Return of the (Matzah) Blog!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted (sorry!).  I have several posts almost ready to go, and it’s possible that the crushing deadline of required writing (High Holidays) will inspire me to devote more time to optional writing.  In any case, I have a few more matzah-related posts that I want to put up.


I never wrote a summary of the matzah project when we were done.  The short version would be – it worked!  We made kosher for Passover matzah!  I’m deliberately not writing a detailed how-to, because I don’t think that people should learn this over the internet.  One should only do it after studying the laws of making matzah and their commentaries (which people can set out to do).  Besides the legal literature, there are manuals for making מצות יד which I will share and would be glad to answer any questions.  But I don’t want to write a manual or give the impression that it does not involve substantial planning and effort.  It surely does, but it is in my opinion worth it for those willing to pursue.  

Overall I thought the matzah project was a great success.  Most of my study time was geared to learning leniencies  in anticipation of problems arising but in the end everything came together by the book.  People who came to the workshop were interested and happy to take some homemade matzah home for their seders, and the concepts of the required materials, timing and cleaning were better appreciated in the doing than in the hearing.  The most common questions were about the special flour and water which we used and that is what I want to address in the next few posts.  Curiosity about the flour has also been re-awakened by the recent NY Times story and the cover picture.  More on that later.

So regarding matzah, the Torah states:

ושמרתם את המצות

which parses literally as “Guard the matzot”.  A less literal, and perhaps more straightforward way of reading would be:  “Be careful about the matzot” or “Be sure to observe this requirement of matzah”   That may seem weird, but we have a similar case in שמור את השבת which is literally “guard the Shabbat” and means “observe Shabbat”.  In interpreting the Torah, laws can be derived from both the plain and literal sense.  In fact, it is a regular move of the Rabbis to infer legal significance from a hyper-literal reading of Scripture.  There is a famous example of this in the shema, where the surface take-away of וקשרתם לאות על ידך (“bind them upon your arm”) would be that the deeds of our arms, our actions, should be restrained by Torah.  But the hyper-literal reading of that phrase is the basis for the practice of tefillin (writing down words of Torah, putting them in a box, and tying the box to our arm!).  In a similar manner Jewish law prescribes a literal guarding of the grain or flour that will become matzah from contact with water, which as we read above, then has to potential to transform the grain into chametz.

What does it mean to guard the matzot?  The tradition gives us three possible standards relative to what point the materials of matzah need to be guarded.   In descending order of strictness they are:

1)      From the time of harvest (like Satmar in the NY Times article)

2)      From the time of milling

3)      From the time of adding water to the flour

Option 1 is clearly the most conservative choice, and it is based on the observation that even as wheat has a hard shell, it is not impregnable to water and it’s possible that transformation can begin in its intact state.  Milled flour is obviously vulnerable to water, which we can see anytime we create dough, and watching over the flour from the time of milling makes intuitive sense.  Number 3 is the last possible point to start worrying about chametz, and it implies that in dire circumstances even flour from the store could be used to make matzah.  In practice we don’t rely on this option, as today’s commercially available flour is soaked and/or blasted with water as part of the milling process, and therefore we consider store-purchased flour to be in the category of chametz.

So if we are left with a choice between 1) guarding the grain from the time of harvest and 2) guarding the flour from the time of milling, what should we do?  If there is no major difference in cost, it makes sense to go to the most conservative choice.  And in many matters we gravitate indeed towards the strict option.  In regard to Hanukkah candles, everyone does the most intricate option without perhaps knowing it.  The Talmud understands the requirement of Hanukkah as the kindling of a light.  If one wants to take it to the next level, everyone in the house kindles a light.  If one wants to take it to the next level after the next level, we do the procedure of one light for the first night, two for the second etc (in keeping with the school of Hillel).  There is not much cost involved in the increment, so we intuitively adopt the most involved standard as the norm.  And in this case, most are unaware that the Talmud contemplates a continuum of practices.

In the case of matzah, however, the cost in moving from option 2 to option 1 is considerable.  And it isn’t just standing in the hot field watching the combines, though that effort is not trivial.  After harvest but before milling the wheat has to be dried, sifted and cleaned, which makes for a tremendous effort.  It’s the wheat harvest on Long Island this week and I am going to try to collect a portion of freshly harvested wheat for next year’s matzah (sans black hat and flowing tsitsiot), but I expect this to be quite challenging.  There’s a reason that bulk manufacturers of matzah rely on the option 2.

For last year’s matzah we did two things.  We did liberate a decent amount of “shemura” flour (flour made from grain guarded from the time of harvest) from Brooklyn and used that for some of our matzah.  Shemura flour is not formally for sale in quantity, however, and for the bulk of our matzah we did our own milling of wheat with a dedicated table-top wheat mill three days before baking.  One is required to do the milling several days before so that the flour has time to settle before water is added, but one does not want to do it too far in advance as flour untreated with preservatives tends not to stay fresh.

As for the Times article, I have a few responses (beyond my pro forma exasperation with a paper that employs hundreds of Jews, has a readership of hundreds of thousands of Jews, yet determinedly portrays Judaism as a religion of extra-terrestrials).  Though the paper implies that the guarding of harvested wheat is a Haredi (whom they inaccurately refer to as “ultra-orthodox”) specialty, as we have seen it is rather a standard that goes back to the classic literature where it stands among other possibilities.  Choosing to live according to the most conservative option makes intuitive sense in religious life in general and in the culture of Passover particularly, and many non-Haredi Jews prefer matzah made according to this norm for their observance of Pesach.

Defaulting to the strictest standard should be called into question when it raises significant costs, however, and to see the true costs in this case one has to venture to perspectives outside the article.  It is not just the increased labor of matzah makers described in the paper and the resultant increased cost to the consumer that is at stake – living according to the most conservative opinion also makes the making of matzah by individual families and communities almost impossible.  The domination of a strict standard can be a symptom of a lack of ownership by a community as much as a conservative reflex: there are more degrees of freedom for stringency when others are observant on our behalf.  The better standard in this case may not be the most conservative, but rather the most enabling.  In this light, the article highlights the danger of farming out one’s Judaism.

More to come . . .

Thanks to my friend Richard Levinton for the photo!

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