Fast food that gives a true taste of freedom

Why is matzah called both the 'bread of affliction' and the 'bread of freedom'?

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, April 14, 2011
Primed for Pesach: a matzah maker stacks the ovens in Jerusalem

Primed for Pesach: a matzah maker stacks the ovens in Jerusalem

I have always loved matzah, annoying everyone around me; even the dog looks disappointed when he does not receive his customary challah. But I have also felt intrigued by the paradox in the matzah's essence. What does it actually represent? Is it the bread of poverty and the fare of slaves, or the bread of hope and the food of the free?

"If one explanation is not what you need to hear this Pesach, turn the matzah over and try the other," wrote the contemporary American theologian Arthur Green. But the truth is that the matzah is not either one or the other, but tastes both of slavery and liberty at once. Precisely that is why it represents our journey towards redemption.

Ha lachma anya, we say at the start of the Seder, "This is the bread of affliction". It is an apt description for a foodstuff made from one of the five kinds of permitted grains, wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats, with water as the sole other ingredient. One possible etymological derivation connects matzah with the Aramaic word for tasteless. The Torah also calls it "the bread of poverty" because, observed Samuel Al-Magribi "poor people, in the severity of their destitution, will take some flour, knead it, and bake it into unleavened cakes which they eat immediately...Others say it means bread injurious to the digestive system." It also represents the Temple offering brought by the poorest of the poor.

Matzah thus expresses our identification with the suffering and the oppressed. We break the middle of the three matzot used at the Seder, because, says the Talmud, the destitute are never able to afford a whole loaf of bread. Holding up this broken piece, we invite the hungry and needy to join us. One "who locks the door… and eats and drinks with his wife and family, without giving anything…to the poor and bitter in soul…is not rejoicing in a divine commandment, but… in his own stomach", declared Maimonides.

However, the invitation extends far beyond our immediate neighbours to include all those who, like our ancestors in Egypt, are outcasts and slaves, who know neither justice nor rest. This identification with the victims of tyranny throughout history defines our responsibility and our mission as Jews. Time and again the Torah instructs us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt so that we do right by the stranger, the orphan and the powerless.

Jewish identity is not founded on great conquests but on the experience, felt in our own body, of suffering and wrong. Not just once, but repeatedly through history, we know what it feels like to live at the margins of society, rejected, struggling for survival, a people whose humanity is only half acknowledged. It is here amid human anguish that we hear God's call summoning us for the long journey which we must ultimately travel together with all peoples, not just to freedom and political autonomy, important as they are, but towards universal justice and redemption.

When we encounter the matzah later in the Seder, it has become the bread of freedom, the first meal our ancestors baked on the hot desert stones in the triumph of their liberty: "This matzah why do we eat it? Because our ancestors' dough did not have time to rise before the King of the king of kings, the Holy Blessed One, was revealed to them and redeemed them". It is worth noting, in an age when the range of consumer opportunities is sometimes mistaken for an index of true freedom, that the foods of slavery and liberty are the very same - plain, unleavened matzah. But what we eat in freedom tastes utterly different.

Yet in the Haggadah, as in Judaism, liberation alone is never the end of the journey. The real goal is redemption, a world in which the divine vision of justice and peace is realised for all. Perhaps this is why the food of freedom still carries the flavour and memory of slavery, lest in our privileged state we forget and grow indifferent to the struggles of the poor, the tyrannised and the abused.

Perhaps this too is why there is always a sense of urgency about the matzah, from the rushed way it must be baked, to the haste in which our ancestors had to eat it in Egypt. Just as matzah dough may never be left idle, lest it leaven, so we must never forget the anguish of those who suffer.

The bread of slavery and the bread of freedom, matzah has also been called "the bread of hope". Maybe this is because it connects humanity's worst realities with its greatest dreams. Fifteen years ago, World Jewish Relief illustrated its Pesach appeal with a picture of an old lady weeping: "Six years ago was the last time I got matzah. I saved this one piece. Every year for the last six years I found out when Passover was and I put this piece of matzah out on the table for eight days so I shouldn't forget."

It is with such tears, such faithfulness and such hope that the matzah fortifies us for the journey.

Jonathan Wittenberg is senior rabbi of Masorti

    Last updated: 12:01pm, April 14 2011