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The Essence of Pesach

No doubt the two hallmarks of the holiday of Pesach are the positive command to eat matzah and the prohibition of eating chametz. They are inextricably tied together like a binary star. If the grain flour can’t become matzah, it cannot become chametz. Therefore since rice and corn, for example, cannot become matzah, they cannot become chametz. The only physical difference between matzah and chametz is that in the making of matzah, the fermentation or leavening process is interrupted, halted by baking before 18 minutes has elapsed from the moment the flour and water are mixed together; in chametz, the leavening process is allowed to continue unabated. In other words matzah and chametz bear the same exact raw materials: flour made from either wheat, oats, barley, spelt or rye and room temperature water.

Matzah might correctly be defined as bread with the privation of the leavening process through baking. So important is this idea that Rabbi Soloveitchik often remarked that his esteemed grandfather, Rav Chaim, would purposely dip a piece of matzah into water at the Seder. Why? He wanted to demonstrate the law of the Talmud, that once the substance has been baked into matzah, it can no longer become chametz. If you don’t accept this law you don’t have the legal matzah. Denying this principle is tantamount to denying the veracity of the Oral Law, תורה שבעל פה.

Matzah and the corresponding total absence of our involvement with chametz are the essence of Pesach. During Pesach, not only can’t we eat chametz but we may not own it or benefit from it in any way. Chametz is not like any other food that we are prohibited to eat. So for example, if I have a pet dog, I can regularly feed it dog food comprised of all kinds of prohibited foods. However, during the entire period of the holiday of Pesach, I must make sure there is no chametz in the dog’s food. What is it about matzah that precludes all preoccupation with chametz? What is it about the eating of chametz that causes a much more severe consequence than were a person to eat non-kosher meat?

Matzah on Pesach night is not just unleavened bread. It is a חפצה של מצוה, an entity of mitzvah. The Seder revolves around discussing its various conceptual aspects. Only then are we permitted to eat it. The very first mention of matzah comes in the Kiddush we recite to initiate the holiday. What do we say? “חג המצות הזה” “this festival of matzot.” The purpose of Kiddush is always to annunciate the specialness or sanctity of the holiday. We are stating that matzah creates the sanctity of Pesach. Hence the eating of chametz is not just like eating any other prohibited object. Rather, the eating of chametz uproots the entire sanctity of Pesach. What ideas are so intrinsically tied to this baked unleavened bread that the entire sanctity of Pesach revolves around?

After initiating the holiday with Kiddush, we break a matzah in half, hold up one of the pieces and proceed to offer and invitation for others to join us in the Seder. This invitation begins, “הא לחמא עניא” This opening phrase of the Haggadah, written in the Aramaic language of the Talmud, has many ways to be understood: “this is poor man’s bread,” “this is the bread of affliction,” and “this is the bread over which we answer.” 

Each of these statements relates a unique idea attached to matzah. On this night of Pesach, we call to mind that there is no aristocracy in our nation. We come together as one people no matter our socio-economic status and we identify with those less fortunate. A poor person eats most pieces, rarely having a whole slice. Later in the Seder, when we refer to matzah, it is reminiscent of the bread of our freedom. Philosophically, there is a common denominator between poor man’s bread and the bread of our freedom. The poor person lacks involvement in the physical world of enjoyments and the truly free person, one not captured by the allure of the physical, is also not caught up in the physical world of pleasure. Matzah, as the bread of our freedom, represents this state of human perfection.

The Egyptians were the first civilization to master the art of bread making. People would come from all over the known world and trade gold to purchase this fluffy staple of life. The enslaved Jews never had the opportunity to buy and eat leavened bread. Matzah was literally, in reality, the food of their affliction. We lift at the start of the Seder to say to everyone, “Here, look and see what we had to survive on.”

Matzah is also the object over which we recite and discuss the Haggadah. It must be on the table after the child asks the “4 Questions.” Discussing any aspect of the Haggadah absent its presence makes both the mitzvah “to tell the story of the Exodus” incomplete as well as the mitzvah “to eat the matzah.” The telling needs the right object present as when a child does “show and tell.” The “eating of the matzah” is incomplete if you don’t know why you are eating it. In his commentary on the Talmud, the Rif (Rabbenu Alfasi, who lived in the 900’s) calls matzah “intellectual bread.” (Rif Talmud Pesachim 115b) All of the “telling of the story of the Exodus” at the Pesach Seder is an enhancement in the “entity of the matzah” used later for the mitzvah of eating. The matzah we eat for the mitzvah isn’t just a physical piece of unleavened bread. Rather it takes on the status of “matzah for the mitzvah” only after, at least, a minimal analysis of the concepts behind it has been performed. The process of qualifying this object for the mitzvah begins right away. The הא לחמא עניא begins the qualification process, transforming the matzah into the right object for “telling of the story.” It is now, minimally, the right object to use during the Seder and later to eat for the mitzvah.

Lastly, just before we recite the first 2 paragraphs of Hallel, we come across the law of Rabban Gamliel. “Whoever doesn’t mention (discuss) these 3 things at the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation. Pesach, Matzah and Maror.” Rabban Gamliel here has distilled the 3 essential concepts of the Exodus. After mentioning the Pesach sacrifice, we hold up the matzah and recite, “This matzah….” What is the idea being expressed here in the Seder? 

Notwithstanding all that we have said about matzah, matzah also represents the philosophic concept of השגחה, God’s watchfulness over the People of Israel. As opposed to Purim, where the Divine process took place over 11 years, the redemption from Egypt came suddenly. When God revealed Himself, the Jews were unprepared. They had made no provisions for the journey, much as we might do before traveling. My wife, thank God, always prepares sandwiches ahead of time for our flights. In the case of the Exodus, the Jews were unexpectedly driven out of the land the morning immediately following the first Seder in Egypt. They had no time to bake bread before leaving. What is the point? No one, not even Moshe, can predict or know ahead of time the design of the השגחה. That God’s watchfulness is operating, we can know. The details of how, what, where, when, and why we cannot know. Only after the events unfold can we look back and analyze the phenomena. 

Hashem’s watchfulness was the sole cause of our redemption. Without it, we would still be slaves in Egypt. Hence, according to Rabban Gamliel, we discuss the maror after the matzah to demonstrate the contrast of what our lives were without the Divine watchfulness interceding on our behalf. Only at this point in the Seder does matzah take on its complete conceptual meaning. Now we can fully express our praise to God for our freedom and redemption. Now the matzah is fully qualified and prepared to serve as the essential “object of the mitzvah,” properly fit to eat.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan