Mordechai Silverstein

Don’t ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

The 12th chapter of Shemot, found in Parshat Bo, marks a turning point in the Torah. It contains the Torah’s first designated mitzvot – commandments concerning Pesah – the holiday which celebrates both the redemption of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage and their formation as a people. The Torah presents the details for observing Pesah, including the preparation of the Korban Pesah, the Passover sacrifice, and the special regulations for baking and eating unleavened bread, matzah. The Torah emphasizes the meticulous processes necessary for carrying out these commandments, and in particular, the making of matzah, which has become the symbol for the festival. One sentence sums up the Torah’s concern for the proper performance of this commandment:

And you shall observe [guard] the [Festival of] Matzot, for on this very day I brought out your ranks from the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages, an everlasting statute.” (Exodus 12:17)

The above English translation of the first part of this sentence “doctors” the original Hebrew which literally reads:

And you shall guard (u’shmartem) the matzot (spelled in Hebrew: mem tzadi vav tav).

The earliest rabbinic midrashim on this verse offer interpretations of how the sages from the period of the Mishnah understood the pshat or plain meaning of this verse:

“And you shall guard the matzot” (Exodus 12:17): that they not become unfit — from this they say: If the dough started to rise, let her (the kneading woman) splash it with cold water; if it became leavened (“se’or”), it should be burned, and one who eats it is exempt; or if it developed cracks, it should be burnt; and one who eats it is liable to karet (a form of punishment). Which is “se’or”? (If it took on the appearance of) “locust horns.” “sidduk” (“splitting”) — if its splits intermingled. These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah. The sages say: In both instances (i.e., se’or and sidduk), the eater is liable to karet. Which is se’or? If it took on the (pale) appearance of one whose hairs stood on end (from fright). (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Piska 9, Lauterbach ed. p. 73-4 – my translation)

Another midrash from a parallel source reflects similar concerns:

“And you shall guard the matzot”: Rabbi Yehudah says: “This was taught [in regard] to the caution [required] in performing commandments. It teaches that three women knead in three kneading troughs, this one after this one. The Sages say: Three women busy themselves with dough, one kneads, arranges and one bakes. Rabbi Akiva says: Not all women are alike, nor is all wood is alike, neither are all ovens alike… (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai 12:17, p. 22)

What is clear from these two sources is that the original rationale for “guarding” the matzah was to ensure the meticulous care necessary to guarantee that the matzah would not become hametz (leaven) during the baking process. This understanding of “guarding” continued in the early generations of the Talmud. At some later juncture, “guarding” also came to include other rationales and strictures as well. The evolution of this concept is quite intricate but for our purposes it is sufficient to note the special care required in the making of matzah for the sake of performing the mitzvah. (For further study, see Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah, pp. 247-8)

The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, however, offers a second interpretation of this unusual verse, one which veers from its pshat meaning. If we pay attention to the letters used to spell out the word “matzot”, we note that if we change its vocalization, these same letters also spell out the word “mitzvot – commandments” (In fact, in the Samaritan Torah, the verse reads “mitzvah” and not “matzot”.) The following playful midrash takes the lesson that the baking of matzah requires diligence and care and applies it to how we should observe all of the mitzvot, and, in fact, how we should lead our Jewish lives:

“And you shall guard the matzot”: Rabbi Yoshiah says: Read it not “And you shall guard the matzot”, but rather: “And you shall guard (observe) the mitzvot.” Just as matzot are not permitted to become hametz (leaven), so, too, one should not allow a mitzvah to become hametz, rather, if the opportunity of a mitzvah presents itself to you, rush to perform it. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Piska 9, Lauterbach ed. p. 74 – my translation)

In Hebrew, we even say that one should not “makhmitz – pass up or miss” (notice the root letters of the word “hametz” in the verb) an opportunity. To have an effectual relationship with our identity as Jews, we must approach what we do with diligence, zeal and enthusiasm – making sure we do not pass up on our opportunities to deepen our relationship with our tradition and with God. Perhaps it is time to start to approach our Jewish identities in a manner contrary to the stereotypic Jewish contrarians and adopt the motto – “Don’t ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’”!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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