Category Archives: Pesach

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!

Matzah and Danger

One of my favorite classes in undergrad was a comparative literature course on the “Whodunit”.  This would seem to be destined to be one of the examples cataloged by skeptics as to why university is waste of time, but it was in fact a wonderful introduction to Borges, Derrida and Eco.  Besides the signs and semiotics, the course challenged us to read everything typologically and to see that the protagonists of the mystery genre are really all the same and rooted in a primordial literary archetype which we called “the problem solver”.  Gregory House does not land far from Holmes, who does not land far from Oedipus.

A defining characteristic of “the problem solver” and what our instructor said in an impossible to mimic French accent was “convergence” – the detective usually has much in common with the perpetrator.  There is an element of criminality in the “problem solver” which prevents him from identifying completely with authority, he is rather always triangulated between the law and the law-breaker.  There is an essential element of danger.

There is this same “convergence” and dynamic of danger in the relationship between matzah and chametz.  The constituents of matzah are deceptively simple consisting of flour and water.  (Though as we shall see among the main challenges to making matzah by hand are determining what flour and what water are eligible.)  The first question is what sort of grain we may use.  The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 453) lists the types of grain suitable for matzah:

אלו דברים שיוצאים בהם ידי חובת מצה, בחטים ובשעורים ובכסמין ובשבלת שועל ובשפון אבל לא בארז ושאר מיני קטניות, וגם אינם באים לידי חמוץ ומותר לעשות מהם תבשיל

These are things with which one fulfills the obligation of matzah: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. But not with rice or other kitniyot, these do not become chametz and one may make other dishes with them.

The first thing to note is that although matzah can be made from any of the five grains listed, in practice we only make matzah from wheat.  This is because wheat has a hard shell and is considered to be more resistant to water that may fall on it when we don’t want it to.

The second thing is that those who are used to the Ashkenazi traditions proscribing kitniyot may be taken aback at the Shulchan Aruch’s comfort with the use of rice and legumes during Pesach.  And indeed Shulchan Aruch reflects Sephardi perspectives which (following rabbinic tradition) don’t have some of the strictures which evolved in northern Europe.  But if one assumes that rice is permitted on Pesach, why can’t we use it to make matzah?

The rule is that nothing that can’t become chametz may be used to make matzah.  The ingredients of matzah and chametz are identical – what makes a matzah a matzah is the care taken to bake the mixture of flour and water before it ferments and becomes chametz.  This convergence between matzah and chametz is a requirement – and therefore if our understanding is that rice cannot become chametz no matter how careless we are then it can never grow up to be a matzah.   No danger, no matzah.  (This is one of the reasons that some packages of egg matzah say “not for use on Passover”.  Flour and egg have no chance to become chametz as long as one is very careful to avoid contact with water.)

This aspect of danger is why when you begin talking about making your own matzah for Passover, friends and concerned non-friends start to back away.  This can’t be taken as a wholly unreasonable reaction.  When everything has been kashered and cleaned, a bowl of flour and a cup of water are the ingredients for a bomb.  It isn’t just easier so much as it is quite a bit safer to farm out the making of matzah to experts who can be counted on to defuse a sticky situation.  And while I was given some encouragement when I starting several months ago to prepare ( by studying the laws of matzah and gathering what resources there are on how to make kosher for Passover matzah by hand), mostly people told me not to do it. Their advice was well-intentioned and pretty sensible given some of the obstacles.

But as I studied, the project became less a quest for better tasting matzah (though I still hope that the matzah tastes good) but a mission about what Judaism is about:  We should be able to do difficult, even dangerous things as adults.  Our parents took this for granted.  Torah is the same way.  There are different ideas about who is worthy to study Torah, but I don’t think any school holds that there is any Torah without danger, and that when used inappropriately Torah can do more harm than good.  It is likened to medicine that when taken with care can bring great healing, but when used carelessly is a deadly poison.  The care and discernment we have to bring.  A full life is not without risk, and it is the care that is required to make the matzot – knowing that if we do it wrong we are in trouble – that brings elevation to the bread which is the foundation of the festival.  We should not farm this out.

I’m a bit behind on where I hoped to be blogging-wise, so this not going to be the “how we will make matzah” blog I set out to do but more of a “how we made matzah” blog.  I still have a lot to write, next I hope to cover the preparation of flour for matzah.

Does One Have to Eat Matzah for the Entire Festival?

