Most people, it seems, are quite familiar with one the Torah’s basic explanations for the obligation to eat matzah, unleavened bread made from one of five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oat or rye), on Passover, also termed Chag Hamatzot, the Festival of Unleavened Breads: as our ancient ancestors were hastily leaving Egypt, the dough they had with them did not have sufficient time to rise and baked quickly in the hot desert sun (Exodus 12:39).
For many, this is the end of the story. Well and good, but rabbinic understanding posits a much richer and more nuanced symbolism and meaning to the holiday’s namesake food that can add depth and meaning to the entire festival.
At the very start of the Passover seder, the passage beginning “ha lachma anya” is chanted aloud. “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt …” In the Torah, matzah is also described as “lechem oni,” literally “poor man’s bread” or the “bread of affliction.” But matzah had nothing to do with socioeconomic status in the Torah’s account! Several commentaries, bothered by this question, explained that matzah was also the food the Israelites were given as slaves. It is among the cheapest, simplest foods imaginable, and perfect feed to keep slaves alive. Without taste and of marginal nutritional value, matzah represents the devaluation of the slave’s life, offered in an effort to keep the slave alive so that he might continue to be of productive value. This really is the bread of affliction eaten in Egypt, not only on the way out.
I dare say that most people think the middle matzah is broken so that some can be hidden as the afikoman. While it’s true that half is in fact hidden away as the afikoman, this is not the reason for the custom to break the middle matzah. It’s worth noting that yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, is one of the 15 essential named components of the Passover seder. So what is the reason it is broken? The Talmud explains that since matzah is poor man’s bread, we ought not eat from a whole loaf, as this is not the way of someone living in poverty. “Just as the path of the poor is to eat only a piece of a loaf, so too matzah must be a piece of the bread” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 115b).
Eating matzah, then, on some level, represents an attempt at the reenactment of slavery. “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to demonstrate to themselves that it is as if they themselves left Egypt” (Maimonides). By eating matzah, we are experiencing/reliving slavery using the sense of taste.
Of course, matzah represents freedom as well. Ironically, the same bread fed to slaves was the choice food of the free. Though it seems this was a matter of happenstance (the bread didn’t have sufficient time to rise), there’s great symbolism in this seeming coincidence. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg explains that true freedom is more a state of mind than a quality of the bread. Different narratives regarding the same unleavened bread, one of slavery and one of redemption, co-exist in mixed message matzah. An important aspect of freedom lies in the ability to reflect and see thick layers of meaning in the lives that we lead. Passover is plainly about the telling of stories, in this case, the fundamental story of our people throughout the ages. Matzah reminds us that the narratives we tell have the power to shape our experience and frame of being.
Barry Dolinger is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence. He is vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.