The Great Matzah Controversy: Should Matzah Be Made By Hand Or Machine?

March 28, 2006

The following article is adapted from the newly published Spring issue of Jewish Action: The Magazine of the Orthodox Union. Copies of the issue are available from the OU for $4.50 by calling 212-613-8137.

Dating back to the time of Moses, the practice had always been to make matzah by hand. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the first half of the nineteenth century, however, things changed. In France, in 1838, Isaac Singer invented the first machine for baking matzah.

With the popularization of the machine, a major halachic (Jewish law) controversy broke out over the kosher status of machine matzah. The controversy erupted in 1859, when Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Brody (1785-1869) came out in opposition to machine matzah. Some rabbis even contended that machine matzah was no better than chametz (leaven). Great rabbis of the era who opposed machine matzah included Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Gur (1789-1866), Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876) and other Chassidic rabbis, particularly from Galicia.

Equally great personalities, mostly from Central and Western Europe, maintained that machine matzah was actually more kosher than handmade matzah. These included Rabbi Yosef S. Nathanson of Lemberg (1810-1875), Rabbi Abraham Shmuel B. Sofer of Pressburg (the Ktav Sofer) (1815-1871) and Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger of Altona (1798-1871). As the matzah-baking machine spread to other parts of the Jewish world, many great rabbinic personalities from Lithuania, Jerusalem and the Sephardic countries also approved of the machine.

Why were some rabbis so opposed to machine matzah? One objection was that since the machinery consisted of many small parts it was impossible to clean it adequately. Dough remnants could potentially become chametz and mix with the newly made Passover dough. There was also concern that if the machine matzah was made in the traditional round shape, pieces of dough would have to be cut off and combined with the general dough mixture. Here again, there was fear of those pieces becoming chametz before being returned to the dough.

The defenders of the machine maintained that to the contrary, a machine is easier to clean than the equipment used for hand matzah (such as rolling pins and even human hands). The rabbis did concede that round-shaped matzah might lead to problems, and therefore they determined that machine matzah should be square shaped.

More general concerns were raised as well. Many poor families depended on the matzah bakery for their livelihood. If machines replaced the handmade matzah bakeries these indigent people would lose their source of income. The defenders responded that such an argument was not valid, especially when the machine could arguably raise the kosher status of matzah. Additionally, they asserted that the use of a machine could result in a considerable price reduction of matzah, which would greatly benefit the poor.

Innovation: Good or Bad?

A most interesting objection against the machine did not concern the machine itself but the innovation in general. The argument went as follows: Innovation, even if halachically defensible, should be avoided, as one change leads to another, and eventually serious changes would be made in Jewish life and mitzvah observance. This argument reveals much about this period of Jewish history. Halachic Judaism was under constant assault and constantly forced to give ground. More and more Jewish communities and practices were lost to the encroaching modernism. Those who were lenient on the issue of machine matzah were generally less fearful of the onslaught of modernity on Orthodox Judaism and did not feel the same need to thwart innovation in Jewish life.

Among these more lenient producers was Dov Ber Manischewitz, whose matzah factory in Cincinnati took a leadership position in the industry, after he had obtained permission from the rabbinate in Israel and New York. (Manischewitz matzah, of course, has been certified Kosher for Passover by the OU for many years.)

The halachic concerns mentioned above centered around matzah peshutah, that is, ordinary matzah—for use during the eight days of the holiday. A more heated controversy concerned matzah shemurah, that is, matzah used at the seder to fulfill the mitzvah of achilat matzah, eating matzah. According to most authorities, the Torah requirement to eat matzah only applies to the seder night. While the Torah forbids one from eating chametz during the rest of Passover, there is no positive requirement to consume matzah on those days. Hence, there are more stringent requirements for matzah shemurah than there are for matzah peshutah.

Thus, matzah shemurah must be made from grain that is guarded (so that it will not come into contact with water) from the time the wheat is reaped. (This is why many individuals choose to eat matzah shemurah all of Passover, as there is almost no chance of the matzah becoming chametz.) In contrast, matzah peshutah is made from grain that is guarded from the time it is ground into flour. Furthermore, matzah shemurah must be prepared with the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of achilat matzah. This means that if the cutting, grinding, kneading and baking of the matzah were done without the proper kavanah (intention), then the resulting product may not be used to fulfill the mitzvah at the seder.

This brings us to the primary objection against machine matzah: Matzah shemurah needs to be made by committed Jews who have the proper kavanah, and a machine could obviously have no such kavanah. The defenders of the machine asserted that a machine was a tool, no different than a rolling pin, and therefore, it sufficed if the Jew operating the machine had the correct kavanah.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, virtually the entire non-Chassidic world accepted the use of machine matzah peshutah for the eight days of Passover. Most Chassidim continued to disagree. The debate about using machine matzah shemurah at the seder continues until the present day.

————————————————- Rabbi Shmuel Singer has been the coordinator of Passover supervision for the OU for the last sixteen years.