It is clearly the most popular of our festivals, perhaps observed even more widely than Yom Kippur. Yet neither is easy to observe. The one requires rigorous spring cleaning, the other rigorous soul cleaning.
Yet even those who say it is hard to be a Jew hardly complain at all about Pesach or Yom Kippur. Maybe a real challenge is good for us and people do rise to an occasion.
What makes Pesach is of course the matzot. Our enemies knew how to hurt us, and more than one regime tried hard to forbid or hinder the baking of matzah, though generally we found a way to outwit them.
Matzah has a long history. Centuries before the Exodus it was already a widely known food.
Abraham’s nephew, Lot, offered it to his visitors (Gen. 19). In Egypt it was matzah that was the daily diet of the Israelites, which is why the Haggadah declares, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt”. So when the former slaves were on the road to freedom and expected at last to proper bread, it was the old familiar matzah that they ended up with.
The Torah does not give much detail as to the nature of matzah or how to bake it, though it is clear that it was flat, dry and baked so rapidly that it had no time to rise.
The Oral Law fills in the details. The wheat grains must not swell as the result of contact with moisture. The flour must be kneaded quickly, using water that has stood in a cool place overnight. The baking must be fast. The whole process may not take more than 18 minutes.
Perforations are made across the entire matzah to ensure that the heat of the oven will penetrate the dough and stop it rising. The perforations were once made by hand with a wheel with sharp pins known as a “redel”, though today most matzah is machine-baked and the perforations are made by machine.
Matzah machinery was only accepted after long controversy. Many argued that matzah baking was a mitzvah that had to be carried out personally. In addition, pieces of dough might stick to the machine and adhere to the next piece of dough that came through.
The problem remained for as long as matzot were round, as the dough had to be trimmed to attain the round shape. Square matzot have largely solved the problem, though many prefer the characteristic round shape known to former generations and many insist on hand-baked matzah, at least for the Seder.
The word matzah is probably from a root that means to squeeze, since matzah is hard without any leavening or moisture. It may have to do with an Aramaic word meaning to split: the matzah is pierced or perforated. Others link it with roots that mean to improvise (it is bread made in a hurry) or to quarrel (the Israelites may have been in two minds about eating it).
It is interesting that matzah can only be made from grain that is capable of becoming chametz. Homiletically, this suggests that the same material can often be used either for good or for ill, and care must be exercised to watch over one’s actions and attitudes.
Three matzot are on the Seder table. Some name them Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, and others Alef, Bet, Gimmel.
In some places they are marked before baking with one, two or three strokes. Two matzot represent the two Shabbat or festival loaves; the third (the middle matzah) is the bread of affliction. It is this matzah which is broken in two with part set aside as Afikoman.
Matzah is not eaten on Erev Pesach in order not to spoil one’s appetite for the Seder. For the same reason some do not eat it from the beginning of Nisan.
Enjoy your matzah - and have a happy and kosher Pesach!