by Les Saidel - March, 2013

As we approach the festival of Pesach (Passover), we are faced with the prospect of having to eat only one kind of bread for an entire week - Matzo.

The reason Jews eat Matzo on Pesach is well known and intertwined with the story of the Exodus from Egypt as described in the Old Testament. According to tradition, Jews around the world commemorate Pesach by eating Matzo in memory of the fact that the ancient Israelites had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that their bread did not have enough time to rise before baking.

Is the "time-frame" reason all there is behind the Matzo tradition? If the story of Pesach were to have happened today and not thousands of years ago as it did, then Matzo would not have been on the menu, but rather regular bread. In ancient Egypt, fermentation of bread was due to sourdough/natural yeast, which takes over 12 hours to rise. If regular bakers' yeast that we use today would have been available in the time of Moses, the bread could have risen in less than an hour and been baked in time. Perhaps the "hurried exit" is not the only or even the true motivation.

Another, deeper explanation behind the modus operandi for eating Matzo on Pesach has been suggested.

Ancient Egypt was the superpower of the age. It was the center of economy, culture, architecture and agriculture. It is actually quite scary to compare the superpower of our modern era with Ancient Egypt. Both are typified by their emphasis on materialism and a pompous, inflated sense of self importance which manifests itself in an egrarious style of architecture of "bigger is better". Think of the pyramids, the Empire State building, trying to touch the Heavens like a Tower of Babel. Ancient Egypt also differed from the rest of the world in the bread they ate. According to legend, yeast fermentation of dough was first discovered and then elevated to an art form in Ancient Egypt. They were the first nation in the world whose culinary staple was "fluffy", leavened bread. Compare that to the "puffed up", inflated baked goods - bread, pastry etc. typified by the current superpower's national diet and the resemblance becomes even more eerie.

Despite its glory and materialistic splendour, Ancient Egypt was spiritually decrepit and extremely low in the morality and values departments. Their society was built and maintained by an army of repressed slaves and the very stones of their sacred and beloved structures were soaked in blood.

It is not surprising therefore that G-d exhorted his Chosen People not to copy the wayward behaviour of the Ancient Egyptians, to distance themselves from that culture, which is also manifested in abstaining from eating their kind of bread, at least for the week of Pesach. While the Egyptian bread was inflated, full of air, symbolizing a pompous materialism, the Jewish Passover bread Matzo was devoid of that. Humble and flat, Matzo has come to symbolize a "spiritual" bread which is devoid of the "artificialities" of materialistic living.

It is similarly not surprising that the holy Show Bread (Lechem Hapanim), baked every Friday in the ancient Jewish Temple, was similarly unfermented. In fact it was forbidden to offer any leavened bread on the altar.

An interesting story is told in the Talmud relating that the Levite family Garmu was traditionally responsible for the production of this spiritual bread and that the task was obviously an art handed down over generations. The Show Bread apparently remained miraculously fresh the entire week and was perfectly formed. According to the tale, when the authorities became weary of the extravagant fee demanded by the Garmu family for their skills, they tried to replace them with imported baking talent. However the result was unsatisfactory and they were forced to capitulate to the Garmu family's greater experience and agreed to increase their wages. In their favour, the Garmu family would not allow their children to eat any bread resembling the Show Bread, to avoid public suspicion that they were secretly using holy items for their own personal use.

Whether it was the Garmu bakers' skill or a Divine miracle that the Show Bread remained fresh the entire week, is irrelevant for the purposes of our discussion. What is relevant is that the bread was unleavened and thus considered spiritually superior.

Since the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temple it has become traditional to eat Challah on the Sabbath in memory of the Show Bread of old. However, the fact that Challah is fermented/leavened, seems to emphasize the deterioration of the generations (Yeridat Hadorot).

Interestingly enough, the Yemenite community, who have managed, perhaps more than others, to retain the traditions of old, do not eat Challah on the Sabbath. They instead eat flat pita bread, 12 of them, arranged symbolically to resemble the 12 loaves of the holy Show Bread. Yemenite Matzos, almost identical to Yemenite pita eaten on the Sabbath, are flat and flexible, unlike the more common "cracker" textured Matzo.

On Pesach however, the entire Jewish nation dedicates 7 whole days to eating spiritual, non-leavened bread only - Matzo. It is this week that reminds us of the true meaning of life and puts things into perspective - what is real and what is superficial and inflated.

Happy Pesach.

Les Saidel


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