Searching for the afikoman is a rite of passage, and a national pastime. It is one way we as parents have kept our young children awake and engaged for centuries of late night Sedarim. And it just may be the first time a Jewish child learns to bargain. But like everything in our tradition, it posses a profound message.
The word afikoman comes from the Greek epikomion, which means “that which follows the meal.” It’s dessert. But over time, the word afikoman has come to describe the piece of matzah that we eat at the end of the Seder to symbolize the Korban Pesach. The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:8) teaches that one may not eat anything after the Korban Pesach. One is required to leave the Seder with the taste of the Korban Pesach, or today the afikoman, still in their mouth.
Why can’t we eat anything after the afikoman? Why not even a little snack?
“Rabban Gamliel used to say, ‘Whoever has not discussed three things on Pesach has not fulfilled their obligation. They are: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror…. In every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he has left Egypt’” (Pesachim 10:5). Each year, I begin my Seder by saying, “Whoever has not laughed, cried, sung, and danced at the Seder has not fulfilled their obligation.” The mitzvah of relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt should be experiential, emotional, and engaging. Rambam alludes to this when he changes the words of Rabban Gamliel ever so subtly, and writes that one is obligated to “make himself appear,” as if he is leaving Egypt (Hil. Chametz u’Matzah 7:6). Based on this, some families even have the custom to act out parts of the Exodus story.
If done right, the Seder can be a powerful experience. The challenge, of course, is to take the experience with us, to internalize it. And that is why we are not to eat anything after the afikoman. We go to bed with its taste on our lips to remind us to take the experience with us, to savor it.
Perhaps that is also why we answer the question of the Chacham, the Wise Son of the Haggadah, with precisely this law. While wisdom is important, the Seder is not solely an intellectual endeavor. One is required to engage their emotions, to feel something.
And these feelings should linger, just like the taste of the afikoman.