Lazer Gurkow
Lazer Gurkow

Matzah and the Forbidden Fruit

Matzah and the forbidden fruit? Most people would be surprised to learn that the two are linked, but that is because most people believe that the forbidden fruit was an apple. Our sages argued over the identity of this fruit, but no one thought it was an apple.

Rabbi Meir said it was a vine since many sins occur after people imbibe. Rabbi Nechemiah thought it was a fig since Adam and Eve wrapped themselves in fig leaves after eating from the forbidden fruit. Rabbi Yehudah said it was wheat.] It is Rabbi Yehudah’s view that brings us around to the Matzah because Matzah is also (usually) made of wheat.

The Jewish mystics taught that when we perform the Mitzvah of eating Matzah at the Seder table, we reverse the effects of the forbidden fruit. They ate wheat to transgress G-d’s will. We turn it around and eat wheat to fulfill G-d’s will.

On the surface it seems random. They ate wheat and we eat wheat so one atones for the other. Is there any more meat (or wheat) on this bone or is that all there is?

Self-Conscious
Let’s unpack this a little. When you consider the dispute among our sages, you have to wonder a little. How did any of them know which fruit it was? And if this information had been passed down to them through the generations, why wasn’t it properly preserved?

One rabbi offered a novel explanation. There wasn’t only one forbidden fruit. Every tree in the garden bore forbidden fruit. The fruit itself wasn’t forbidden, the way they ate the fruit was.

You might recall that Adam and Eve were unaware and unashamed of their own nakedness until they ate the forbidden fruit. Once they ate the fruit, they became self-aware and self-conscious.

Before they partook of the forbidden fruit, they didn’t notice themselves. They were aware of G-d, the garden, and their role in it. Just like animals are unabashed in their nakedness and view it as natural, so did Adam and Eve. Man and woman were designed to procreate and their role was simply to perform this Mitzvah. There was nothing shameful or shady about it. On the contrary, procreation is beautiful and holy.

Once they ate the forbidden fruit, they became aware of selfish cravings. Nakedness was no longer about natural procreation; it was now about satisfying self-serving urges. This is why the forbidden fruit grew on what is called the tree of knowledge. Once they ate the fruit, they came to know shameful cravings, which gave rise to shame and they wrapped themselves in fig leaves.

This demonstrates that the tree of knowledge imparted self-awareness—the awareness of self vis a vis everyone around us. Before the forbidden fruit, they simply were. They did what needed to be done and said what needed to be said. Once they became self-aware, everything was processed through the prism of self-consciousness.

This self-consciousness wasn’t miraculously imparted by the forbidden fruit. No particular fruit has the power to inject self-awareness or stir cravings. It wasn’t the fruit that imparted this knowledge and shattered their innocence; it was the consciousness with which they ate it.

G-d said to them, you may eat from all the trees of the garden, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge. This means, eat any fruit that strikes your fancy, but don’t eat to satisfy your own cravings. Don’t eat with a consciousness of self. Eat with a consciousness of G-d. Don’t think about yourself when you eat. Think only of G-d, the garden, and the role that you must play.

All the fruit were forbidden if eaten with self-consciousness. All the fruit were permissible if eaten with divine consciousness. Indeed, they partook of the vine, the fig, and the wheat with an attitude and awareness of self. Thus, our sages were correct to discuss a variety of forbidden fruit. They weren’t arguing. They were pointing out the various fruits eaten on that day.

Matzah
Once they ate from the forbidden fruit, it was impossible to turn the clock back. Once innocence is shattered, it is impossible to put it back together again. Ever since, we struggle with our eating habits. We want to eat for a higher purpose, we want to eat a healthy diet, yet we are driven to satisfy cravings and urges that stir within us at the table.

This is true of all things except for Matzah. Matzah doesn’t have an aromatic bouquet or a gourmet flavor. It is a simple flat cracker made of wheat and water. In fact, Matzah can be somewhat laborious to eat. But at the Seder table, we don’t eat Matzah for the taste (even if some of us enjoy the crunch). We don’t eat it for our sake. We eat it because it is a Mitzvah. We eat it to celebrate Passover. In other words, we eat it for G-d.

Nowadays, Matzah is the only food that is eaten exclusively for the purpose of a Mitzvah. It is true that our Shabbat and holiday meals are a Mitzvah, but no particular dish fulfills that Mitzvah. Wine and Challah are obligatory, but they are not defined as a Mitzvah. The only food that requires a Mitzvah blessing in addition to the blessing recited over the food, is Matzah at the Seder table. We eat it directly and specifically to perform a Mitzvah. It is not for us. It is for G-d.

This is the key characteristic of Matzah. Unlike bread that is chametz, the Matzah dough is not permitted to rise. Rising dough represents an inflated sense of self—emblematic of the forbidden fruit that imparted a consciousness of self to Adam and Eve. Matzah is a humble bread; low and flat. It isn’t self-centered. It is mission-oriented. We eat it because G-d wants us to eat it. We eat it because it is a Mitzvah. Hence it reverses the effects of the forbidden fruit.

Thus, say the mystics, Matzah is the bread of humbleness. When you eat bread, you are filled with yourself, your own ego, your own cravings, your own hunger. When you eat Matzah, you are humbled. Rather than yourself, your mind fills with thoughts of G-d.

So, as you sit down to eat Matzah at your Seder table, consider the following meditation. Recline in your seat, close your eyes, and imagine yourself celebrating your last night in Egypt as G-d descends to slay the firstborn. Take a deep breath and take a bite of Matzah. Feel the holiness of the Mitzvah spread through your body. Visualize yourself responding to the Matzah’s message of humility. Imagine yourself standing before G-d and reverse the effects of the forbidden fruit.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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