Something Practical – About Matzah
The Torah calls it both matzah and lechem oni, ‘unleavened bread’ and ‘the bread of affliction’. Some people love it, others find it the cause of affliction, but I’ve never met anyone who’s indifferent to matzah. But what makes matzah into matzah: how is this bread different from all other breads?
There are at least three kinds of answer. Firstly there’s the question of the ingredients and the way in which matzah is baked. Matzah may be made of any one of five species of grain, wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats, – precisely the same kinds of grain used to make bread. What’s unique about the recipe is that the only other admissible ingredient inmatzah is water. But the baking process is entirely different from bread-making. From the first, the grain to be ground into flour for matzah must be treated with the greatest of care so as not to allow it to become damp. The Hasidim would ‘watch’ it from the time of reaping, keeping it in a double bag in the kitchen from the day of the harvest until the eve of Pesach, in order to fulfil in full the injunction ’unshemartem et hamatzot’ – ‘you shall watch, or guard, the matzot’. Others say that it is sufficient to watch and protect the flour from the time of milling. The heavy grinding wheels of the mills had to be specially cleaned and the flour carefully kept dry.
In the process of baking, every measure must be taken to prevent the dough from rising. It is the current custom to allow just eighteen minutes from the moment the water touches the dry flour until the rolled and finished matzah enters the preheated over. Water, flour and hands must be kept cool. The dough may not rest idle for a moment. If that happens, or if it produces the ‘signs’, – either cracks like a locust’s horns or a silvery grey colour across the surface -, the dough has begun to leaven. The rolled out matzot should be perforated all over to keep them flat, but one is not permitted to make designs in case one should be tempted to spend too long trying to fulfil one’s artistic ambitions and the dough rises up in revolt. These are the technicalities of matzah baking in a (kosher lePesach) nutshell.
But there is a second kind of explanation. Matzah is called lechem ani, says the Talmud, the bread of the poor; just as poor people bake in a team, so matzah can only be made by teamwork. Look at the quaint illustrations in any old-fashioned Haggadah and you’ll see: one person measures out the flour, another holds the water, others knead the dough, yet others roll it out, a further person has the pronged roller (it looks like a miniature plough, the sort you could imagine harnessed to a guinea pig) to make the holes. A final member puts the matzot in the oven and takes them out ready baked. Indeed, a small note in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law compiled by Joseph Caro, indicates that since all matzot look fairly alike, if one has them baked in a communal oven one shouldn’t mind if they get mixed up with somebody else’s productions. In other wordsmatzah is the food of community, the product of solidarity.
A third explanation in the Talmud plays on the word ani, as if it derived from the verb ana, or ‘answer’: this is ‘the bread over which questions are answered’, it explains. Matzah is the bread of the story.
Something about the Haggadah – the place of Matzah in the story
At the beginning of the Seder we break the middle of the three matzot, hold up the broken piece (the other half is hidden as the Afikoman) and say, ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt’. But much later in the evening, we quote the teaching of Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin and therefore leader of the Jewish community in the early 2nd century not long after the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple, and say: ‘Thismatzah which we eat, why do we do so? Because there was no time for the dough of our ancestors to rise…because they were driven out of Egypt’ – In other words it has become the bread of the Exodus, the bread of hope and freedom. The mystics had yet another name for it altogether; they called it ‘the bread of healing’, by which they surely meant moral and spiritual health.
How may these aspects of the matzah be connected? It’s difficult to know exactly whatmatzah originally represented. It may well have been the food of royalty, as Rabbi Chaim Weiner suggests; after all, matzah can only be baked from newly mixed ingredients, so to be served such fresh bread would be a mark of honour. But at some point it came to represent affliction, ‘because poor people in their destitution, will take some flour, knead it, and bake it into unleavened cakes and eat it immediately’, wrote Samuel Al-Magrabi, continuing, ‘others say it signifies bread suitable to the hardships of travel’.
If I could give matzah a name of my own, I’d call it the bread of identity. I sometimes think of the illustration used by World Jewish Relief in its Pesach appeal many years ago: it showed the joy of an elderly and destitute woman upon receiving a box of matzah. She felt included, no longer forgotten, part of the story of our people’s past and the community of our present. Matzah is the bread of that journey, travelling with us from hopelessness to aspiration, from slavery to freedom. It unites us; we can’t even bake it on our own, let alone tell its story by ourselves. We do not eat it in isolation; we may not sit down to our Seder unless we’ve help enabled the poorest of our communities to do likewise. Its simplicity links us to other groups and peoples in their struggles. It thus becomes the food of our vision, the first taste in our journey towards freedom.