Encyclopedia Judaica 1906
Afikomen By : Kaufmann Kohler
A piece broken off the cake of unleavened bread, matzah (usually from the middle one of the three cakes called Cohen, Levi, and Israel), at the beginning of the Seder service on Passover eve. It is secreted under the pillow of the head of the family, who presides at the seder table, and it is eaten at the conclusion of the meal. The word is of Greek derivation, according to some authorities from that is, a call for the after-dinner pastime; others hold that it is from (festal song). The Jewish form of it occurs in Mishnah Pes. x. 8, which says: "One should not break off the communion meal of the paschal lamb by starting another entertainment, called either [festal song], or, according to others, ?p???µ?? [an after-meal dessert or pastime]." This rule of making the paschal lamb the last thing to be partaken of in company was applied at a later time (see Rab and Samuel in Pes. 119b) to the Passover bread; and the piece eaten at the end of the meal received the name Afi?omen.
In order to awaken the curiosity of the children the Afikomen was broken off the matzah at the beginning of the seder; the custom arising perhaps from a misunderstanding of the passage in Pes. 109a, "They hasten [the eating of] the matzah in order to keep the children awake," which may also be translated, "They snatch away the matzah"; and so it became customary to allow the children to abstract the Afikomen from under the pillow of the master of the house, and to keep it until redeemed by him with presents.
Subsequently it became quite common among the Jews, by way of witticism, to say: "To eat much Afikomen is to live long"; and when a man died advanced in years it was said, "He ate too much Afikomen." A piece of the Afikomen used to be preserved in every house from year to year, and in Eastern countries it was supposed, when carried in a corner of the arba' kanfot, to guard against the evil eye.
Bibliography: Jastrow, Dict. s. v.;
L. Löw, Lebensalter, p. 318;
Samuel Krauss, Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwörter, ii. 107.