Afikoman is the name of a portion of matzah eaten at the conclusion of the Passover evening meal known as the seder.
In most traditions, early in the evening, the person conducting the seder breaks the middle of the three maẓẓot into two pieces, putting away the larger portion, designated as afikoman, for consumption at the conclusion of the meal. Some Yemenites, who use only two maẓẓot, break off a part of the lower maẓẓah just at the beginning of the meal. The word afikoman, of Greek origin but uncertain etymology, probably refers to the aftermeal songs and entertainment (cf. TJ, Pes. 10:8, 37d), accompanied by drinking, which was common after festive meals in ancient times. The Mishnah states: "One may not add afikoman after the paschal meal" (Pes. 10:8), for the paschal meal was not to be followed by customary revelry (Pes. 119b–120a). This ruling was later understood to mean that the paschal lamb should be the last food eaten during the evening and, after the cessation of the paschal sacrifice, maẓẓah replaced it as the last food eaten during the evening. This maẓẓah is first referred to as afikoman in medieval times (cf. Maḥzor Vitry). This afikoman has become a symbolic reminder of the paschal sacrifice.
In many Ashkenazi communities it is customary for the children present to attempt to "steal" the afikoman from the person leading the seder (who therefore tries to "hide" it from them). A favorite time for such a "theft" is while the leader is washing his hands before the meal, and the "ransom" is usually the promise of presents. The custom encourages the children to keep awake during the seder (see Pes. 109a). This practice of stealing the afikoman is, however, nearly unknown in Sephardi Jewish communities.
It became a folk custom to preserve a piece of the afikoman as a protection against either harm or the "evil eye," or as an aid to longevity. The power attributed to this piece of maẓẓah is based on the assumption, in the realm of folklore rather than law, that its importance during the seder endows it with a special sanctity. Thus, Jews from Iran, Afghanistan, Salonika, Kurdistan, and Bukhara keep a portion of the afikoman in their pockets or houses throughout the year for good luck. In some places, pregnant women carry it together with salt and coral pieces, while during their delivery they hold some of the afikoman in their hand. Another belief is that this special maẓẓah, if kept for seven years, can stop a flood if thrown into the turbulent river, and the use of the afikoman together with a certain biblical verse is even thought capable of quieting the sea. At the seder Kurdi Jews tie this maẓẓah to the arm of one of their sons with this blessing: "May you so tie the ketubbah to the arm of your bride." Sephardi Jews in Hebron had a similar practice. In Baghdad someone with the afikoman used to leave the seder and return disguised as a traveler. The leader would ask him, "Where are you from?" to which he would answer, "Egypt," and "Where are you going?" to which he would reply, "Jerusalem." In Djerba, the person conducting the seder used to give the afikoman to one of the family, who tied it on his shoulder and went to visit relatives and neighbors to forecast the coming of the Messiah.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Maim. Yad, Ḥameẓ u-Maẓẓah, 6:2; 8:9; Sh. Ar., OḤ 473:6; 477:1–7; 418:1–2; Moshe Veingarten, Haseder He'arukh (1990), 554–562; E. Brauer, Yehudei Kurdistan (1947), 235–6; J. Kafih, Halikhot Teiman (1961), 22; M. Mani, Ḥevron ve-Gibboreiha (1963), 69–70; M. Zadoc, Yehudei Teiman (1967), 181–2; D. Benveniste, in: Saloniki Ir va-Em be-Yisrael (1967). 151. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Tabory, The Passover Ritual Throughout the Generations (Hebrew; 1996), 23 n. 49; 65–66; 318–24; I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb": Perceptions of Jews and Christians (Hebrew; 2000), 249–58.