimbalist, director of early childhood education services at the Center for Jewish Education, afikoman played a huge part in her family’s Passover Seder rituals when she was a girl.

“We always went to my paternal grandparents’ home for Seders. The afikoman, of course, played an important role to their six grandchildren, as it was typically the only time we were allowed up from the table in their very traditional Conservative Seders,” she recalled via email. “There was never much guesswork to where the afikoman would be found: under a bowl of glass fruit, behind the picture that hung over the glass fruit or between the books in the guest bedroom. I don’t remember the ‘prizes,’ just the speed at which we would race to those locations and the yellowing, white, embroidered afikoman bag. To this day, when my siblings or I host Seder, the afikoman goes under a bowl of fruit.”

From wrapping the afikoman in a simple napkin, to home-crafted felt bags and highly decorative pieces of art, the afikoman bag itself has a long history. “The Art of Passover,” a coffee-table book covering historical objets d’art created for and about Passover, includes an intricately embroidered 19th-century satin afikoman bag from China. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has similar examples, with a decoratively embroidered matzah bag and a silk afikoman bag printed with a colorful scene of a family at the Seder table.

When Zimbalist got married about 20 years ago, she started attending her husband Rabbi Morris Zimbalist’s family Seders, where finding the afikoman became “a real central feature of the Seder,” she said. There, the hiding of the afikoman and negotiating for its release became the highlights.

“The afikoman is first given to a ‘trustworthy’ family member with the promise that he or she will keep it for the whole Seder. Within minutes, the afikoman is handed off to someone else, and oftentimes makes its rounds to several adults, until finally a child sneaks off to hide it. An adult then discreetly finds the afikoman (usually a young traitor shares the location) and rehides it,” Zimbalist said. “Once the afikoman is found in the proper timing during the Seder, the finder engages in shrewd negotiations with the leader of the Seder until a deal is struck, gifts are handed over and the afikoman is eaten.”

“To my knowledge, this tradition was created and honed by my father-in-law, of blessed memory, who was a lifelong immigration attorney and a member of the Missouri legislature,” Zimbalist added. “The story of the freedom of immigrants was always a very poignant and personal one to him, and our afikoman rituals represent so much about him personally and professionally.”

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