‘Come in and mill it yourselves:’ Nicky and I were in Jerusalem’s Me’ah She’arim, in a courtyard so well hidden we had to ask three times before we found it. Everything was covered in white dust, except that this wasn’t dust but kosher-for-Passover matzah flour. ‘It’s a mitzvah to grind the wheat yourselves,’ said the Hasid in charge. Sadly, on this occasion we couldn’t stay, but, as the saying goes, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
I love it when I bake my own matzah; everyone else loves it when I refrain. This year, when I can neither bake nor mill, I can at least mull, and there’s much to consider about what the matzah at the Seder means.
Firstly, there’s the question of whether it’s the bread of slavery or freedom. At the start of the Seder we say, ‘This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt,’ yet later we describe it as the flatbread baked hastily in liberty’s first flush. Which is it? Both, explains Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, because only by remembering the cruelties of slavery can we appreciate the significance of freedom. Otherwise we’re liable to take it for granted, forget the sufferings of others and squander our own privileges, – until we realise once again how precious freedom is and demonstrate in the streets in its defence.
Then there’s the Torah’s description of matzah as lechem oni, which intrigued the Talmudic rabbis. Oni sounds like oneh, ‘respond’, making matzah the bread of question-and-answer, the food of curiosity. ‘Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Take responsibility for what you communicate,’ wrote Timothy Snyder in his 2017 masterpiece On Tyranny. Don’t rely on social media. Shun the dominion of fake news, the totalitarianism of lies. This too is essential in the defence of liberty.
But oni might equally derive from ani, poor. The Talmud explains: society must work as a team to support the poor just as matzah needs teamwork to make it kosher. Matzah, then, is the bread of society. Therefore I need to know who provided me with it, alongside Rakusens, and God ‘who brings forth bread from the earth.’ Remember where the wealth of nations comes from, wrote David Olusoga in Cotton Capital. Consumer culture tends to forget those whose lives and homelands are consumed in its making. Let matzah, then, be our bread of tzedakah, social and environmental justice.
But no name for matzah is as unlikely as that of the Jewish mystics: lachma de’asvatah, the bread of health. Many stomachs strongly disagree. Maybe, though, this is what the mystics meant: matzah’s made of flour and water, nothing else. There’s no yeast, oil, egg or sugar, not even any salt. Matzah’s simple; simplicity brings clarity and clarity leads to healing. Perhaps there’s an answer to why we’re here on earth which cuts through the complication and confusion: to serve not tyranny but freedom, not tyrants but the presence of God in all persons and all life.
Finally, a thought about process. Matzah can only be made out of the same five kinds of flour from which bread is baked: wheat, barley, oats, spelt or rye. What’s different about matzah isn’t the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. It’s as if the matzah says ‘We can do this a different way.’ That’s a message desperately needed across our world today.
I wish us all a happy and worthwhile Pesach and a year in which we truly value freedom.