Matzah – The Thinking Person’s Bread
Our great sages of the Talmud refer to matzah as לחם עוני, “lechem oni.” (Talmud Pesachim, 115b-116a) What does this expression mean? The Talmud suggests a few possibilities: “the expression means ‘bread of poverty,’ based on the Hebrew word עני, “poor man.” Just as a poor person only has a broken piece of bread, here to, on Pesach night, a piece is broken; just as a poor man heats the oven and his wife immediately puts the dough in the oven before the oven gets cold, here to, he heats, and she bakes.”
Both explanations of “lechem oni” tie matzah to concepts of poverty. Does matzah reflect the way a poor person eats? He can only afford scraps of bread, not whole pieces. Or does matzah reflect the lifestyle of a poor person? He is so poor that as soon as he stops heating the oven, the heat begins to dissipate. He has no way to retain or sustain any heat. If he doesn’t use the oven immediately, there is nothing else with which he can keep it hot. Both of these possibilities express the living conditions the Jewish people experienced while enslaved in Egypt. The message for us is clear. Jews may never disassociate from or fail to identify with the plight of the poor and downtrodden. It has been the legacy of our Jewish people, no matter where we have lived, to be at the forefront of the fight for social justice reform and to stand up for the equality of human rights and dignity for all.
A more modern explanation of “poor man’s bread” is that once you buy the handmade shmurah matzah, around $30 a pound, you become poor.
However, it is the first explanation presented by the Talmud that draws our attention as well. Its proper understanding goes a long way in distinguishing Judaism from all other religions and their religious practices. “Samuel said,’ matzah is called “lechem oni” because it is the bread over which we answer him (the wise son) many words.’” The Hebrew word should be read as ענה, “answer.” Another supporting text of the Oral Law is brought in support of this opinion. What is the idea matzah expresses based upon this interpretation of “lechem oni”?
The implication of this interpretation by Samuel is that matzah doesn’t mean “poor man’s bread,” rather it means “bread over which many words of answer are spoken.” Now, what idea does the matzah reflect?
The first night of Pesach, the entire Seder is constructed around passing down the מסורה, “mesorah,” (the values, philosophy and laws, the system of Judaism) to the next generation. Key to the “mesorah” is to understand that every aspect of Judaism must reflect wisdom. How is this point made? Matzah is not just a food. On this night it becomes a חפצא של מצוה, an entity of command, a precise legal entity that must be understood before it can be eaten. The charge on this night is to tell, relate and discuss matzah in so far as it relates to our ethics, values, laws and philosophy. After all, Pesach is called חג המצות, “the holiday of matzah.”
Matzah is the centerpiece of the holiday, not in so far as food is concerned but in so far as the many concepts that it expresses. Judaism is the religion of the true concepts of God. Everything about it involves great wisdom about God and insights into the nature of human existence. Hence, Judaism is grounded in intellectual analysis. We don’t have rituals. We have halachic formulas to perform, mitzvot, as precise as any in physics. As a person comes to understand each aspect of a mitzvah and sees its importance for human perfection (halachic, emotional and philosophic) a higher more fulling level of performance is achieved.
What does it say in the Haggadah? “Rabban Gamliel said, whoever doesn’t talk about these three things at the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation on Pesach night: pesach, matzah, and maror.” That means these 3 special foods must first be qualified by discussion, explanation, and understanding. In fact, the entirety of Judaism demands understanding as the Mishnah says, “The study of Torah outweighs them all.” To arrive at understanding we must receive the authentic facts, then question, debate, analyze, conceptualize and formulate the concepts behind the facts.
Thus, the Seder is the prototype for the entire “mesorah.” Every command, not just matzah, is constructed in the same way. Every mitzvah leads the investigator to significant ideas beneficial for his life. Hashem freed us from Egypt for one purpose, to live a life of the mind. May we all use the Seder as it was constructed, to give each of us on our level an opportunity to advance our intellectual appreciation of Judaism. As we do, we will spontaneously give thanks to Hashem for bestowing on us a unique religion and way of life.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Kasher v’Sameach and thanks for all the prayers and good wishes by readers of my weekly D’var Torah during my recent surgery and recovery.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan