On Saturday night, the vast majority of Jews around the world will celebrate Pesach with three matzot on their table. However, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, better known as the Vilna Gaon, argued that one should not use three matzot at the seder but instead only two. The Vilna Gaon was not alone in this regard. Maimonides also believed that one should only use two matzot at the seder. He writes that we break one matzah and then recite HaMotzei over a whole matzah and the incomplete one.
This is done in deference to the Torah’s description of matzah as Lehem Oni — the bread of the poor. A poor person cannot afford whole loaves of bread so we at the seder must reenact this experience of deprivation and make HaMotzei on a morsel of matzah. The Vilna Gaon and Maimonides aim to ensure that the seder is a visceral experience felt not just in the mind but by the body as well. But why do so few people follow this custom at the seder?
The Rabbis of the Talmud writes that just as a double portion of Manna fell Erev Shabbat while the Jewish People were in the desert, so too did a double portion of Manna fall before the holidays. As a result, we need to have Lehem Mishneh, two whole loaves of bread, on our tables for our Yom Tov meals. The medieval commentator, Rashi writes that if only one and a half matzot are used at the seder, Pesach will appear inferior to the other holidays. Rashi used three matzot, one that would be broken in accord with the Torah’s description of matzah as Lehem Oni and two that would remain whole. It is not even clear that Rashi thought one should eat the broken matzah at all, instead its main purpose was to serve as a symbol of the Jewish People’s experience as impoverished slaves in Egypt.
The practice of most Ashkenazi Jews is based on Tosafot who writes that the fragment from the broken matzah must be included amidst the two whole matzot, giving the appearance that it too is being used for HaMotzi. In this way, we sense the feeling deprivation that is part of Lehem Oni, while at the same time experiencing the full joy of Yom Tov that is represented by Lehem Mishneh. Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch even adds that ideally one should eat a piece from the broken matzah and a piece from the whole matzah at the same time. While there is a technical halachic reason for this practice, the effect is to bring together in one moment a reminder of poverty with a symbol of plenty.
Our experience as slaves in Egypt was one of loss and trauma. These three perspectives regarding how the theme of Lehem Oni is incorporated into the seder represent different ways in which one can relate to past suffering and hardship. For Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon we cannot celebrate Pesach as we do all of the other holidays because of the suffering that we experienced. In this approach, one’s suffering is constantly reenacted. For some, a past hardship is so fundamentally transformative that it limits the fullness of what they can experience. In contrast, Rashi’s approach is the path of intellectualization. The memory of one’s suffering, represented by the matzah fragment, is acknowledged but it remains unprocessed.
Tosafot’s approach embodies the path of integration. One’s perspective is transformed by the hardship they have endured but it does not impede on the range of emotions and experiences they can have in the future. It is all too human to be overwhelmed by past hardships or alternatively to try to simply push them to the corners of one’s mind, yet our tradition tells us it is only when we can hold together feelings of loss and joy that we are able to experience a true sense of freedom.