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Pesach 2005 / 5765 - Not a Simple Symbol: The Meaning of Matzah

20.04.2005 by

The central symbol of the Passover holiday, and, specifically, of the Seder ceremony, is the Matzah. Whether you like the way it tastes or not; with butter, charoset, tuna, or as part of a microwave matzah-pizza, there is no escaping the unleavened bread which is the centerpiece of the Seder ritual and the staple of the week-long festival. I would like to spend a little time thinking about what messages are communicated to us by this culinary custom.

Gershom Scholem, in an article on the Magen David (Shield or Star of David) which appears in his The Messianic Idea in Judaism, says the following about symbols: "...a symbol must be directly comprehensible. Research and examination must not be necessary to understand it. It is precisely the fact that...meaning appears through this symbol, in the most compact form and yet in its totality, that makes it a symbol. Despite all their profundity, symbols may not pose riddles." [I would like to thank my wife Iris for bringing this essay to my attention].

I think that Scholem is wrong. Although there certainly are symbols which function in the way that he describes, many symbols - and I think this might be particularly true about Jewish ones - are in fact complicated, suggestive, multi-valent, and obscure in their ultimate meaning and message. The Matzah, I think, is one of these.

In the Hagadah, the most basic understanding of the symbolic function of the Matzah is stated very early on: "הא לחמא עניא"- this is the bread of affliction, or poverty - which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. The Hagadah is apparently referring to Deuteronomy; 16,3, which calls the Passover Matzah "לחם עוני" - the bread of poverty or affliction. There are many understandings of this phrase; the simplest one seems to be that Matzah was the food which the Israelites ate as slaves; it's cheap, filling, easy and quick to make and transport, which is why the Egyptians supplied it to them. Historians, by the way, believe that bread was in fact invented in ancient Egypt, as a way to feed the masses of slaves and the working poor. The Matzah would therefore seem, first and foremost, to symbolize the rigors and deprivation of our slavery in Egypt.

However, Matzah has another function: it is what the Jews were commanded by God to eat on the night of the Exodus, together with the Paschal lamb and the bitter herbs (maror), as part of the ritual meant to celebrate and trigger the plague of the first born sons, and the subsequent exodus, at midnight, from Egypt. In this symbolic function, Matzah is eaten ritually, as part of the Israelites' anticipation and celebration of their impending freedom. The eating of Matzah at our Seder is a continuation of this ritual, a reenactment of that first Seder.

Matzah makes another appearance a few verses later, when the Jews actually leave Egypt. We are told that "they baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into Matzah cakes, for it had not fermented, for they had been driven out of Egypt, and were not able to delay, nor had they made provisions for themselves." This is yet another function of the Matzah: because of the speed at which it can be prepared and baked, it is what the Jews were able to take with them as food when they escaped from Egypt.

The Matzah, now, seems to represent at least three different things: the cheap food supplied by the Egyptians to their slaves, which is symbolic of our suffering there; the food which God commanded the Israelites to eat at the first Seder, just prior to their leaving Egypt, which is symbolic of our birth as a free people; and the only food we were able to take with us during the exodus, due to the miraculous speed at which we were freed and left the country, which made it impossible for us to wait for the dough to rise and prepare normal bread. This last element would seem to be speaking about the sudden, miraculous, redemptive nature of the Exodus.

All in all, the Matzah seems a pretty complicated symbol for us to swallow on the Seder night! The first and third of these messages seem contradictory: on the one hand, we have Matzah as the bread of affliction - the crummy food eaten by slaves (which points to the crummy lives they led), and, on the other hand, it is the bread of freedom - the food eaten by the Israelites as a result of the miraculous suddenness and speed of their Exodus from slavery. How are we meant to understand the contradictory symbolism in these two uses of the Matzah, representing both oppression and freedom?

I would like to suggest that the centerpiece of this story - the ritual eating of Matzah at the first Seder in Egypt, which we repeat at our Seder table every year - and which stands mid-way between the other two eatings of the Matzah, links and explains these two contradictory messages. God's commandment to the Israelites to eat Matzah at the first Seder must have seemed strange to them. After all, this is the miserable cardboard they ate all year long, day in and day out; why is this bread of affliction part of the exodus ritual? If they could afford lamb and bitter herbs, why couldn't God command them to bake something different, festive, a challah perhaps, or some rye bread - with seeds - which would be more obviously symbolic of their impending freedom? Why eat the same bread of affliction that they ate yesterday, and the day before that, at the Seder?

The answer might be this: the commandment to eat Matzah at the Seder is meant to teach the Israelites in Egypt, and us, that the freedom which they were about to achieve is first and foremost located in their minds. The first thing we must learn about freedom, the first freedom, is the freedom to define one's world. The freedom to explain, understand, and contextualize the things we do and the objects around us. The Mitzvah of eating the Matzah, rather than some other, more obviously festive food, gave the Jews the chance to define for themselves their lives and their actions, something which had previously been done for them by Pharaoh and his people. This ritual eating of the Matzah is an appropriation of the symbol of the abject slavery they were forced into in Egypt, and its transformation into a symbol of free men and women worshipping their God, and celebrating their freedom to do so. The Israelites are commanded to take the Matzah - the very symbol of their slavery -and redefine it, sanctify it, own it, as a symbol of their impending freedom and autonomy. More than anything else, the Matzah is symbolic of the freedom to define, to think, to explain the world as we see it, rather than as others explain it to us.

The next day, after their midnight exodus from Egypt, it is this very same bread of affliction which they again eat, as free men and women: the Matzah made quickly with dough which did not rise. The irony of the Matzah, which served the selfish needs of the Egyptian task-masters, now serving the needs of the free Jewish people, is no accident. The Jews, by using the bread of affliction first as a bread of celebration, at the Seder, and then as a bread of actual physical sustenance in their flight from Egypt, teach us that their physical liberation began with, and was made possible by, an act of radical redefinition. An object which was emblematic of oppression and poverty - lechem oni - has been 'liberated' by the very people who were oppressed by it, through an act of intellect, faith, and will. The Jews take the bread of their affliction, and, through ritual, appropriate it for themselves as a symbol of their freedom from that very affliction, and then use that same bread as a tool to help them in their escape. This, first and foremost, is what freedom really means, and what the complicated semiotics of the Matzah would seem to embody and symbolize: being able to autonomously define and order the world in which you live; to understand the objects and events in your life, and use them - symbolically and practically - at your will.

I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful Passover.

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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