Matzah is explained twice in the Haggadah. In Ha Lachma Anya it is the bread of affliction; in Rabban Gamliel’s exposition it is the bread of deliverance. In Egypt the Israelites were fed hard biscuit-like bread, even though the Egyptians knew the leavening process.
Eating matzah on Pesach renews the taste of slavery. It also renews the taste of freedom, since matzah was the bread the Israelites ate on their hasty departure from Egypt.
Matzah and chametz are both made from the same ingredients – flour and water. The flour used for matzah is carefully supervised to ensure it does not come into contact with moisture, which would cause fermentation. The water is left in a sealed vessel overnight. The kneading, rolling and baking are done extremely fast, ensuring that no fermentation takes place. The utensils and machinery are constantly cleaned.
Egg matzot are not used on the first two evenings of the festival; on the other days they are allowed only for the sick and elderly.
Several reasons are given for the three matzot. Since we need two whole matzot (replacing the usual two challot) for motzi, and by that stage we have already broken the middle matzah, we need to start off with three. (We break the middle matzah in order to have “bread of affliction”; slaves were given broken bits, not complete matzot. This also symbolises the splitting of the Red Sea.)
In addition, three matzot represent the three categories of Jews – Kohen, Levi and Yisrael – symbolising the universality of the festival.
A further view links the three matzot with the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the four cups of wine with the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, once again stressing that Pesach is for everyone, male and female, young and old.
Some use horseradish, but this has the drawback that one can only eat a very small amount. Others prefer romaine lettuce. The symbolism is obvious: the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Israelites and we re-live the suffering of our ancestors.
PESACH – THE PASCHAL LAMB
The shank bone is displayed but not eaten, as we have no Temple and the offering of the paschal lamb is not possible. The bone we place on the table recalls the lamb which the Israelites were commanded to slaughter in Egypt to show their defiance of the Egyptians, for whom the lamb was a sacred animal. The blood of the lamb was placed on Israelite doorposts to enable the angel of death to pass over their houses.
In ancient times, every family brought a lamb to Jerusalem to be duly slaughtered and eaten in company, and this was the origin of the family gathering for a Pesach meal where questions were asked and answered, the events of history were reconstructed, and the future redemption was discussed.
This represents the chagigah or roasted festival sacrifice. Other interpretations note that the egg is the symbol of new life since Pesach is the spring festival in Israel. The messianic redemption will take place in Nisan and bring new life to Israel and the world.
Others argue that the egg is like the Jewish people; the more you boil an egg the harder it becomes, and the more the Jewish people are oppressed the more determined they are to remain true to their destiny.
The roasted egg is not linked with the custom of eating hard-boiled eggs during the Seder meal, which may reflect an ancient custom among well-bred Romans.
FOUR CUPS OF WINE
In the Jerusalem Talmud (P’sachim 10:1), Rabbi Yochanan explains that the four cups symbolise the four ge’ulot (promises of redemption) in Sh’mot (Exodus) 6:6-7 – “I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, I will take you to Me as a people”. Rabbi Yochanan actually calls them four redemptions, but in the Torah T’mimah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein argues that there was only one redemption, though the four phrases represent four stages.
These are identified by Rabbi Milton Steinberg as political (“I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians”), economic (“I will deliver you from their bondage”), intellectual (“I will redeem you” – from slavery of the intellect) and spiritual (“I will take you to Me as a people and I will be your God”).
In fact the Torah has a fifth promise of redemption, “I will bring you in to the Land” and as this promise is not yet completely fulfilled, we fill a fifth cup but do not drink it. We call it the Cup of Elijah, because Elijah will solve all the accumulated problems of the past and as harbinger of the Messiah will usher in the time when everyone will recognise the redemption and drink to its fulfilment.
Women are exempt from some commandments but not from the four cups of wine, since it was because of the merit of the righteous women that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b).
Other parts of the Haggadah also come in fours – four sons, four questions, etc. – which remind us that even as slaves in Egypt our ancestors lived by four tenets: they retained their Hebrew names, they spoke Hebrew, they refrained from immorality, and they did not speak badly of each other.
A sweet paste made of apples, nuts and wine, Charoset, from cheres, “clay”, reminds us of the clay and bricks the slaves made for Pharaoh.
Dipping karpas into salt water has its parallel in the dipping of maror into charoset, because sweet and sour are antidotes to each other, and the festival commemorates both sad and happy events.
Representing the tears of the downtrodden slaves, and reminding us to feel the pain not only of our own people but of all who suffer degradation and discrimination.