Seems a silly question. We know that it is the piece of matzah, broken early in the seder and hidden until the end of the meal, which we ceremoniously unveil to eat as the last item in the seder. And that is certainly the way we use the term today. But it is not that at all, and therein lies a tale. Or maybe two.
The Talmuds, both Babylonian (Bavli) and Palestinian (Yerushalmi) ask the question -- What is Afikoman? which they seem to ask because of the oddity of the word, though they are more or less in accord as to what it refers to. The word is clearly not Hebrew nor is it Aramaic (although there were attempts in the middle ages to give it an Aramaic derivation which, of course, fail). The word is clearly Greek -- something that the classic rabbis fairly often resorted to when they wished to refer to a Hellenistic institution that did not have a clear Jewish analog. (That sort of linguistic borrowing is still going on today. In an irony they seem not to have noticed, the official body in Israel for maintaining the purity of Hebrew is called HaAcademia LaLashon HaIvrit).
There is a fairly robust academic consensus as to its derivation. There was a Greek practice, at the end of a major feast, to continue the partying long after. This practice was known as “epikomos” or “epikomios,” roughly “after banquet”. The thing is, the rabbis wanted to prevent that sort of partying after the seder, so that the Pesach story would not get lost in the after hours revelry. So the Mishnah rules (Pesachim 10:8) -- One may not have Afikoman after the Pesach meal. In fact, that should really be at the top of our minds, as that is precisely what the Haggadah has the parent tell the wise son who asked about the laws of Pesach. “Tell him the laws of Pesach, that it is forbidden to add Afikoman after the Pesach meal.” I trust we were all wise children, so that is what we were told. Besides, we all read the four sons passage every year. The Talmud (Pesachim 119b), when it asks what is Afikoman, has its discussion about what you may not do or have at the end of the seder. Rav says: you may not go out to party. Shmuel says: This refers to after dinner delicacies. R. Yochanan mentions sweets. In the Yerushalmi parallel R. Simon adds not to sing party songs. (I guess Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya got shoehorned in because they were considered religious and befitting the occasion).
But all this early literature from the second and third century is clear that Afikoman is not about the last bit of matzah that we are required to have, but about something else that we are forbidden.
The first solution to this problem is simply to assume that the term was transferred from the after-dinner things you can’t have to the one after-dinner thing you can have -- that piece of ritual matzah. And that is basically the case according to the preponderance of opinion -- but has some more context behind it. For there is not, in the Mishnah that describes the seder, any such requirement of a piece of after-dinner matzah, let alone one hidden from the start of the seder. It seems that early on (we don’t know how early, but the subject is the Pesach offering meat, so this would seem to be before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE), the custom arose to save some of the Pesach meat to eat at the end of the seder, “when sated,” as a text explains. After the destruction of the Temple, then, that hole in the customary practice of the seder would have been filled by substituting a piece of matzah. But, then, why it not important enough a custom to make the description of the seder in the Mishnah?
Still, in Babylonia in the third century, just a generation after the Mishnah, Samuel supports this custom, and, transferring the words that the Mishnah uses about the Pesach offering, says the same about the final matzah -- “One may not have Afikoman after the matzah.” But it was not sufficiently clear that he meant the final matzah, (maybe some were following the Mishnah and not doing a final matzah) -- so some wondered how you could possibly not eat (Afikoman meaning to have delicacies, that is, food) after the initial matzah, and concluded that the right version of Samuel’s dictum must be “You may have Afikoman (= food) after the matzah.” And that version, “You may have Afikoman after the matzah” might well be the source of the practice of calling the final matzah the afikoman, which became prevalent in the middle ages, and which we just assume. Voila. Riddle solved.
Along comes a scholar with a very different idea. One that has not been well received or accepted, for in truth it is altogether speculative, and academics don’t like to operate that way. In the middle of the twentieth century David Daube, a rabbinics and New Testament scholar, suggested that the custom of breaking a matzah at the beginning of the seder, hiding it during the seder, and “discovering” it after the seder, might have been an early Messianic ritual, seeing our current state as incomplete, and hoping that the Messiah will return from his hiddenness to complete us in the (near) future. Thus the final matzah would not have been in lieu of the Pesach meat, but it would have been a separate, well-known Messianic ritual, perhaps not followed by everyone, but by some. Think of our own seder that has the cup of Elijah, in the RA version of the Haggadah (though it is not in the classic Haggadah) the seder company sings “Ani Maamin” -- I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and then ends with the ringing declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Afikoman, the Greek word, he argues, does not come from the Greek “after the banquet” as everyone else says, but it comes from a verb -- afikomenos -- which, while a rare term, means “he that is coming.” The final matzah, as he imagined, was a symbol of the coming Messiah and would have been “discovered” along with a declaration like our Ani Maamin or Next Year in Jerusalem. That explains, he further argued, the dramatic moment at the Last Supper of Jesus and his apostles depicted in the Gospels (it is on the first night of Pesach according to some but not all of the Gospels, and so might have been a seder), the dramatic moment when he breaks bread and says “This is my body.” If the broken matzah was common as a symbol of the Messiah -- then Jesus’ declaration might be his revelation that he saw himself as the Messiah, that which the broken matzah in his hand purported to symbolize. Now the emerging Christian church went and based the Eucharist upon this, and has everyone eating matzah like wafers which are understood, at least by the Catholic church, as God’s literal body through transubstantiation. But the New Testament is in Greek, whereas Jesus would have spoken to the apostles in Aramaic and said, not “this is my body,” but “this is me.” I am the Messiah.
If this is so, continues Daube, then it is no wonder that the Mishnah ruled, one hundred years fifty after Jesus’ death, when the Christian churches were beginning to flourish, that Jews should not do the Afikoman ceremony. Why they wiped all memory of that ritual out of Jewish memory, for it had effectively been coopted as Christian propaganda. He notes that neither the breaking of the matzah, nor the hiding, nor the eating at the end are described in the Mishnah -- and it has been noted that each of those is done in silence, without a blessing or other text to recite. As if the Rabbis wanted to discount that particular practice.
Thus when Samuel sought to support the ceremony -- which, Daube imagined had continued in Babylonia despite the ruling of the Mishnah in Palestine which had tried to quash it, he did so not aware of the old Messianic trope, but by associating the final matzah with the old rule about the Pesach meat. The final matzah really was called the Afikoman, and is not called that by mistake. The ritual we do, the old Afikomen ceremony, as Daube describes it, was rescued and repurposed by Samuel.
Am I convinced. Not officially. The academics are right that there is no evidence whatsoever of the ritual Daube imagines. But there is such richness in his imagination, and such good correlation with what is otherwise such a comedy of errors, I have to admit being drawn to it. But we are Conservative Jews, and I, as your rabbi, do not offer you a ruling, just ideas and data to stir about in your own imaginings.
Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach.
Rabbi Reisner, Pesach 5775