Afikoman (Hebrew language: אפיקומן, based on Greek, epikomen or epikomion [επί Κομός], meaning "that which comes after" or "dessert") is a half-piece of matzo which is broken in the early stages of the Passover Seder and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal.
Based on the Mishnah in Pesahim 119a, the afikoman is a substitute for the Korban Pesach, which was the last thing eaten at the Passover Seder during the eras of the First and Second Temples and during the period of the Mishkan. The Gemara states that it is forbidden to eat any other food after eating the afikoman, in order to keep the taste of matzo in our mouths.
In some families, the head of the household hides the afikoman for the children to find, and rewards them with money or candy. In other families, the children "steal" the afikoman and ask for a reward for its return. Either way, the afikoman has become a device for keeping children awake and alert during the Seder proceedings, until the time it is needed for dessert.
The afikoman is prepared during the fourth part of the Seder, Yachatz. During this ritual, the leader of the Seder takes the middle piece of matzo out from the stack of three whole matzot on the Seder table. He breaks the matzo in two, returning the smaller piece to the stack and putting aside the larger piece to be eaten later during Tzafun ("Hidden", the twelfth part of the Seder, which immediately follows the main meal). This is the afikoman, which is wrapped in a napkin before being hidden.
The custom of hiding the afikoman so that the children at the Seder will "steal" it and demand a reward for it is based on a gemara in Pesahim 109a: Rabbi Eliezer says that one should "grab the matzos" so that the children won't fall asleep. According to Rambam (ibid., 7:3), Rabbi Eliezer is referring to the practice of stealing the afikoman so that the children should stay awake until the end of the meal.
The Haggadah Otzar Divrei HaMeforshim cites several other reasons for the custom of stealing the afikoman. According to Mekor Chaim - Chavos Yair, this custom demonstrates our love for the mitzvah of afikoman. Rav Menashe Klein, the Ungvar Rebbe, says that this custom is a re-enactment of the biblical account of Jacob stealing the blessings that were supposed to go to his brother Esau. Midrash Pliah says that Isaac told Esau, "Your brother came with trickery" (Genesis 27:35), adding, "and he took out the afikoman." According to the Midrash, this account took place on Passover. Therefore, the children steal the afikoman to get the blessings, which are the present that they ask their fathers to buy for them.
After the meal and customary desserts, the leader of the Seder distributes pieces of the afikoman to each guest. If there is not enough to go around, additional pieces of matzo may be added to each person's portion of afikoman.
The halakha prescribes that an olive-sized piece of matzo be eaten to fulfill the mitzvah of eating the afikoman. Many people eat an additional, olive-sized piece of matzo together with it. The first piece of matzo commemorates the Korban Pesach (Paschal lamb), whose meat was eaten at the very end of the festive Seder meal in the days that the Temple in Jerusalem stood. The second piece commemorates the matzo that was eaten together with the meat of the Paschal Lamb in the days of the Temple, in fulfillment of the Torah commandment, "They shall eat [the Passover lamb] together with matzo and maror" (Exodus 12:8). Like the eating of the matzo earlier in the Seder, the afikoman is eaten while reclining to the left (in Orthodox Jewish circles, women and girls do not lean).
According to halakha, the afikoman must be consumed before midnight, just as the Korban Pesach was eaten before midnight during the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, if the Seder is running late with much singing and discussion of the themes of the Exodus from Egypt, families may have to shorten the meal segment of the Seder and proceed quickly to the afikoman.
After the eating of the afikoman, no other food may be eaten for the rest of the night, other than the last two cups of wine at the Seder and coffee, tea, or water.
The Greek word on which afikoman is based has two meanings, according to the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. Both Talmuds agree on the halakha (stated in the Haggadah under the answer given to the Wise Son) that no other food should be eaten for the rest of the night after the afikoman is consumed. The Babylonian Talmud explains that the word "afikoman" derives from the Greek word for "dessert", the last thing eaten at a meal. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, derives the word afikoman from epikomion, meaning "after-dinner revelry" or "entertainment". It was the custom of Romans and Greeks to move from one party or banquet to another. The halakha prohibiting anything else being eaten after the afikoman therefore enjoins Jews to distinguish their Passover Seder from the pagan rituals of other nations.