Transformation through leavening (Daf Yomi Pesachim 36)

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“An act performed by the community is different.”

We are reminded in today’s Daf Yomi that the act of eating matza is an mitzva in and of itself, but it is not a simple act of biting into an oversized cracker. Along with the consumption of that single matza is the entire history of all the pain and grief of the Jewish people and a reminder that the matza represents both the “bread of affliction” and the “poor man’s bread.”

It struck me today during the discussion of grief and affliction that to leaven bread is to transform it into something, and to eat it in its unadulterated unleavened state is to live with the pain for some defined period of time. And then, when the Passover holiday or the grieving period is over, the pain is transformed, and one can begin to embrace life.

The obligation to eat matza is wound up according to the last few day’s text with the duty to tithe appropriately the priests in the temple. There are two prohibitions that we are told we must follow: the prohibition against eating leavened bread on Passover and the prohibition against eating untithed produce. The rules become quite complex and there is a comparison with eating matza during a period of acute mourning. Consuming matza produced from a second tithe is prohibited during a period of mourning, because we are told that it can only be consumed “in a state of joy.”

There is some serious wordplay involved in sorting all this out and a parsing of the nouns in the text. Rabbi Akiva says that the repetition of “matzot matzot” indicates that “all types of matza may be eaten on Passover.” He tells us that the word play indicates that matza is considered “poor man’s bread” rather than indicating bread consumed by a mourner.

Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says that the language under consideration indicates “oppression, affliction, or mourning.” Rabbi Akiva reminds us that the day the matza is consumed is of consequence, and on the first day of Passover, it must be plainly rolled out without the extra addition of wine, oil or honey. But by the second day, these added flavors can be included as long as they are placed on top of the dough rather than rolled into it. This is because there is no “mitzva to eat matza” on the second day of the holiday; it is simply forbidden to eat leaven.

There is a long discussion on soaking and preparing and kneading the unleavened bread. The priests are designated, with all their other duties, as the most capable of performing these tasks. We are told, however, that kneading can be carried out by a non-priest if it is performed in the temple courtyard. However, the entire operation is disqualified if it is performed outside the walls of the temple and out of sight of watchful temple guards. The courtyard operation is an act of community that would be carefully supervised to ensure there are no irregularities.

The box of Manischewitz matza that has been sitting on my counter since Passover seems innocuous. It contains the simple ingredients of unbleached, unbromated Passover wheat flour and water. The box says that “it’s the original matzo enjoyed for generations since 1888” and that it is “plain and simple, the way it should be.”  The box also specifies that the matza’s “crispy and delicious texture make it perfect with any topping or spread.”

Today, I was reminded that we eat matza to recall the pain of the Jewish people as they fled years of slavery.  But Passover is not the only time we are asked to give up the privilege of enjoying fluffy, nourishing, leavened bread. The Daf Yomi also indicates that one should eat matza during times of extreme grief. It is an acknowledgement that we should sit with our pain – whether it is from our difficult past or our present grief – for some period of time without the transformation that occurs when bread rises from the interaction of flour with yeast. And then, once the period of Passover or mourning is over, we should allow the miracle of leavening and life to carry us on.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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