Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the afikoman, a half-piece of matza that gets "stolen" and hidden during the Seder ceremony and then is found and ritually eaten for dessert, is that its origin is a dictate in the Mishnah, which explicitly states: "One should not have any afikoman after the Passover sacrifice" (Pesahim 10:8). So how did one rabbi's "don't" become everyone's "do"?
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But actually there is no consensus on what the afikoman actually was. Some think the original reference was to a dessert after the Passover meal, while others believe it refers to Grecian post-feast debauchery.
It seems that even the students of Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishnah in approximately 200 CE, didn’t know what he meant either, as the Talmud (500 CE) preserves the answers of three of his students to the question “What is an afikoman?
Rabbi Abba Arika said that Rabbi Judah meant that people shouldn’t go visit other groups after the meal. Samuel of Nehardea that for him, the afikoman was like mutton and pigeons , which as the Talmud (Berahot 47a) says elsewhere, would be welcome on the table even after the main course. The youngest of the three, Johanan bar Nappaha, said that the afikoman was like nuts and dried fruit, which were common desserts at the time (Pesahim 119b).
To all these answers we should add the response given by Rabbi Anani ben Sason, given in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was compiled in approximately 400 CE, that "afikoman" was singing.
What are we to make of these divergent opinions? Since Judah referred to "afikoman" as something not to be had after the Passover dinner, Samuel and Johanan bar Nappaha assumed he meant dessert. Abba Arika (no gadding about) and Anani ben Sason (no singing) are describing an afterparty.
No post-feast revelry
So little succor can come from that avenue. Nor does the etymological analysis help much.
The word afikoman has a number of possible origins, mostly from Greek. They have in common the prefix "epi-," Greek for “over.” What the koman part means is debated, though most scholars believe the root is komos, which has to do with revelry, festivals, and merry-making, and is also the source of our word comedy.
All kinds of revelry took place at the end of Greek festive meals, and sometimes the celebrants would go to other houses to continue the party; sometimes they would stay and sing. It seems that Judah was saying: After the seder, don’t go crazy, just go to bed.
But the rabbis of later generations followed Samuel and Johanan's interpretation, that afikoman refers to dessert. They also accepted Judah bar Ezekiel’s instruction that the seder must end with the eating of matza, which appeared right after the Talmudic discussion about the meaning of afikoman.
It was apparently the students of Rashi in the 12th century who made the connection and started calling the matza eaten at the end of the meal the afikoman. It appears in a responsum about a time when Rashi forgot to eat the “afikoman matza.”
Held for ransom
So now we know why the matza eaten at the end of the seder came to be called an afikoman, but how did the custom of stealing it for ransom come about?
We apparently have Maimonides to thank for this. Misreading a Talmudic passage (Pesachim 109a) in which Eliezer ben Hurcanus said: “they hasten [the eating of] the matza in order to keep the children awake”, Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, took this as saying “they snatch matza from the children to keep the children awake."
Following Maimonides’ lead, as of the 12th century, the tradition of parents stealing and hiding the afikoman starts appearing in rabbinic literature. For example, Jonathan ben David ha-Cohen wrote in that same century: “The adults steal the matza from the children in order to play with them.”
Over the centuries, the tradition began to change among Ashkenazi Jews - it was no longer the adults who were stealing the afikoman, but the kids, who "sell" it back to the parents. We first find records of this in the 17th century. One early mention of this practice is by Rabbi Yair Bacharach, who condemned the practice. But to no avail: gradually the custom made it to Jewish communities around the world.