Sure, many families observe the minhag of not eating gebrokts on Pesach, but why?
The halachah, as formulated in the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, explicitly states that once matzah is baked, it can no longer become chametz (OC 461:4). Most observant Jews therefore use matzah meal during Passover, enjoying matzah balls, matzah brei and a variety of baked goods containing matzah meal.
Nonetheless, some posekim were concerned that because the matzah dough has to be kneaded within the eighteen-minute limit, this may result in some of the flour not getting fully mixed with the water. The concern is that the resulting flour pocket, while baked, could come into contact with water afterwards and the chametz (leavening) process will then commence. Thus, the custom of not eating gebrokts, or matzah that has come into contact with water or other liquids.
(The word gebrokts literally means “dipped” in Yiddish. And asking someone if they “bruk” is a shorthand way of inquiring whether they eat knaidlach, matzah brei or any other wet matzah food on Passover.)
Other posekim opine that matzot are generally thin and don’t have flour pockets. Adhering to the literal reading of the Shulchan Aruch, German, Sephardic and Lithuanian communities shun the minhag of not eating gebrokts.
While the ban on not bruking is hundreds of years old, it was only in the eighteenth century, when matzah bakers began working more quickly and sloppily than they had in earlier times, that Chabad, among other Chassidic sects, espoused this custom and popularized the practice.
As one could imagine, this minhag has not been without controversy. Many Lithuanian rabbis insisted on eating gebrokts. Interestingly, one posek, voicing his opposition to the minhag, argued that the limitations imposed by its adherence would place unnecessary constraints on Pesach menus, thereby diminishing the enjoyment of the yom tov.
Not eating gebrokts is a chumrah (stringency), and in general, people tend to be more stringent on Pesach. This is because while forbidden foods are normally subject to nullification, this is not the case with chametz on Pesach. Chametz is not permitted even in minute amounts. On that basis, the Arizal suggested that one who makes an extra effort to avoid chametz on Pesach will be protected from sin throughout the entire year.
There are many variations to the custom of not eating gebrokts. In some non-gebrokts homes, on Seder night, the head of the household distributes the matzah along with plastic bags or paper towels to catch the crumbs (to ensure no crumbs come into contact with liquid). Before the soup is served, the matzah is removed from the table, the table is cleared of crumbs and the floor is swept.
Some individuals are careful to avoid even the utensils that were used to prepare gebrokts dishes, while others are not. Some non-brukers won’t spread anything on their matzah. Others will combine matzah with fruit juice, milk or wine, but not water.
Those who keep this custom are careful to emphasize that it is only a chumrah, and not a halachically mandated requirement. For this reason, Chassidim and others who follow this minhag often partake of gebrokts on the eighth day of Pesach, so as to symbolically join their brethren who have not adopted the chumrah. And this way, even non-brukers can enjoy traditional-tasting matzah meal-based matzah balls on Pesach.
Carol Ungar is a full-time mother and freelance writer living in Israel. Her work has appeared in the New York Jewish Week, Tablet, the Jerusalem Post and other publications and web sites.
To listen to an interview with Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, rabbinic coordinator at the OU, on what gebrokts is really all about, visit http://www.ou.org/life/food/whats-gebrochtz-nachum-rabinowitz-stephen-savitsky/#.UT36Z6z02IA.