Balaam Bilaam, Bilaam Balaam, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

330px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_122Every year when we prepare to read Parashat Balak, I get questions about why everyone else in the world calls the shady protagonist Balaam but Jews call him Bil’am (בִּלְעָם).  I’m happy to get this query because (unlike a lot of other inquiries I get) I can answer it.

One needs to start off with the information that the oldest tradition of writing the Hebrew scripture did not indicate short vowels.  The name of the magician summoned to curse the children of Israel was written בלעם, or in Roman equivalents BL’M (__ here represents ayin, which does not appear in Western alphabets).  The standard Jewish pronunciation Bil’am (בִּלְעָם) is found in the Tiberian tradition of pronunciation, which added the dots and lines that we are used to seeing in the Hebrew Bible and indicate the standard pronunciation.  The Tiberian tradition dates from roughly 800 – 1000 C.E.


Codex Vaticanus

A much earlier witness to the pronunciation of Hebrew can be found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating from probably sometime between 300 B.C.E and the beginning of the Christian Era.  The Septuagint transliterated proper names into Greek, and from these we have critical evidence as to how Hebrew was pronounced perhaps a thousand years before the “official” Jewish version was recorded.   The Septuagint (which we will abbreviate as LXX going forward) transliterates בלעם as Βαλαὰμ, which would be Balaam in Roman characters.  Because the LXX is adopted by Greek speaking Christians and becomes the basis for the Latin and other more popular versions of the Bible, most of the world says Balaam while Jews say Bil’am.

An instinctual reaction of Jews is to consider the Greek-based Balaam as a corruption.  Part of that defensiveness flows from the fact that the LXX was often used to criticize the Jewish tradition of scripture, and yes, it does grate a bit have our indigenous Hebrew scripture corrected according to a Greek translation. That the LXX survived primarily in the Christian tradition does not help matters.  And finally, it can be pointed out that since Greek has fewer consonants than Hebrew there is in fact a potential for corruption.  Take as an example יעקב (ya’aqob) in which two of the four consonants do not exist in Greek (the ayin and the quf) leading to Ιακωβος (yakobos).  בלעם itself has an ayin that does not go into the Greek as a consonant, but is reflected instead in the lengthening of the vowel of the second syllable (Balaam).

But with all of these qualifications, it is likely that the most prominent difference between the standard Jewish pronunciation (Bil’am) and that of the rest of the world (Balaam) is the vowel of the first syllable (i versus a), and in this instance it seems that the Greek transliteration does preserve the older form.  There is well-known tendency in Semitic languages for the short vowel a in CaCCaC (C = a consonant) to change to i CiCCaC.  This is often referred to as “attenuation” as the journey from a to i is a shortening.  This is considered to have happened early on in Hebrew with the prefixes for the verb (yiqtul in Hebrew but yaqtul in older forms – the ya– prefix is preserved in Arabic), but also to be an ongoing process that occurred later in nouns.  There are many examples among proper names.  For example Mary Magdalene (Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνήis) was called Magdalene after her hometown which was Magdal or ‘tower’.  The word for tower in Tiberian Hebrew is Migdol – so the theory would be that sometime after the name was recorded in Christian Scripture the pronunciation in Hebrew (through this phenomenon of attenuation) changed from Magdal to Migdal (and on to Migdol).  The name Mary itself probably reflects the original a vowel of Maryam – realized in Tiberian Hebrew as Miryam.  Likewise, Samson/Shimshon.  Our best conjecture then is that at the time of the LXX, the pronunciation was Bal’am which attenuated to Bil’am by the time of the Tiberians.

I know, pretty cool.  We take away from this that even while the pronunciation of the Torah was pretty conservative over a very long time (Bal’am to Bil’am over maybe 1000 years!), things are not completely static. I use this example to make two further points:  The first is that even though the Septuagint is thought of as an external book for Jews it did not start off that way.  Though it became Christian scripture it cannot be considered Christian scripture in origin, because it largely predates Christianity.  There are other contexts in which this is important to keep in mind.  The second point is that our fidelity to the Tiberian pronunciation does not hang on whether it is the “original” way of pronouncing Hebrew.  The enterprise of setting the proper vocalization of the Bible was conducted in an environment that formally recognized the existence of variants, of which decisions had to be made as to which one to use.   We pass over the alternatives when we read because we have to, not because they are not there.  Someone who came into a synagogue and pronounced Balaam instead of Bil’am would be rightly told to stop – not because his theory of historical phonology is off, but because we have an agreed tradition of how to pronounce that does not change in the face of scholarship.  I think that maintaining this duality of practice and theory is one of the things that permits outside learning and scholarship to thrive within Judaism, but that is a topic for another post.

