Matzah as Différance

The sign is usually said to be put in the place of the thing itself.

Jacques DerridaDifférance

Passover, especially the symbolically dense Seder, is, if anything, a holiday of signs in the Derridean sense. In 1968, Derrida wrote his influential critique of modern structuralism and coined the term différance. This was a play on the two meanings of the French différer, which means both “to defer” and “to differ.” His argument was that the dichotomy between sign and signified and the way that meaning is constituted in classic structuralist thought through a series of oppositions (a “weave of differences”) was not necessarily fixed, but essentially fluid. Meaning was not immediate, but a matter of temporal becoming. At each stage of consciousness, of becoming awareness, we ask who we are, what we are, in relation to what came before us and where we find ourselves now. This Derrida called “the unfolding of Being.” I suggest that this night, different from all others, is nothing less.

What is matzah? It is the collapsing of the present into spacefullness which both enshrines the past and destroys it as it heralds the future. It is what it is because of what it has not become; it is a becoming always a potential; always almost, but also essential. Matzah is time-bound removed from time. Matzah defers the encroaching present into the future bound to the past. Matzah differentiates between those times, between peoples, between what was and could be. Matzah is différance.

In time, deferring—the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space:

This day will be memorialized for you, and you will celebrate it as a festival to God for all of your generations, an eternal law. Seven days eat matzah, yet on the first day destroy all leavening from your homes, for any who eat hametz will be cut off from Israel… Guard the matzot, for on this very day, I took all your multitudes out of the land of Egypt…

Matzah is the product of slavery, recalling oppression of a given age forever. It is this time made into space for it is itself the result of flour and water not risen, that is without the time to rise. Time is what is missing and matzah becomes timeless: an eternal law. It gives meaning to not. Not rising, lacking the volume of bread, it is food—nourishment—that encapsulates the stealing of time from the slave as the stealing of his very physicality. In a moment it can ferment and become what it cannot be.

They baked the dough that they took from Egypt into matzah, for it did not rise…for they could not tarry… The settlement of the Israelites in Egypt lasted 430 years. At the end of 30 years and 400 years, just on this very day, God’s multitudes left the land of Egypt.

In the middle of the night, after 430 years, there is no more time, no time to tarry, only timelessness and it is baked into matzah and eaten.

In difference — it is not hametz. That is, it is only what it is because it is not something else. Matzah separates the Jews from the Egyptians, the oppressed from the oppressors and essentially, those who will accept its differentiation, who are willing to be different, from those who are not: for any who eat hametz will be cut off from Israel. And through its differentiation, it unites those who are always different. Forever, just on this very day.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.
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