The Purpose of the Afikomen for Passover

The Tradition Behind This Piece of Matzah

Close up of Matzah under cloth
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The afikomen is spelled in Hebrew אֲפִיקוֹמָן and pronounced ah-fi-co-men. It is a piece of matzah that is traditionally hidden during the Passover seder.

Breaking the Matzah and Hiding the Afikomen

There are three pieces of matzah used during a Passover Seder. During the fourth part of the seder (called Yachatz), the leader will break the middle of these three pieces in two. The smaller piece is returned to the seder table and the larger piece is set aside in a napkin or bag.

This larger piece is called the afikomen, a word that comes from the Greek word for "dessert." It is so called not because it is sweet, but because it is the last item of food eaten at the Passover seder meal.

Traditionally, after the afikomen is broken, it is hidden. Depending on the family, either the leader hides the afikomen during the meal or the children at the table "steal" the afikomen and hide it. Either way, the seder cannot be concluded until the afikomen is found and returned to the table so each guest can eat a piece of it. If the seder leader hid the afikomen the children at the table must search for it and bring it back. They receive a reward (usually candy, money or a small gift) when they bring it back to the table. Likewise, if the children "stole" the afikomen, the seder leader ransoms it back from them with a reward so that the seder can continue. For example, when the children find the hidden afikomen they would each receive a piece of chocolate in exchange for giving it back to the seder leader.

Purpose of the Afikomen

In ancient biblical times, the Passover sacrifice used to be the last thing consumed during the Passover seder during the First and Second Temple eras. The afikomen is a substitute for the Passover sacrifice according to the mishnah in Pesahim 119a.

The practice of hiding the afikomen was instituted during the Middle Ages by Jewish families to make the seder more entertaining and exciting for children, who can become antsy when sitting through a long ritual meal.

Concluding the Seder

Once the afikomen is returned, each guest receives a small portion at least the size of an olive. This is done after the meal and normal deserts have been eaten so that the last taste of the meal is matzah. After the afikomen is eaten, the Birkat haMazon (Grace After Meals) is recited and the seder is concluded.