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Why your ancestors never ate matzos

Soft matzah was good enough for the sages, so why are we stuck with the crumby kind for eight days?

Passover begins in less than a week, and many Jews are faithfully, if somewhat resentfully, purchasing square “matzos” sold in cardboard boxes.

But why?

As Aish HaTorah’s article “The Inner Meaning of Matzah” teaches us, “We bake flat, crisp matzah in order to reenact the Exodus, when the Children of Israel fled Egypt in a hurry.” Eating matzah may be, as the article’s title states, “an act of defying the laws of nature, time and history,” but not for the reasons suggested.

Our ancestors, you see, never ate “flat, crisp matzah” until the 19th century.

They ate massa (a more historically accurate transliteration than “matzah”). And that massa looked very similar to a pita.

We know this to be true for several reasons, the first of which is the “korekh” component of the seder. “Korekh,” which means to roll up or bend around, is what we are supposed to do when remembering Hillel and making the infamous “Hillel sandwich.” Since we cannot roll massa that is crisp, we must assume that massa must be pliable.

Second, the Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 7a suggests that bread and massa could be easily confused: “Rabbah the son of R. Huna said in the name of Rab: If a moldy loaf [is found during Pesah in a bread bin and we are uncertain whether it is bread or massa], if the majority of loaves [in the bin] are massa it is permitted [because we assume it to be like the majority].” The massa currently sold ubiquitously in stores, however, never threatens to grow mold, no matter how hard you foster the right conditions. Soft massa, on the other hand, easily does.

Third, later sources also to refer to massa as soft, and Ashkenazi Jews cannot wash away this fact by claiming that soft massa was a Sepharadi custom. For example, the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote that massa should be made thinner than the tefah (around 3 inches) recommended in the Babylonian Talmud, while the Chafetz Chaim advised that massa be made “soft as a sponge” (Mishna Berura, Orach Haim 486). In “The Laws of Baking Massa,” the Shulchan Aruch deems baking to be sufficient  when “no threads can be pulled from it.” Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University and halakhic advisor for the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union, stated clearly that there is no custom that prohibits Ashkenazi Jews from eating soft massa.

Today’s incarnated form of massa is indebted not to the sages, but to its industrial production beginning in the 1800s.

Eating massa that resembles a cracker needlessly transforms the Passover experience in Israel into one of exile. In any area with a significant Jewish community, there is no excuse for not producing or consuming soft massoth, as our ancestors did.

There is also no reason why the practice of “minhag hamaqom,” of abiding by the custom of the indigenous community, should get a backseat to a relatively modern innovation with no root in Jewish texts or most of Jewish history.

Like subscribers to the philosophy underlying the Aish article, anybody who believes our ancestors ever ate crispy massoth is perverting a custom, and then reading that new custom into the Torah.

It is this tendency among some religious communities today that requires liberating.

About the Author
Shayna Zamkanei earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. Her dissertation is entitled, "The Politics of Justice for Arab Jews."
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