The Festival of Matzos
The Festival of Matzos
Passover is most often referred to in the Torah as Chag HaMatzot, literally the Festival of Matzahs (unleavened bread).30 Clearly, the eating of matzah and the prohibition against leavened bread (in Hebrew, chametz) are defining features of the festival.
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread [matzah]… you shall observe the Festival of Matzot; for on this same day I brought you out of the land of Egypt; therefore, you shall observe this day throughout all your generations as a statute forever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month in the evening.
They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes, for they could not be leavened, for they were driven from Egypt for they could not delay, nor had they made any provisions for themselves.
It is clear from the above Biblical verses that the obligation to eat matzah and the prohibition against eating chametz are central to the observances of Pesach. In order to understand the symbolism of chametz and matzah we must first understand what they are. Both chametz and matzah are the products of mixing flour made of wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt, with water. If the dough is left alone, a chemical reaction known as leavening will take place. Enzymes in the flour convert starch into fermentable sugars, which in turn produce carbon dioxide gas as a product of their fermentation. This gas causes the dough to rise. When the risen dough is baked, it becomes regular leavened bread, classic chametz.
Matzah is also produced by mixing flour and water together, but rather than leaving the mixture alone, it is continuously and vigorously kneaded so that the gas can escape. The dough is rolled out flat, and holes are made all over it to release steam during baking. It is then placed very quickly into an oven where the intense heat stops the leavening process and bakes the bread. Bread produced this way is “unleavened” and is known as matzah.
On the simplest level, the only difference between a loaf of bread and matzah is that the bread is inflated and matzah is flat. Matzah is the food of a humble slave, who does not have time to let the bread rise, and who eats foods that will leave him feeling full for hours afterwards.37 For this reason, matzah is also called lechem oni, the bread of affliction or poverty.38 Matzah commemorates the bread of slavery that the Jewish people ate in Egypt, prepared in haste, without the luxury of time to let it rise.
The fact that the Jewish people also ate matzah, slave food, at the moment of their redemption indicates that the Jews were powerless to save themselves. They were slaves up to the last moment, and only through God’s miraculous intervention did they go free. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Jews ate matzah on the eve of the Exodus …so that in the great hour of liberation it would be impressed deeply on their minds that they had contributed nothing to their liberation, that in the very hour of liberation they were still slaves eating the bread of affliction until the word of God created anew the freedom which had been wrested from man… Thus did unleavened bread become an everlasting memorial throughout the generations to the redemption from Egypt brought about by God alone.
The matzah, therefore, teaches us that the Jews did not leave Egypt through a successful slave revolt. It symbolizes that the Jews were not liberated through outstanding human leadership, bravery or military cunning. Understanding the Exodus inspires us with humility and gratitude to God.
Eating matzah also reminds us of another reason for gratitude. The Jews were in Egypt for 210 years and suffered slavery under a brutal and oppressive regime. In addition to physical servitude, the Jewish people suffered spiritually: they abandoned the pure monotheism of Abraham and began to worship Egyptian gods. Many Jews lost hope of ever leaving Egypt or becoming free: over time, they began to consider themselves Egyptians. According to some sources, as many as four-fifths of the Jewish people died in Egypt before the Exodus. Some suggest that they may not actually have died, but rather ceased to exist as Jews and remained as Egyptians in Egypt.
Kabbalists describe the spiritual state of the Jewish people in Egypt as having descended to the 49th level of impurity. Had they stayed in Egypt even one moment longer and reached the 50th, last level, they would have assimilated entirely into Egyptian culture and been lost forever. God took the Jews out with haste because they were at the brink of oblivion. The departure was so hasty that the Jews did not even prepare food for the trip, and did not even have time to bake regular bread – they ate matzah because they got out “just in time.” So another reason we eat matzah is in recognition of God’s kindness in getting us out at the right moment7
The significance of time in the events of Passover is evident on a number of other levels as well. Time is a critical factor in the difference between chametz and matzah. Leavened bread is dough that has clearly been affected by time, while matzah is dough that has not been affected by time. When it is left alone, the passage of time has an impact on the dough, since it enables the processes of fermentation and rising. Only by kneading the dough continuously and baking it quickly are the effects of time avoided. One of the greatest taskmasters of a human being is time; therefore matzah is the ultimate food of liberation. It is bread that was liberated from the effects of time.
Matzah also reminds us of another aspect of the haste with which the Jewish people left Egypt: “…for seven days you shall eat matzot… for you departed from Egypt in haste…” The transformation from exile to redemption and from slavery to freedom occurred almost instantaneously. This was only possible because it was a miraculous process, outside the normal evolutionary progress of time. The speed with which the redemption took place was therefore a sign of its Divine origin, as the ancient Hebrew saying tells us, “The salvation of God is like the blinking of an eye”
Matzah reminds us that that we “just made it,” that we were eating slave food up until the last moment. It is both an acknowledgement of God’s kindness in the past as well as a statement of hope for the future. If the dire situation in Egypt could be changed in an instant – in the blink of an eye — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light and from exile to redemption, then our present state of exile from God and homeland can be reversed just as swiftly.
(Excerpted from Gateway to Judaism, Mordechai Becher, Shaar Press/Artscroll)