In Masechet Pesachim (109a) the Gemara discusses a Beraita which relates, “Rabi Eliezer Omeir: Chotfin Matzot BeLeilei Pesachim Bishvil Tinokot SheLo Yishnu,” “Rabi Eliezer said: One is “choteif” the Matzah on Pesach nights for the benefit of the small children, lest they fall asleep.” Rav Shimon Schwab, quoted in Rav Schwab on Prayer, cites Rashi and Rashbam commenting on the Gemara and offers some explanations of what Rabi Eliezer meant by the seemingly ambiguous concept of “Chotfin Matzot.”
The first explanation cited by Rav Schwab is, “Magbihin Et HaKe’ara Bishvil Tinokot SheYishalu,” “The Seder plate [containing the Matzot] is lifted in order to arouse the children’s
curiosity so they ask questions.” The goal of the Seder night is to have the children ask questions so that the father can answer and retell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim.
The next reason that Rav Schwab mentions, referred to by Rashi as the primary reason, is that we eat the Matzah before Chatzot (midnight), so that the children will be alert for Mitzvot HaLayla, the Mitzvot of the night, specifically Matzah and Maror. They will then ask questions, to which the father will respond, “Because of this Hashem took me out of Mitzrayim.”
Rav Schwab quotes the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 472:1 with Mishnah Berurah 3 and Shaar HaTziyun 2), who writes that nowadays we follow both Minhagim by both lifting the Seder plate and eating quickly so that the children will have opportunities to ask questions. Rav Schwab then cites another explanation, one that we do not actively practice, for the people sitting at the Seder to snatch another person’s Matzot from him, also with the goal of stimulating the children to ask questions.
The final Minhag quoted by Rav Schwab to explain of the term “Chotfin Matzot” is the very well known custom of having the children pilfer the Matzah away from the father when he is “not looking” and offering a prize to the children in exchange for the Afikoman’s return. Rav Schwab relates that he does not like to refer to it as “stealing the Matzah” because stealing is a sin and is in violation of one of the Aseret HaDibrot. He thus points out that such a practice is not in fact stealing because the Matzah is not being removed from the home. Instead, Rav Schwab refers to the practice as “Hiding the Matzot” since the eating of the Afikoman is actually called Tzafun, literally meaning “hidden.”
Although Rav Schwab felt that it was poor Chinuch to label this Minhag “stealing,” I have seen such an idea turned into a beneficial game. The leader of the Seder pretends that the Matzot were indeed stolen and that, in order to prevent a Chilul Hashem and allow for the completion of the Seder, there will be a ransom given to whoever “stole” the Matza upon its safe return.
It is clear that no matter what Minhag people have, the goal is to use the Matzah, one of the main Mitzvot HaLayla, as a vehicle to keep the children alert and asking questions in order to be able to answer them with the retelling of Yetziat Mitzrayim, leading to a livelier and more meaningful Seder for everyone involved.