When the Passover holiday begins this week, seven out of every 10 American Jews will sit down to a festive meal centered on unleavened bread called matzah. Why does a glorified cracker, with debated culinary merit, play such an important role in Judaism’s most prominent ritual?
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The classic answer is that the ancient Israelites were forced to eat matzah while fleeing Egypt: They were in such a hurry that they did not have time to let their bread rise (Exodus 12:39; Deuteronomy 16:3). Because Passover commemorates the exodus from Egypt, Jews continue to eat the food that reminds them of their ancestors’ rushed escape from bondage.
It is questionable, however, whether this is indeed the only reason – or even the primary reason – we eat matzah on Passover. According to the Biblical narrative, the Israelites celebrated the first Passover while they were still slaves in Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28), during which they ate matzah, at God's command (Exodus 12:8). It was also while they were still slaves in Egypt that God commanded them to eat matzah on all future Passovers (Exodus 12:14-20).
The timing of God's instruction is thought to be at least four days before the first Passover began, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan (Exodus 12:3, 12:6), which would have left plenty of time for the Israelites to bake loaves of fully leavened bread. The initial instruction to eat matzah on Passover, therefore, had nothing to do with remembering a food that was eaten during a hasty exodus – because that exodus hadn’t yet occurred.
Looking elsewhere in the Torah further complicates the common assumption about the symbolism of eating matzah. On multiple occasions, the Biblical text prohibits leaven, referred to as “hametz,” from the Tabernacle (Leviticus 2:11; 6:10), and instead requires the inclusion of matzah for different temple rituals (Leviticus 2:4; 6:9). These instructions have nothing to do with Passover, yet they involve nearly identical rules to the upcoming holiday: matzah is in and hametz is out. The common concern about these foods in two totally different contexts — Passover and the Tabernacle — suggests that they have a deeper, more fundamental significance than the oft-cited explanation about not having time to bake normal bread when fleeing Egypt.
This essential symbolism of matzah and hametz rests on the basic human experience of eating bread — the most widely consumed food in the world. In its simplest form, bread contains only two ingredients: flour and water. When mixed together, and baked immediately, they produce matzah. If the mixture is given time, however, these two ingredients interact chemically with leaven in the air and change in a radical way: They become the risen dough that bakes into leavened bread. People almost always prefer to let these ingredients transform in this way before eating them. When we ingest we completely accept food into our bodies, and our overwhelming preference is for the ingredients of bread to change in this way before we accept them fully.
Leaven therefore symbolizes that acceptance is conditioned on change or transformation; whereas matzah represents the acceptance of things in their current state.
Both Passover and the Tabernacle stress the value of unconditional acceptance. The Israelites were not freed from Egypt because they were pious and fasted for three days, like the Jews in the Purim story (Esther 4:16), or because they took initiative to change the status quo, like the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story. Rather, the Torah says, it was because God simply loved them as they were: a small, enslaved nation (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
Similarly, the Tabernacle was not a place for only perfectly-transformed, “leavened” Israelites to feel close to God’s presence. Instead, it was a sanctuary for anyone to experience spiritual and emotional solace.
In both situations, matzah reminded the Israelites not that they were perfect, but that they were worthy of unconditional acceptance and love. We too should remember when eating matzah not only that we were once slaves in Egypt, but that we, like those slaves, are worthy of acceptance in our “unleavened” state.
Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @ayaloneliach.