Voltaire’s Rabbi

Korach does not get a great deal of good press.  Typical are these comparisons to, well Goebbels, and here is another linking him with the Tea Party.  Also Avodah has a piece on Korach the Populist Demagogue.  (Updated 6/28/2015 also Robert E. Lee).The point of contact between Korach and these terrible people and institutions is the commentary on Psalm 1 found in Midrash Shocher Tov.  The Psalmist begins with the negative attributes of the happy and prosperous:  Happy is the man who does not walk with the counsel of the wicked, stand in the path of sinners, or dwell in the company of scorners.  It is on the company of scorners that the midrash takes up Korach (translation mine with scriptural citations in bold):

  “ובמושב לצים…” זה קרח, שהיה מתלוצץ על משה ועל אהרן

מה עשה קרח? כינס כל הקהל, שנאמר “ויקהל עליהם קרח את כל העדה”, והתחיל לומר להם דברי ליצנות, ואומר להם: אלמנה אחת היתה בשכונתי והיו עמה שתי נערות יתומות, והיתה לה שדה אחת. באה לחרוש – אמר לה משה (דברים כ”ב): “לא תחרוש בשור וחמור יחדו.” באה לזרוע – אמר לה (ויקרא י”ט י”ט): “שדך לא תזרע כלאים.” באה לקצור ולעשות ערמה, אמר לה: הניחי לקט שכחה ופאה. באה לעשות קרן, אמר לה: תני תרומה ומעשר ראשון ומעשר שני. הצדיקה עליה את הדין ונתנה לו.

מה עשתה עניה זו? עמדה ומכרה את השדה וקנתה שתי כבשות כדי ללבוש מגזותיהן ולהנות מפרותיהן. כיון שילדו – בא אהרן ואמר לה: תני לי את הבכורות, שכך אמר לי הקב”ה (דברים ט”ו י”ט): “כל הבכור אשר יולד בבקרך ובצאנך הזכר – תקדיש לה’ אלוהיך.” הצדיקה עליה את הדין ונתנה לו את הולדות. הגיע זמן גזיזה וגזזה אותן – בא אהרן ואמר לה: תני לי ראשית הגז שכך אמר הקב”ה (דברים י”ח ד’): “ראשית דגנך תירושך ויצהרך וראשית גז צאנך תתן לו.” (לכהן).

אמרה: אין בי כח לעמוד באיש הזה, הרי אני שוחטת אותן ואוכלתן. כיון ששחטה אותן בא אהרן ואמר לה: תני לי הזרוע והלחיים והקיבה. אמרה: אפילו אחרי ששחטתי אותן, לא נצלתי מידו – הרי הן עלי חרם! אמר לה אהרן: אם כן – כולה שלי הוא, שכך אמר הקב”ה (במדבר י”ח י”ד): “כל חרם בישראל לך יהיה.” נטלן והלך לו והניחה בוכה היא עם שתי בנותיה.

כך עלתה לעלובה זו! כל כך הם עושים ותולים בקב”ה!

And in the place of scorners – This is Korach, who mocked Moshe and Aaron.

What did he do?  He gathered the assembly for it says he assembled against them the entire assembly.  And he commenced to pronounce words of scorn.  He told them as follows:

There was a widow with two orphaned daughters and she had a field.  She set out to plow and Moshe said to her Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together (presumably her only two animals), she set out to plant and Moshe said Don’t plant a mixture of seeds in your field.  When it was time to harvest he said Leave the gleanings and the corners of your field for the poor.  When she wanted to set aside a surplus he said, “Pay me the priestly taxes, the levitical tithe and the tithe for the poor.”  She acted in accordance with the law and paid him.

What did this poor woman do?  She sold the field and bought two sheep to use the wool for clothing and to sell their offspring.  When they gave birth, Aaron came and said “Give me the firstborn” as it is written Each male firstborn from the herd or from the flock shall be dedicated to God.  She acted in accordance with the law and gave him the offspring.  The time for shearing came and Aaron said, “Give me the first shearing” as it is written The first of your grain, wine and oil, and the first shearing you shall give to the priest.   The woman said, “I do not have the strength to abide this man.  I will kill my sheep and eat them.”  Aaron said, “Give me the shoulder, the jaw and the gullet.”  She said, “Even if I kill them I can’t keep them out of his hand.  I declare a herem upon them!”  Aaron said, “If so, then it all belongs to me,” as it is written All of the herem will be for you.  He took them and and left, leaving her weeping with her two daughters.  Thus she came to this wretched state of affairs.  This are the things that Moshe and Aaron do and ascribe to God.

The defense of Moshe and Aaron take a few standard forms:  Because they haven’t even come into the land to institute all of these laws yet Korach is clearly lying, the fact that the widow would rather place her sheep in herem before she shares them with the poor demonstrates that she is greedy, etc.  The Daily Kos accuses Korach of being a pioneer in using “wedge issues” to alienate the poor from their true interests:

But Korach was inciting the poor to follow him in destroying an incipient taxing and welfare system that was designed to keep the poor fed, clothed and housed – a taxing and welfare system that would greatly expand by the end of the Second Temple period in 70 CE.

In his commentary on the Torah Em LaMikra, R. Eliyahu Benamozegh makes the following observation at the beginning of Parasha Korach:  He cites in full the midrash from Shocher Tov, and states that, “Every literate person who reads this midrash thinks immediately of the heretic Voltaire.”  Not only that, Benamozegh continues, this midrash can be found in a nearly complete form under the heading _Curate_ in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.  The below is taken from The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming.

Believe not, dear reader, that the Jews, who were a stiff-necked people, never complained of the extortion of the tenths, or tithe. Give yourself the trouble to consult the Talmud of Babylon, and if you understand not the Chaldæan, read the translation, with notes of Gilbert Gaumin, the whole of which was printed by the care of Fabricius. You will there peruse the adventure of a poor widow with the High Priest Aaron, and learn how the quarrel of this widow became the cause of the quarrel of Koran, Dathan, and Abiram, on the one side, and Aaron on the other.

“A widow possessed only a single sheep which she wished to shear. Aaron came and took the wool for himself: ‘It belongs to me,’ said he, ‘according to the law, thou shalt give the first of the wool to God.’ The widow, in tears, implored the protection of Koran. Koran applied to Aaron but his entreaties were fruitless. Aaron replies that the wool belongs to him. Koran gives some money to the widow and retires, filled with indignation.

“Some time after, the sheep produces a lamb. Aaron returns and carries away the lamb. The widow runs weeping again to Koran, who in vain implores Aaron. The high priest answers, ‘It is written in the law, every first-born male in thy flock belongs to God.’ He eats the lamb and Koran again retires in a rage.

“The widow, in despair, kills her sheep; Aaron returns once more and takes away the shoulder and the breast. Koran again complains. Aaron replies: ‘It is written, thou shalt give unto the priests the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw.’

“The widow could no longer contain her affliction and said, ‘Anathema,’ to the sheep, upon which Aaron observed, ‘It is written, all that is anathema (cursed) in Israel belongs to thee;’ and took away the sheep altogether.”

What is not so pleasant, yet very remarkable, is that in a suit between the clergy of Rheims and the citizens, this instance from the Talmud was cited by the advocate of the citizens. Gaumin asserts that he witnessed it. In the meantime it may be answered that the tithe-holders do not take all from the people, the tax-gatherers will not suffer it. To every one his share is just.

Benamozegh goes on the explore the late literary path of this midrash and how it ended up in front of Voltaire.  I’m unsure of his purpose of bringing this forward in Em LaMikra (besides that it’s pretty cool), but the comparison with Korach and Voltaire underlines the uneasy relationship between Judaism and the Enlightenment.  It can be hard for one who wants, like me, to live in both worlds.  Yes, Voltaire is a heretic and anti-semitic, but he is also Voltaire.  I find it impossible to imagine living without not just his literature, but his attitudes against abusive authority are a precious legacy for all who live in the West and all citizens of the United States. Jefferson, among many of the founders, was a big fan of Voltaire.  The “demagogue” of Midrash Shocher Tov seems very American to me.

I also wonder how innocently Judaism requires us to read Scripture.  On the Arachim website we read:

Korach incorporated other elements of modern-day propaganda as well. His one-sided story entirely ignored the important roles the priests and Levites played for the entire nation, and the fact that most of them were poor, spending their time teaching the nation G-d’s Torah and serving in the Temple for the spiritual sake of the people. The widow’s story failed to mention the Heavenly blessing pouring down on those who set aside a portion of their resources for tzedaka (charity) such as tithes to the priests and the poor, not to mention the absurd exaggeration Korach worked in, hinting that the amount that each person had to give made the priests wealthy off the backs of the poor. What a joke! The priests were the poor.

Well, maybe, but I can’t read that without my brain screaming, “Who’s being naive, Kay?”  Should we read the Torah with the understanding that everything is going to implemented according to the elevated good intentions of those with power, or with the perspective that political institutions will wield power the same way it has been everyplace and everytime else?  And there are non-innocent ways to read the text that are quite disturbing.  Today we think of Levi’im as the second of three classes (they get the second aliyah after all).  And from this point of view Korach is just being greedy.  However, there are clues in the Torah to the contrary; that the Levi’im were the Hierodules – the slaves to the priestly caste whose actual social status was lower than everyone else (which is why Deuteronomy always throws them in with the other outcasts – widows, strangers and orphans).  It is possible to read לעבוד עבודה באוהל מועד in a very negative register (i.e. to perform servile labor in the Tent of Meeting), and when one does so the impression of Korach is quite different (and his denouement becomes quite chilling.)

