Word of the Day / Matza: Could the Word Arise From Hasty Baking and Cardboard Taste?

This most ancient of words isn't likely to have originated with the roots for 'suck' and 'rush.' Maybe it was a Phoenician present from the ancient Greeks.

Making matza shemura (Rami Chelouche)
We know they're making matza shemura in this picture, but where actually does 'matza' come from? Rami Chelouche

Matza is mentioned 54 times in the Bible, yet despite this abundance, the source of their word is a mystery.

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There is complete agreement on its meaning - unleavened bread, but that's where the amity ends. There is no agreement as to the word's origin or even on its root.

Semitic words typically have three letters in their root. Matza in Hebrew is spelled mem-tzadi-heh. But is that its root?

The middle letter in the word matza - the tzadi - is punctuated with a dagesh, a diacritic dot.

The diacritic dot has multiple possible functions. In this case, it could indicate that a root letter – technically called a radical - is missing. If that's the case, what could the root of matza be?

The most accepted theory is that the root is m-tz-tz, which does appear in a number of Hebrew verbs and nouns having to do with sucking (limtzotz is "to suck," as in "a lollipop," not as in "at mathematics").

This could be plausible. Roots in which the second and third radical are the same tend to have one of them disappear. For instance, the word for "word," mila, comes from the root m-l-l: the repeating radical disappeared.

But, the missing-radical theory seems unlikely, as one is hard pressed to find a connection between oversized crackers and sucking. (The colloquialism "matzot suck," though arguably true, doesn’t work in Hebrew.)

Another theory is that the root is n-tz-y. How could that root be mangled into matza, you wonder?

Once again, this is plausible, since when the letter nun appears as the first radical, it tends to disappear. The diacritical dot then appears in the second radical, which is in this case the tzadi.

The problem with this theory is that the root n-tz-y has two meanings - haste and discord – neither of which seem to bear any relation to baked goods.

Proponents of the n-tz-y theory say it's to do with haste in which the matzot were made when the Israelite slaves left Egypt. But this is hardly satisfactory, considering the fact that matza is eaten throughout the Bible completely irrespective to the story of Exodus. Also, the story of the Exodus seems to be ancient folk memory that morphed in time, rather than actual history.

Back to our matza. A completely different possibility is that the word was borrowed from a foreign language, specifically Greek.

Greek has the word maza, meaning barley bread. This is especially fitting as the matza eaten on Passover was almost certainly made of barley, as barley is the first grain to be harvested in Israel; and as an agricultural holiday, Passover marked the beginning of the harvest.

But alas, this theory too has difficulties. The ancient Hebrews had no known connection with the Greeks and the Bible has no Greek words in the early books, in which the word "matza" appears. Still, I think this theory most plausible: the word could have been transmitted by another people, who did truck with the ancient Greeks – say, the Hittites or the Phoenicians.

We may never know for sure.