The Inner Meaning of Matzah

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“Anyone who eats chametz, that individual will be cut off from the Jewish people” (Shemos 12:15).

MatzahWhy is Matzah so basic to the celebration of Passover? Why is Passover called by the Torah and in the Siddur, the holiday of matzos? Why is this simple food a foundation of Jewish experience and ideology? Why has Matzah come to symbolize human freedom?

Matzah has many aspects. It is the “bread of affliction,” poor man’s bread eaten by slaves. It is also the bread of liberation and freedom. We will attempt in the next paragraphs to understand the meaning of Matzah.

Bread is the staff of life, but Matzah is the most basic bread, the simplest food made by man. Matzah involves the amalgamation of the three most basic elements which define civilized man; grain, water and fire. Matzah is a food which man makes and bakes, no external element beyond flour and water defines or influences its form. Matzah is no more than flour and cold water — no more. If the mixture of flour and water is allowed to stand for more than a minimum time of 18 minutes, it is in that time acted upon by an external process which begins to intercede. Yeast bacteria which are found in the air, multiply causing fermentation. The yeast micororganisms are an uninvited invading army intruding on the flour and water mixture helping themselves to a delicious meal of sugar molecules. As the yeast microorganisms multiply by the billions they release carbon dioxide gas that sours the dough.

The intervention of this outside force is an expression and symbol of the intrusion of outside forces and influences on man; forces which compromise human independence, autonomy and choice. The yeast microorganisms begin their work independent of human will, independent of the person who combined the flour and water which constitutes the dough mix. They intrude on their own, and have therefore become a symbolic expression of the outside forces which sway people from their chosen determined task and entice them to sin. When the yeast enters the dough mixture through the air or water, it is acting independently, intruding on its own. Fermentation, chametz, is a function of nature which symbolizes the negative forces of civilization which sway man from his responsibilities, which entice man to sin. This is how evil works — it sneaks up quietly and unobtrusively. Fermentation represents the evil urge, the urge to sin, the influence of alien ideas and forces. It is the voice that encourages us to ignore the pushy power of evil until it is too late. Flour and water which stand for more than 18 minutes become by definition chametz, leaven. Because matzah is bread which is not leavened, it represents man in control of his passions — exercising his independent disciplined will unflayed by external forces. Matzah is the very opposite of chametz. It is man alert, on the defensive, disciplined and in control, rising above the forces of nature.

To paraphrase Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, fermentation demonstrates cause and effect the very natural way. When we witness nature at work doing things by itself without any outside intervention we see how natural processes have the effect of concealing the hands of G-d.

Matzos are flat bread which is baked quickly, in a hurry, almost suddenly in an effort to overcome the limitations of time. We bake flat, crisp matzah in order to re-enact the Exodus from Egypt when Israel fled in a hurry, as the Torah says, Devorim 16:3, “you shall eat matzos during seven days, they are the bread of suffering because you departed Egypt in great haste.” This mitzvah teaches that G-d’s control of nature and history is above and beyond the constraints and limitations of time. G-d does not require cause and effect. He does not need time in order to accomplish His goals. We too must emulate G-d and create spiritually by hurrying time, by acting with zeal and speed.

Nature responds to His will by acting, it seems to us, unnaturally. The hasty departure of the Jews from Egypt was due to the plague of the first born which convinced Pharaoh that if he did not respond to G-d’s pressures without an additional moment’s delay, all of Egypt faced immediate collapse and destruction. Diplomacy and pressure had had their day. For Egypt to survive, Israel had to flee immediately. And for Israel to survive, Israel had to flee immediately. It was G-d who forced Pharaoh’s hand. G-d did this to teach Pharaoh and all of mankind that behind the normal course of events which can be described as the workings of cause and effect, His hand compels the forces of history and nature to conform to His agenda. As the Maharal explains, it was necessary that mankind become aware of the fact that the Exodus was the direct result of the will and intervention of G-d.

What was the hurry? Why after 210 years of slavery did G-d finally decide to press the Egyptians to eject the Jews with speed and force? The Sages teach that the Jews had reached the 49th degree of decadence. As soon as they would enter the 50th degree which was imminent they would have reached the point of no return and would be beyond repair. Once they would succumb to the infamous immorality, materialism, decadence and paganism of the Egyptians, their Abrahamic origins would become unrecognizable and they would sink into the morass of Egyptian society and disappear.

The Rabbis explain that each additional degree of decadence involved a geometric progression, something like the Richter scale where each number is ten times as great as the previous number. So long as Israel had not passed the 50th gate their Abrahamic origins, while sullied and battered were still recognizable. The Sages teach that during their 210 years of enslavement, the “Israelites had not changed their names, their culture, their language or their dress” indicating clearly that despite unremitting pressures and taunts they remained Jews in every way. The Hebrew names given in the Bible, most of which indicate the worship of the true G-d of Israel demonstrates that they also remained worshipers of the G-d of Abraham.

Because they were so close to losing their heritage it was necessary to overcome the pressures of time by becoming again a timeless, eternal people. This necessitated divine intervention, an act which overcame the pressures and corrosion of time, an act which would teach how G-d who is eternal, who operates above and beyond human time, who controls history and is not subject to it, was able to snatch His people from the jaws of history by liberating them in such a way as to telescope time. Their miraculous liberation therefore defied the laws of nature, time and history.

The Maharal explains that it is for this reason that they were commanded to eat matzah and to commemorate their liberation annually throughout all eternity by eating matzah on the anniversary of their liberation. Because matzah is the only food whose manufacture demands that it be created without time as quickly as possible. The prohibition of leaven also teaches us that nature does not operate independently through its own powers but is controlled by G-d. Nature is the will of G-d concealed in the natural world.

In the ultimate sense, fermentation is not merely a process which does not take place in matzah. That is its lesson. In reality it was Israel who had become fermented — up to the point where they almost became chametz. It was G-d who saved Israel from becoming chametz, which would have spelled Israel’s destruction. It was the redeeming hand of G-d which guaranteed that Israel would “remain Matzah” for all time to come.

For the above reasons, the words mitzvah and matzah are analogous and nearly the same. Our Sages teach, “mitzvah haba’ah leyadcha al tachmitzena,” when a mitzvah comes your way do not allow it to become chametz. This teaching applies the formula of matzah to all mitzvot. The Jew is expected to conquer time at all times, to demonstrate that by overcoming time, he is attempting to associate his life with G-d who is timeless and eternal. The Jew never wastes time — he employs time to bend this time bound world to the goals of eternity. This is done by making time a precious commodity — by filling it with Torah, mitzvot and chesed.