OKLA. CITY —
Jews across the world will celebrate the first night of Passover on Monday night. The festival commemorates how God saved the children of Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, bringing them out of Egypt and taking them first to Mount Sinai — to receive the Torah (the Law) — and then to the Land of Israel. Jews mark the occasion with a Passover seder — a set of prayers and religious rituals performed during a festive meal. It is the most widely celebrated of any Jewish ritual or holiday observance; even Jews who are completely non-religious tend to celebrate Passover and participate in a seder in some way each year.
One of the most recognizable symbolic foods of Passover is matzah. Usually translated as “unleavened bread,” this large cracker-like food is a necessary part of every Jew’s Passover observance. The Hebrew Bible variously calls it the “bread of affliction” and the “bread of haste.”
Traditionally observant Jews will not eat or own any wheat, oat, spelt, rye or barley product during all of Passover unless it is in matzah form. Passover is a seven-day festival in the Hebrew Bible, and traditionally observant Jews living outside Israel add an eighth day to the observance. Eight days with no bread, no bagels and no pasta can certainly make it seem like matzah is the “bread of affliction.” However, its purpose is not to make Jews suffer. Rather, it reminds Jews of how God ended our suffering under Pharaoh.
Bibles usually translate the making of matzah something like this from Exodus 12:39: “And they baked unleavened loaves of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves (in advance).”
Often, in the modern day, we read this and think that the yeast went into the bread but that the dough did not have time to rise, or that they had to leave out the yeast because they were mixing the ingredients too quickly. Looking at it that way, it can be very confusing how Jews ended up eating things that look like crackers, but not eating actual crackers, which are not kosher for Passover.
This is based on the reference to matzah as the “bread of haste.”
In the ancient world, dry yeast was not available. Wealthy cooks kept a jar of what is called starter — flour mixed with some kind of liquid left to ferment, and added to the dough to make it rise. However, the children of Israel were not wealthy cooks.
Regular cooks tended to make their dough with flour and water and a pinch of salt, if they were lucky. Kneading and cooking that dough right away results in matzah. In order to leaven it, cooks would leave the dough out overnight; that way, the yeast spores in the air would land on the dough and make it rise.
In the above verse from Exodus, note the end of the verse: The children of Israel had not been able to prepare their provisions ahead of time. That meant that they had to mix their dough, knead it and bake it right away because they were fleeing. This is matzah, and this is why Jews eat matzah to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt — because the children of Israel did not have time for their dough to absorb the yeast from the air to make it rise.
ABBY JACOBSON is rabbi at Oklahoma City’s Emanuel Synagogue. To contact Jacobson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.