Where does the custom of hiding the afikomen (and ransoming it, children from parents or vice versa) come from?
As you note in your question, there are different customs regarding how to play the afikomen game. In some families, the parents hide it and the children win a prize for finding it; in other families, the children “steal” the afikomen and then extort * koff koff * excuse me, I mean they bargain with the parents for its return. Believe it or not, some variation of hiding the afikomen is a practice that may date back as far as the Talmud. The Talmud in tractate Pesachim (109a) says, “We snatch the matzos on the night of Passover in order to keep the children awake.” There are different ideas as to what it means to “snatch” the matzos. It could mean that we raise them up, or it could mean that we eat them quickly (see Rashi there). But it would not surprise me if people in Talmudic times, or perhaps a little later, used this line in Pesachim as the basis for the afikomen customs we practice today.
We see from the Talmud (Pesachim 115-116) that the concept of keeping the children interested is a major component of the Seder. Much of what we do, such as removing the Seder plate and dipping the vegetables, is done to pique the children’s curiosity. The Mishna even designates a place in the Seder where a child should specifically ask his father questions, which we do in the form of today’s “four questions.” So the idea that we hide the afikomen to keep the children engaged is consistent with the Seder’s general modus operandi. But what is this afikomen that we hide? To answer that, we must go back somewhat farther.
The Torah commands us to eat three things on Passover night: matzah, maror (bitter herbs) and the Passover offering, which is called the korban Pesach in Hebrew. The korban Pesach had to be eaten “al hasovah,” meaning when one was already full (Mechilta). The Mishna, cited by the Talmud on Pesachim 119b (as well as in the Haggadah) says, “After the korban Pesach, we do not eat afikomen,” which we understand to mean dessert. In other words, the korban Pesach was the last thing we ate, so that its taste might linger (ibid.).
Nowadays, we still eat matzah, and we still eat maror, but in the absence of the Temple, we are no longer able to offer (and therefore eat) the korban Pesach. In its place, we eat additional matzah, which we call “afikomen” in contradistinction. (The korban Pesach was eaten with matzah and some authorities are of the opinion that it is the matzah that we eat at this point that fulfills the mitzvah. While the Shulchan Aruch does not rule in accordance with this view, it would still be advisable not to take eating the afikomen lightly!) After eating the afikomen, we do not partake of any other food or beverage aside from the two remaining cups of wine (which are part of the mitzvah instituted by the Sages). If one is thirsty after the Seder, one may drink water (which will not ruin any lingering taste – Mishnah Brurah 478:2).
So that’s what the afikomen is and why we eat it. At the Seder, when we break the middle matzah, we put the larger half aside for its later use as the afikoman. It is put aside for the very pragmatic reason of not mixing it up with other matzah that may be on the table. The practice to wrap the matzah for the afikomen in a napkin or some other cloth is to emulate the way the Jews who left Egypt tied their dough up in their garments, as described in Exodus 12:34. In the order of the Seder, the part where we eat the afikomen is referred to as “tzafun,” meaning hidden, because of the way the afikomen was hidden away for later use.
In some communities, rather than hiding the afikomen, it is passed from person to person at the Seder table, or given to a child who leaves the room and re-enters with it. In each of these customs, one is asked, “Where are you coming from?” (to which the answer is “Mitzrayim” – i.e., Egypt) and “Where are you going?” (to which the answer is “Yerushalayim” – i.e., Jerusalem. These answers rhyme in Hebrew, to a more pleasing effect than in English).
As far as the practice for children to “steal” the afikomen and to bargain for its return, there is some halachic discussion as to the permissibility to engage in such transactions on yom tov. Generally speaking, our practice is to be lenient when it comes to deal-making for mitzvah purposes, such as making pledges to charity (Rema on OC 306:6). Additionally, this appears not to be an actual business transaction at all since the afikomen already belongs to the one who is “buying” it. Nevertheless, actually “paying” for the return of the afikomen should best be avoided on yom tov.
Some parents don’t approve of children “stealing” the afikomen based on the idea that it’s “bad chinuch” (i.e., an improper educational practice). This is based on the Talmud in Brachos 5b, from which we infer that such games can potentially give a child a taste for actual stealing. The overwhelming majority, however, are not concerned that there may be anything inappropriate about the practice.
While we optimally use the larger half of the matzah that was put aside for the afikomen, this is not indispensable. For example, if the matzah that was hidden cannot be found, other matzah may be used. (Additionally, if the bargaining reaches an impasse, reminding a stubborn child that you don’t actually need that particular piece of matzah should help you to more swiftly conclude the negotiations.)
Why do we hide the afikomen? Like many pieces of the Seder, we do unusual things “so the children should ask.” Now, if they do, you should have plenty of information from which to craft your response!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent