What is Matzah?
In Jewish tradition, one element stands out among the rest as a deeply symbolic and integral component. That item is matzah (also spelled “matzo” or “matza”) the flat, cracker-like bread that Scripture refers to as “unleavened bread” (Deuteronomy 16:3).
Jews are commanded to eat matzah for the entire duration of Passover, seven days in Israel and eight days outside the Holy Land. It is the only form of bread they may eat throughout the week-long holiday. The Bible says, “For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses” (Exodus 12:19). Thus, the days just prior to Passover are a flurry of activity as Jews around the world clean the house and search for leavened products in every nook and cranny.
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Matzah is also a central part of the seder, the meal that takes place on the first night of Passover that ritually reenacts the Exodus. In Temple times, eating matzah was part of the Passover sacrificial ritual, which is commemorated today by eating a modified version of what was commanded in Exodus 12:8: “to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.”
Although comprised of the simplest of ingredients, matzah is a multidimensional element with layers of meaning. It most powerfully captures the symbolism of the Passover story by representing both slavery and redemption in the Exodus narrative.
How to Make Matzah
Matzah is simply kosher flour and water although, according to rabbinic law, only one of five grains can be used in making matzah: wheat, spelt, barley, rye, or oat. Since under normal conditions the leavening process begins about 18 minutes after flour and water are combined, when making matzah the entire process, from kneading the dough to inserting it into the oven for baking, cannot exceed 18 minutes.
Immediately after flour and water are mixed, the batter is kneaded using a specially designed implement. The dough is then flattened using rollers made only of solid pieces of wood or metal. The flattened dough is perforated, which enables any air bubbles to escape to prevent the dough from rising, baked at a high temperature, then set aside to cool.
While matzah is sometimes still made by hand, the advent of industrialization allowed it to be mass produced. In 1838, a Frenchman named Isaac Singer invented a matzah dough-rolling machine; fifty years later, a Lithuanian immigrant named Dov Behr opened the first matzah dough factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. He named the factory the B. Manischewitz Company, and to this day the company produces the most popular brand of matzah on the market.
What Matzah Means to the Jewish People
While the growing Jewish diaspora (Jewish communities outside of Israel) made mass production of matzah necessary, one thing that did not change was matzah’s symbolism as a key part of Jewish identity.
That symbolism touches the very heart of the Jewish faith. Matzah is known by several different names, and each speaks to a different aspect of its meaning. Scripture refers to matzah as “the bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). It is also dubbed “the poor man’s bread,” as it is made up of only two ingredients – water and flour. It contains only the bare basics, signifying a life of poverty and difficulty. Through it, Jews can taste the harsh slavery of Egypt.
However, matzah is also referred to as “the bread of freedom.” It was the byproduct of God’s swift and miraculous salvation when the children of Israel were brought out of Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to allow their dough to rise. Matzah, therefore, is a symbol of Jewish freedom as well.
Matzah became known as such a powerful symbol of Jewish identity that there have been times in history when making and consuming it has put Jews at risk. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the Communist regime waged war against organized religion and at times banned the making of matzah outright. Even during the times it was technically legal, it was never really safe, and thus was usually done in secret.
“Those early years were terrible times,” recalled one 94-year-old Jewish man who lived in Ukraine. “When I was growing up, I remember going together with my father to the shul to buy matzah … In the big cities [buying matzah] was easier, but in the small towns it was hidden because everyone can see you … It was legal, but we were very quiet about it.” He elegantly summed up the significance of matzah: “Matzah is the symbol of Passover, and Passover is when the Jewish people became free, became a nation. The Communists could not accept this; they said everyone was the same. Matzah meant we were different.”
The Message of Matzah for All People
Matzah is also called “the food of faith.” This title links the other two names and also encapsulates the message of the Passover seder. It takes faith to see our afflictions as a precursor to redemption. Matzah is the link between slavery and freedom, reminding us that God hears our prayers and brings about redemption.
In life, we tend to separate our good times and our bad times. We have dry seasons and seasons of abundance. We don’t like the trying times in our lives, and we long for the more comfortable, blessed times.
But the truth is, as matzah teaches us, it’s all part of our God-given blessings. Like two sides of the same coin, adversity in our lives is what often leads to our greatest victories. Appropriately, matzah is the last thing eaten at the seder meal, because we want the taste – and its message – to linger long after Passover has concluded.
According to Judaism, matzah represents humility. It is low and flat like a humble person. In addition, it is simple, consisting of just flour and water; not at all fancy like many tasty and decorated leavened products. Chametz, leavened bread, on the other hand, represents arrogance. Bread is all puffed up and full of itself.
Eating unleavened bread, the bread of humility, for an entire week reminds us of our true place in the world. With all our achievements and talents, we must remain humble, recognizing that everything is a gift from God. Whether you are Jewish or Christian, this is a lesson worth remembering – again and again.