What’s a Matza ?

Eight days of eating the dry unleavened crackers called matzot  (matza in the singular) have come to an end. The eight days of the Festival of Liberation (Pesach) have now receded into memories, hopefully pleasant ones, of families sitting around a table reading from the ancient story book called Haggadah.

As the seder begins, a piece of the matza is held up as Jews recite “ha lachma anya”,  Aramaic for “This is the bread of affliction”. And eating it for eight days certainly afflicts one’s stomach and intestines.

Matza is said to symbolize the bread our ancestors baked and ate in the land of Egypt. It certainly did not resemble the Aviv matza that we eat today. First of all it was round, not flat.

Secondly, the Israelites in Egypt did not bake or eat matzot in Egypt. Pesach was not celebrated in Egypt because it represents the liberation from Egyptian slavery. The Haggadah clearly reveals that the unleavened cakes were baked when the Israelites were no longer in Egypt…. baked flat in the sun because the dough had insufficient time to rise. The original matzot looked very much like the popular round bread in the Middle Eastern countries known as pita.

The question of slavery for 430 years in Egypt is somewhat problematic. The Israelites lived in their own homes. They were not chained and could move about freely. They did not build the pyramids as some think. Instead they built only two large storage cities for the pharaohs… Pithom and Rameses.

The Israelite men were conscripted into labor forces  building for the pharaohs, and were required to work long hours each day, after which they could return to their homes and families. They procreated many children.

We know this because when freed and wandering in the desert for forty years they protested violently against Moses. Why must we eat this tasteless manna day in and day out?

“Oh for the leeks and onions, fish and melons which we ate when we were in Egypt”.

Obviously their diet in Egypt was healthy and sufficient, not comparable to the endless daily manna .

They wanted to return to Egypt.  Normally, slaves would rather die than to return to the land which oppressed them. But the Israelites rioted against Moses and insisted on returning to Egypt on the Nile.

And they condemned poor Moses again. “Why have you brought us to the wilderness to die? Were there not enough graves in Egypt?”  Why  must we die in the wilderness without sufficient food and water?

The number forty is mentioned in the bible many times. It rained forty days and forty nights. The ark rested on Mt. Ararat for forty days. Moses remained on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights. Over and over again, the number forty is used to represent time.

In actuality, forty simply meant an indeterminable length of time.

Readers of the bible who can refer to geographical maps can readily see at once that the march from Egypt through a barren wilderness could not have taken forty years. Simply impossible. Walking slowly the trek could be completed in a matter of weeks or even months. The number forty once again only means that the Israelites had been wandering for a very long time.

And matza pre-dates the sojourn in Egypt by several centuries. When Abraham entertained his guests whom he invited to sit in his tent, he ordered his wife Sarah to bake unleavened cakes (matzot) for his guests.

When his nephew Lot offered hospitality to the evil men of Sodom, he served them unleavened flat cakes, again matza.

Very orthodox Jews insist on eating a special hand-baked matza called “shmura”, meaning watched. The grain and the production from beginning to end were carefully watched by the bakers to prevent fermination.

Twice over many years ago I bought shmura matza for our seder. It happened that in both of the two years we ate shmura matza  that there two deaths in my wife’s family.

Superstition as to the connection between eating shmura matza and two family deaths is nonsense. But from that time on, shmura matza was prohibited in our home.

So like most Israeli families and Jews elsewhere, we prefer to eat machine-baked matza. It used to be Matza Rishon and then  Aviv matza.

And this Pesach I ate Aviv egg matza for the first time.. Absolutely delicious. Crisp and delectable.

And for the first time, the bread of affliction did not afflict me.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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