Why do we have to eat matzah on Pesach?

How the humble unleavened bread became the definitive food of Pesach


On a number of occasions in the Torah, the festival of Passover, Chag Hapesach is called Chag Hamatzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread (eg Exodus 34:18; Leviticus 23:6, Deuteronomy 16:17). Pesach becomes transformed into korban pesach, an everlasting memory of that first night of freedom.

The miracle of redemption is commemorated around the eating of the paschal lamb as a potent symbol of freedom. Without it, the Children of Israel could not leave Egyptian slavery. It had to be eaten on the night of the Exodus; later will be too late. It is obviously connected to the celebration. It is to be eaten in a small group as an intimate commemoration of redemption as it is taking place.

Why then the need for matzah? Is the paschal lamb not sufficient? What is so special about unleavened bread that gives the whole festival its other name? Rabban Gamliel is quoted in the Haggadah as saying that the matzah is one of three elements that have to be mentioned at the Seder table: the paschal lamb, the matzah and the bitter herb. A reason is given for each one. Why the matzah? Because the Egyptians did not give the Israelites time to bake bread properly. From their pressure a mitzvah was born.

Matzah is at its root ambiguous; it commemorates two opposing forces – the slavery in Egypt and the redemption from the same slavery. It contains both a memory of slavery and the promise of leaving bondage behind. Rabban Gamliel’s point is that matzah acts as the interface between slavery and freedom. Our ancestors were in such a hurry to leave their incarceration that they didn’t have time to bake fully leavened bread. They had to make do with the first fast food in history.

But why the ambiguity? Why the necessity of having this extra mitzvah for remembering the Passover leaving of immoral Egypt?

One answer may be found in the very reason that the Children of Israel entered Egypt in the first place, and presumably the reason that they stayed. Yesh shever b’Mizrayim, “there’s corn in Egypt” (Genesis 42:1). This phrase is uttered by Jacob to his bewildered sons, confronted by a relentless famine in Canaan. Interestingly, there is another more usual meaning to the word shever and that is a break, a gulf.

Jacob seemed to sense that this trip to Egypt meant a break with the land of Canaan, the land promised by God to him and his immediate ancestors. He no doubt recalled what happened to his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, who left the land because of a famine. Abraham had made a decision without an express command from God. He went down to Egypt from his own volition. The results were disastrous.

Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem and Abraham was close to being killed. When they were released, according to the Midrash, Pharaoh gave them, among other things, a present of his daughter, Hagar, who would sire a son, Ishmael who, according to legend, was the ancestor of Islam.

Thus Jacob is very wary of sending his sons to Egypt; although he sees it as a life-or-death choice (Genesis 42:1-2), he has little choice. This fear is seen in the fact that it is Jacob, not the sons, who make the statement: “yesh shever b’Mitzrayim”. He is afraid for them, afraid of what Egypt will do to his sons (and his Canaanite daughters-in-law). He himself wants nothing of immoral Egypt, its wealth or idolatry. Before he dies, he requests of Joseph, “Don’t bury me in Egypt!” Even after he’s dead, he doesn’t want to be a cause for the children to remain abroad, “to prostrate themselves at his burial place”.

Thus this “Feast of Unleavened Bread” appears to stress the negative aspects of Egyptian slavery. The lure of Egyptian materialism, immorality and power is very strong. Four-fifths of the Israelites died in Egypt — according to Rashi quoting the Talmud — before they could be redeemed (Exodus 13:18).

They did not merit baking unleavened bread, their attachment was still to the fulsome bread of Egypt. They did not die from famine, they died from a lack of perspective. Egypt gave them certainty, but it was the certainty of being slaves. They were part of the strongest power in the world, but as a subjugated people. Their physical slavery was reinforced by their psychological slavery. They felt safe, at the bottom.

As much as we might feel redeemed and free, there is always the danger of falling back into the darkness of Egypt, of dependency, of feeling unreasonably protected. The matzah we eat is the basic bread that we need to be free. Dayenu! It is sufficient for us.

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