The comparison of Korach and Voltaire also raises the inadequacy of the usual rabbinic slogan that we should make our disputes for the “sake of heaven”, like Shammai and Hillel and not in the manner of Korach.  In many cases that is good advice and I always try to remember that the guy who wants to light his Hanukkah candles in the opposite manner that I do has his own point of view that is worthy of respect.  But do we really want that for things we actually care about?  Should our argument about slavery be like the disputes between Hillel and Shammai?  About racism?  Is our debate over whether women should be allowed to drive and walk around with their heads uncovered a debate for the sake of heaven?  Or are they debates for the sake of slaves and for the sake of women?  Robert Conquest has pointed out that everyone is reactionary about the things they feel are truly important and it seems to me that is as it should be.  In the course of human events, sometimes you need a little Korach.

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!

Christian “Bar Mitzvahs”: The Gift of the Jews?

Nice article in the NY Times magazine today about “Christian Bar Mitzvahs” (Yes, the correct plural would be benei mitzvah).   The writer (who is a Christian) is duly worried about encroachment on Jewish heritage, and she seemed genuinely surprised to find rabbis who take a more tolerant approach to the borrowing.  And there is part of me that wants to go along with the relaxed attitude.  One could point out that if this is life-cycle theft, then they have stolen an improbable one.   In our codes we find laws for circumcisions, weddings, divorces, and burials but there is no set of laws on how to conduct a bar mitzvah.  And what many people think is the special “bar mitzvah ceremony” is something we do every week.  Even the speeches.  There is stuff that we don’t do that shows up in bar mitzvahs, and these things usually have little to do with Judaism.   If non-Jews want to honor each other with the “traditional” puberty candle-lighting ceremony, in no sense whatsoever can they be said to be violating our sacred airspace.

As I said, I want to be relaxed.  But all in all, I can’t help but think that it would be better if people had a strong conception of their own belief systems rather than a diffuse understanding of several.  Christianity and Judaism each make strong claims about the nature of creation and humanity which are less impressive when they are bent into accommodation.  I recognize that syncretism happens and that sometimes it is for the good.  But it is not automatically good and whether it is good or bad depends on the environment.  I think that one of the lessons of the last half century is that religion is less useful when the particulars are boiled away. (Who would you want to have your back in a bar-fight, a Mormon missionary or a trans-denominational theology student?).  In an increasingly secular society, borderless religion is weak religion.

And part of my resistance to syncretism is personal.  Given 15 million Jews and 5 billion of everyone else, there is not going to be much of us after the mix-and-match.  The party that is going to be syncretized out of existence will be us.  Someone might say that this is the case which proves me wrong, if Christians are doing bar mitzvahs than it must be Jews who are beating the drum.  But I think that this apparent strength is illusory.

Even among Jews there is confusion whether bar mitzvah is a status or a procedure, or better, whether one has a bar mitzvah or becomes bar mitzvah.  The traditional understanding is that it is a status – benei mitzah is just another term for an adult which everyone becomes if they live long enough.  We celebrate a child becoming bar mitzvah to mark the increased responsibilities and prerogatives which come to all Jewish adults.  It’s an occasion worthy of celebration, but the occasion itself is peripheral:  one becomes a Jewish adult without the ceremony or the party.  This is not widely known in some Jewish circles, as evident in the popularization of “adult bar mitzvah” classes, where even people who are already bar mitzvah want to have a bar mitzvah. This is a reflection of how we elevate the fleeting occasion over durable status.

The transformation of bar mitzvah into an ecumenical puberty-onset initiation ceremony will only cement this tendency.  The entire attraction to Christians and others of the bar mitzvah is on the procedure end:  Non-Jews are not speaking of becoming bar mitzvah (that would make them Jews), they are speaking of having bar mitzvahs.  A rite of passage is by definition something one only does once, not once a week.  But, as I said above, for us every week is the expectation.  Learning and teaching Torah are things Jews are supposed to be doing all the time.  If we define bar mitzvah as trial by ordeal, as a one-off superhuman effort in the name of building character, we should not be surprised that the status that is supposed to be the cause of celebration is not embraced.  But when done right, the remarkable thing is just how unremarkable it is, being the inevitable result of socialization into a community which loves God and Torah.

So I do have trouble being projecting insouciance about the whole affair.  Maybe it won’t be so bad, maybe it will fizzle out.  Part of me hopes that if “bar mitzvah” ceremonies really catch on among non-Jews, it will lead to some introspection within our community about what is important and what isn’t.  That would be a gift back to the Jews.

Chag Sameach.


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.