The world seems to divide into those who love matzah and those who hate it. I belong unashamedly to the former category; the dog seems to identify with the latter, since I put some pieces of last year’s matzah (not kosher for use this year) in front of him and he didn’t immediately recognise it as food.
Matzah is made from exactly the same ingredients as those which define the making of bread according to halakhah: flour and water. The flour must come from one of the five species of grain, wheat, barley, oat, spelt or rye. The difference is that in the making of matzah the mixture is strictly prevented from rising by the speed with which the dough is mixed (traditionally 18 minutes from the moment water touches the flour until the tray with the rolled and holed matzah is inside the super-hot oven.)
On every other Shabbat and festival we take two loaves for the blessing; at the Seder we use three. Like so many Jewish decisions this is a compromise or combination of ideas. Matzah is ‘the bread if the poor’; just as it is the way of the poor to eat not from a whole but from a ‘broken’ loaf, so we use a broken piece of matzah out of identification with the slaves and the dispossessed. Yet why should Pesach be less cheerful than any other sacred day when we have two whole loaves? We therefore take three matzot and, close to the start of the Seder break the middle one, hiding half as the Afikoman, while the other half is the broken loaf which becomes a central symbol of the Seder.
When we finally reach the meal and say the blessings over the matzah, some people have the tradition of keeping in mind the whole pieces when thanking God for ‘bringing forth bread from the earth’ and the broken piece while saying the special blessing, exclusive to Seder night, acknowledging that God has ‘commanded us concerning eating matzah’.
What I can never understand is how some Haggadot say that one should break the matzah in the shape of letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Over some things one really has no control!
Something about the Seder
I’m sometimes asked what one really must include if the Seder has to be kept short to suit small children, or a family member who isn’t well enough for a lengthy and late evening. Here is a suggested outline.
One can’t skimp at the beginning. Kiddush, the greens, breaking the middle matzah, asking the four questions, – these must be included. (Someone told me yesterday they saw a T-shirt which read: Mah Nishtanah – Dayyenu – Let’s eat)
But most of the middle of the Seder is what the Haggadah calls maggid – telling the story. Here one really can adjust according to opportunity, anything from ten minutes to two hours (or more, but please not at my house). The key requirement is simply to tell the story.
If I had 10 minutes and small children I might: sing a couple of appropriate songs (see our website) and use puppets to demonstrate being slaves and then being free. I probably wouldn’t miss out the 10 plagues,- gory, vivid and totally un-politically correct they are just what many children love.
I would then go back into the Haggadah just before the second cup of wine, to note the three matters, actually four, which Rabban Gamliel taught around the year 100CE that everyone must mention: Pesach (the paschal lamb), matzah and maror, and that we must see this journey not as something which happened to others long ago, but as our journey from slavery to freedom. If there is a family member or close friend at the table who’s experienced such a journey I’d probably ask him or her to tell us about it in a few words; such personal stories make a deep impact on everyone.
Then come the second cup of wine, the matzah, the maror, the charoset, and food. After the food and Grace after Meals, I’d do over the next two cups exactly as many songs, and only so many, as the company enjoy.
Something to ponder
The Seder, like the matzah, is about both wholeness and brokenness.
It is about wholeness, the completeness a person finds only in freedom and dignity protected by justice; in the liberty which allows one to livid fully and deeply according to one’s faith and culture, with similar respect for the safety, wellbeing and integrity of others. That is why Pesach, which we begin by thinking about slavery, is known nevertheless as Zeman Cherutenu, the Season of our Freedom, and why we end the evening by rejoicing in our liberty, thanking God, singing and opening the door which heralds the coming of Elijah, harbinger of redemption and the Messiah. Pesach is the festival of hope.
A Seder isn’t a Seder unless it’s full of fun and joy.
But at the Seder night we also reflect on and identify ourselves with what is far from whole. To remember that we were slaves in Egypt has no moral impact if aren’t mindful that there are also many kinds of slavery today, to tyranny, poverty, curable illness, and numerous forms of cruelty and bullying, – and determine to do something about it.
Early this morning I found these lines by Robert Klein Engler from his poem ‘Passover’: ‘Broken matzoth has a new name. / So does a broken man.’ They remind me of the saying attributed to the Rebbe of Kotsk: ‘There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart’, which in turn recalls the verse from Psalms that ‘God is close to the broken-hearted’.
Misery for misery’s sake is pointless. Perhaps the issue here is that the real problem in the world is hard-heartedness. The open heart, the broken heart, the heart which feels an instinctive closeness and empathy with the cares of others, is in fact the source of hope. It is precisely this which Pesach celebrates, the hope that we can and will travel from cruelty to kindness, from injustice to dignity, from slavery to freedom, from a broken to a healing heart.
We experience broken-heartedness so that we can sing with a full and truly whole heart.