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06.04.2020 16:58    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: torah  pessach  holidays  5780  

This matzah…what does it signify?

The usual answer to “This unleavened cake, which we now eat, what does it signify?” is the one given in the Haggadah:

This unleavened cake, which we now eat, what does it signify? Because the dough of our ancestors had not time to become leavened, when the Holy Supreme King of kings, blessed be He, appeared unto them, and redeemed them.

If so, matzah is to remind us our being redeemed and is thus the symbol of freedom. This view is most poignant in the response to this question as presented in ancient manuscripts of the Mishnah: “Matzah [is eaten] because they were redeemed.” However, at the beginning of the Seder we declare over the matzah that it is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. This remark is based on the text of Scripture: “For seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress” (Deut. 16:3). How can these two passages be reconciled? Is matzah a symbol of freedom or a reminder of bondage? Further, we must ask: what was the significance of the matzah that was eaten with the pascal sacrifice when the Israelites left Egypt? It seems to have been at the nexus of bondage and liberation.

Let us begin with the last question. The matzah that was eaten along with the pascal lamb on the eve of the exodus from Egypt is connected neither with bondage nor with liberation. Matzah is the usual form of bread eaten alongside the sacrifices. The Netziv notes that when the Temple stood, “Regarding the commandment of eating unleavened bread, it was interpreted as being none other than an expression of thanks for redemption, as in the bread in the offering of thanksgiving.” In his commentary (on Deut. 16), Netziv connected this with the practice in Franco-Germany of baking the three matzahs out of a tenth-part of an ephah (= bushel) of flour, which is the amount that would be used to make three of the thirty unleavened cakes presented as part of the sacrifice of thanksgiving.

A simpler explanation of matzah being present at the Passover celebrated in Egypt can be found in an overall view of the original Passover feast. This meal was eaten in haste, in anticipation of the exodus from Egypt. The people sat with their loins girded, feet shod, ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice. Even the food eaten at this feast was the kind that could be made quickly—a fast food feast. The pascal lamb was roasted—the quickest way of cooking meat, and the bread was unleavened—the quickest way of making bread. Leavened bread requires hours of preparation: time for the dough to ferment and rise, for it to be kneaded again and rise a second time. Matzah is made the same way pita is made today: mix flour and water, and immediately stick it onto the walls of a clay oven.

This explanation helps us understand why matzah is bread of affliction, the bread of slaves. Slaves do not have time to bake leavened bread. They receive their ration of flour and must bake it and eat it quickly so that they can get back to work. Their time is not their own. This brings us to the other extreme: matzah as the symbol of freedom.

In the Haggadah it says that we eat matzah because our ancestor’s dough did not have time to ferment. This assertion is based on a specific interpretation of an event which is far from clear. The Torah recounts:

So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls (mish’arotam) wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders…And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened (Ex. 12:34-39).

The Haggadah’s reading is that, in the natural way of things, the dough would have become leavened by the time they reached a place where they could bake it, but by way of some miracle the dough did not become leavened.

The question is whether the people wanted the dough to be leavened or not. Biblical exegetes are divided on this question. Rashi (Ex. 12:34, s.v. “before it became leavened”) says, “The Egyptians did not let them wait long enough for it to ferment.” We can imagine the people’s eagerness to eat leavened bread after having eaten unleavened bread for so long, just the way people stand in line to by bread after Passover. But the dough of those who left Egypt had not yet fermented, and therefore they ate it unleavened.

This reading, however, is not agreed to by all. Nahmanides’ interpretation (Ex. 12:39) says that the people wished to bake their dough as matzah, before it leavened, prior to their departure from Egypt, because of the proscription, “No leaven shall be found in your houses.” But the Israelites had not had time to do so because the Egyptians chased them out. Therefore, at their first stop along the way they baked the dough which had not yet had time to ferment. Nahmanides does not mention that there is something exceptional happening here, but we can understand that the fact the dough had not fermented along the way is contrary to nature. We thus have a difference of opinion as to whether the Israelites wished the first bread they ate upon liberation to be unleavened or leavened bread.

In trying to resolve this difference of opinion, we must pay attention to the beginning of the event. Scripture attests that when the Israelites left Egypt they took “their kneading bowls [Heb. mish’arotam] wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders” (Ex. 12:34). Two issues of interpretation occupied exegetes with regard to this verse. One is the meaning of mish’arotam and the other is why they carried mish’arotam “wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders,” instead of putting them on the beasts of burden that were with them and on which they placed the plunder that the took from Egypt.

It would take too long to go into all the views that have been expressed on the subject. Suffice it to say that most commentators understood mish’arotam as referring to the bowls in which they kneaded the dough. Thus, they placed the bowls containing the dough on their shoulders. Why? Shadal seems to have been the first to suggest that the objective was to cause the dough to rise. They expected that their own body warmth and exposure of the dough to the warmth of the sun would make the dough rise by the time they reached a place where they could bake it. A similar technique is referred to in the Arad inscriptions, dating to the First Temple period. We have an inscription that tells how dough was transported from Beer Sheba to Arab, “the day of the journey being used to ferment the dough so that it be ready to bake upon arrival” (Y. Aharoni, Ketovot Arad, p. 19).

If this is so, why did the Holy One, blessed be He, prevent the Jews from eating leavened bread when they were freed from Egypt? Perhaps He wished to inform them that even after leaving Egypt their time was not their own. They had been liberated from servitude to Egypt, but they were entering a different servitude. Henceforth, “it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). But, in a wondrous way this servitude grants freedom. As Rabbi Judah ha-Levy put it in his ever-abiding words: “The slaves of time—slaves of slaves are they; the servant of G‑d—that individual alone is free. And so when every human seeks his portion, my soul says, ‘My portion is the Lord’s.’”[1]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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