A congregant asks:  The Waldbaum’s calendar for March states that Matzahs must be eaten at the Seder but are optional for the rest of the holiday. Is this actually true?

Yes and No.

The obligation to eat matzah for the first night (the first two nights in the diaspora) is special and flows from (happily enough) this week’s special parasha –  HaChodesh – in which we read that we are to eat the Pesach sacrifice over matzah and maror.  It is understood that the requirements to eat matzah and maror stand even in our times when we do not have a Pesach sacrifice.  Therefore we eat the matzah at our sederim after reciting two blessings:  “who brings forth bread from the earth” and “who has commanded us to eat matzah”.

The Torah also says in many places that we should eat matzot for seven days (in one significant case it says six days).  The surface meaning of these verses is active, i.e. they are telling us that we are supposed to be eating matzah every day of the festival.  The classic rabbinic approach however is to read these verses passively:  if we want to eat bread or its moral equivalent during the festival it has to be matzah and can’t be chametz, but there is no requirement to eat matzah.  One could simply refrain from eating “bread”.

Among the later authorities, we find both those who hold that there is no requirement to eat matzah past the first (and in the diaspora second) night and those who hold that we are obliged to eat matzah every day of the festival.  All agree (I think) that the blessing “who has commanded us to eat matzah” is only said at the seder.

Besides the halachic concerns there are the sociological issues.  We are accustomed throughout the year to building our meals around bread.  We wash our hands and make a motzi, and thus exempt ourselves from having to say individual blessings on each dish.  Lechem in the Torah is used figuratively to refer to food because it is literally the foundation of the meal – in antiquity it is the container of the food and the utensil.  Even today, it is hard to negotiate the shawarma without the wrap.  It is hard for me imagine having a festival meal or even eating throughout the intermediate days without matzah as the anchor of the meal.

People who avoid matzah after the seder usually do so for one of three reasons.  The first is a concern that our matzah is really chometz:  because making matzah is so difficult we can’t trust that any of our matzah is not really chometz and therefore refraining from matzah is a religious necessity.  I think this is a strange view of Jewish life, to say that the laws and customs that we are given are all a prelude to why we can’t do anything.  Pesach is a season of joy and redemption, not abstinence.  People also avoid matzah for health reasons, and for those people the passive understanding of the requirement to eat matzah throughout the festival can be relied upon to minimize discomfort.

The third and saddest reason that people minimize the eating of matzah is that they hate the matzah we have.  This is sad but completely understandable because we have made our matzah very scary.  We recite in our sederim the custom that Hillel had of making a wrap (korekh means “bending”) with matzah and the Pesach sacrifice while we are eating matzah that would  shatter into brittle crumbs if you even look at it with the intention of bending.  It is tragic that we have arrived at this place, and it is my hope that in learning to make our own matzah we will also learn to make matzah that people want to eat.

Project Matzah

My letter to congregants for March 2013

Dear Friends

It was a few years ago when a congregant asked me why we don’t make our own matzah.  I didn’t have a ready answer to what is an obvious question and I don’t remember what I said.  Maybe I changed the subject.  But the question has haunted me over the last years so I began research into the possibility of making matzah by hand.

There are several resources for demonstration projects that have religious schools make “fake” matzah (i.e. matzah that is not kosher for Pesach) and there are many matzah factories which offer tours, and maybe give a piece or two of matzah as a memento.  But the question that I was asked wasn’t why we don’t make fake matzah and I was no longer interested in a demonstration project – I wanted to make the Real McCoy.  And so I pressed on and studied the laws of hametz, the chemistry of wheat and the various astronomical theories that inform the customs for gathering appropriate water (really!).  Making real matzah is not uncomplicated, but I’ve convinced myself that it is possible.  And along the way, I’ve discovered that our relationship to matzah is in many ways is a surrogate for our relationship to Judaism.

It’s my hope to share this journey with you in two ways.  The first way is that I hope we will have the opportunity to make matzah for the festival together on March 20th and 21st at the shul.  I can’t guarantee that this will work, and we have to reserve the possibility that we will decide that the matzah we end up making will not be suitable.  It will not be easy, but it is in my opinion doable.  We will learn quite a bit in any case.  The second piece of this is an invitation to join me in the learning and preparing for the making of matzah.  I will share a bit of this in my talks on Shabbat, but most of it I hope to put online in blog form at the address:

Please check in and join us on our journey to making our own matzah.  Wishing everyone a sweet and kosher Pesach!


Rabbi Bill Siemers