April 2016

Four Matzah Questions for Pesach

What is flour plus water plus 18 minutes? Matzah! This is the actual definition of matzah. The rabbis declared that once the water comes in contact with the flour, no more than 18 minutes may pass from start to finish, including the baking. That’s it. This flat wafer-like food is one of the most universal Jewish symbols. Throughout history, Jews in every location and circumstance endeavored to bake or otherwise procure matzah for Passover. There have also been many complaints about matzah over the years–tastes like burnt cardboard, lousy for digestion or diet, no flavor, messy—just to name a few. And there are those who love to eat it all year long. I definitely don’t fall into that camp; eight days is more than enough for me.

Why must we eat matzah? In the Book of Shemot, or Exodus, we learn that as the Children of Israel were in a hurry to leave Egypt and embrace their new freedom, they didn’t have time to let their dough rise for the journey. They were stuck with unleavened bread or matzah. So to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah commands us to eat matzah specifically on the first night and the rest of the week of Passover. It became a powerful symbol of our redemption and freedom.

Is there a difference between round and square matzah? Officially no, both are matzah and kosher to use at your sederim. Most people buy and eat the square matzah. There are many brands out there, and they more or less taste the same. These traditional square matzot are “machine made.” The “flour, plus water, plus 18 minutes” is completely prepared and baked by a machine. A number of years ago, while on a 7th grade trip to New York City, we stopped by the old Streit’s factory in the Lower East Side. It was neat seeing how the Matzah was made and the kids got a chance to eat some really fresh matzah.

The round type is what we call shmura or guarded matzah. From the time the grain is cut in the field, ground into flour, “hand-made” by physically rolling out the dough into round flat shapes after the water is added, and quickly baked, the entire process is watched or supervised so that nothing could cause the dough to rise or leaven. The end result is a shmura matzah that costs four times as much as a box of machine-made matzah! I like using shmura matzah for the sederim and the square kind the rest of the week. Both are fine for your Passover observance. Plus, the boxed kind is more suitable for making matzah pizza!

Must matzah be wheat based? Matzah must be made from grain. There are five different types of grain mentioned in the Torah that qualify for making matzah: wheat, barley, oat, rye, and spelt. Wheat, or specifically winter wheat, is the most traditional species according to the rabbis as it is the first of the grains to be harvested in the Spring. Rabbis have ruled, however, that people with gluten-free dietary restrictions can use a specially prepared oat matzah during Passover that contains no gluten.

Egg Matzah, although it resembles machine-made Passover matzah, is not considered real matzah since it is made with eggs. Even though the eggs don’t leaven the flour, the recipe doesn’t conform to the strict definition of matzah. That’s why it states on the side of the box that egg matzah should only be eaten during Passover by those with medical limitations.

I confess, we haven’t rushed out to buy our matzah yet. It is one of my least favorite rituals and traditions. Still, eating matzah always makes me feel connected to my ancestors. By following the commandment to eat matzah, we are transported right back to the Exodus. With every bite, I feel the pain of slavery and the taste of freedom.

From my family to yours, I wish you a joyous and kosher Pesach.


Rabbi, Dr. Larry Bazer