Sermon: Making Sense of Matzah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 April 2017

For many of us, the week ahead will be one of preparation for Pesach.

If you haven’t already, this will be the week in which you make your Pesach shop (with seder a week on Monday, it will simply be too risky to wait until after next Shabbat to stock up on matzah and matzah meal, ground almonds, kasher l’pesach cakes, and all the other disappointing Pesach foodstuffs.

If you are that way inclined, this may also be the week that you buy many other products in your kitchen too – new jams and the like – replacing old, unfinished, ones with others with a hechshe, a stamp confirming that their production has been supervised so that not even one one-thousandth of the product is accidentally chametz.

And, if you are that way inclined, this may also be the week of a major spring clean: of clearing from the very backs of kichen cupboards; of digging out boxes of seven-day-a-year crockery from the cupboards or the loft, as the mission to make the home ‘chametz-free’ begins.

This morning I’d like to ask you to make it another kind of week – a week during which, at some point, you stop and ask, “Why?” Why am I doing this?  Beyond the fulfilment of a biblical instruction, or the continuation of a tradition, what is the deeper meaning of this process?  What is it supposed to commemorate, to teach?


Classically, the explanation that we tell our children for matzah is this: the Israelites ran out of time when leaving Egypt, so their bread did not have time to rise.  So, in a – rather odd – commemoration of this, we eat matzah and do not have leaven in any form in our homes.  And this is one explanation found in the Torah.  But today, in our Torah portion, we read a verse that might make us reconsider this simple explanation: “No meal offering that you offer to the Eternal” it says “Shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Eternal”.  In the daily sacrifice, the meal that is to be offered must be in its ‘matzah’ form, not allowed to leaven before being brought for God.

Here we find a prohibition on leaven entirely unrelated to the biblical narrative, not linked in any way to the story of the Exodus; and not limited to seven days a year, but existing on its own, applicable all year round. Here matzah, and the avoidance of chametz, seem to have a deeper symbolic importance.

This is also something that we could have observed from our Torah readings last Shabbat. Then, we read from Exodus 12 for Shabbat HaChodesh, the passage in which God explains to Moses and Aaron what must happen in the run up to the final plague.  There, God commanded, two weeks prior to leaving Egypt, that the paschal sacrifice must be eaten with matzah.  Two weeks before the ‘rush’ that explains the matzah.  The lamb is to be eaten with matzah because matzah, and its opposite, chametz are clearly in themselves potent with meaning.


So, what does the matzah we will be eating actually represent? To put it another way, as we clear our homes of leaven this week, what did it do so wrong, to so offend our biblical ancestors that it is largely banished from the Temple, and from our settlements for seven days?

The answer, rather unfortunately, is that we don’t exactly know.

No explanation is offered in the text to explain why Israelite Temple ritual prohibited leaven. But there are some ideas: two different kinds of explanation that have been given over the years in rabbinic commentary.


The first type of explanation, let’s call the ‘idolatry theory’. This was that other peoples in the ancient Near East used leavened bread (and the date honey referred to in our verse) – as a fundamental part of their worship.  And because they offered risen loaves, we don’t.  This was the view of Maimonides, who in the third part of his philosophical masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, sought (rather radically) to uncover reasons for the mitzvot.  There he states that “idolaters used to offer only leavened bread and made many offerings of sweet things, and seasoned their sacrifices with honey…thus God forbade offering up any leaven or any honey”.

How does this explanation translate into our Pesach observance? For one thing, if it is true, it explains the incredible stringency which came to be applied to Pesach kashrut.  We are seeking to fully eradicate this idolatrous practice from our homes.  This makes sense of that one one-thousandth thing, and might make it a little more sensible this week when you are working out what to do with the bread bin!  As the Zohar states: “Whoever eats chametz on Pesach, it is as if they worshipped an idol”.

What this also does, for good or for ill, is to tie us very directly into Temple practice. For the seven days of Pesach – originally a sacrifice-based festival, let’s remember, – we thereby place ourselves in direct relation with the biblical form of worship, the agricultural offerings of the people.  Our homes become the temple, our tables the altar, we the priests, avoiding idolatry.  So, depending on your point of view, this may add meaning to the week ahead, or present a real challenge of meaning.


The second type of explanation is what I’m going to call the ‘symbolism theory’. That is, that there is something in the nature of leaven and matzah which has representational significance, something from which we might learn, an articulation of a core idea.

The most famous version of this is a description found in the Torah itself when it refers to matzah as “lechem oni”. One voice in the Torah (itself struggling with the significance of this food) calls it “bread of poverty”.  And thus, by eating it, we make ourselves symbolically poor.

In the context of today’s portion, when the people brought daily offerings to the Temple they did so not with fluffy, plump, leavened, Paul Hollywood kind-of bread, but with the “bread of distress” – and, thus, not full of themselves but coming before God as supplicants. On the rare occasions on which leaven was used in worship, this was a marker that something different to supplication was going on.  When people brought a voluntary ‘Todah’ offering for thanksgiving, they came acknowledging their richness. At Shavuot, when two loaves were rought, this celebrated that the harvest was over.  There was a sense of completion, of gratitude, and wealth, not vulnerability and supplication.

In the context of Pesach, what is the symbolism of “lechem oni”? We sit in our homes at the seder table with only the bread of poverty – with an awareness of own vulnerability, our own reliance.  It is a statement of humility, a reminder that to be redeemed we must also have been slaves. And with that awareness comes a declaration of responsibility for the vulnerability of others.  At the seder night, the telling of the Exodus begins in Aramaic with the words, “ha lachma anya” this is the bread of affliction… all who are hungry come and eat”.  Thus, the mitzvah of matzah is actually a symbol of our acceptance of the obligation of tzedakah – of social justice.


Incidentally, the Talmud is not fully satisfied with this idea. It constructs another understanding of lechem oni – as “lechem she-onim alav dvarim harbeh” – “bread upon which we answer (onim) many things”.  This reflects a very different symbolic meaning.  The rabbis were in the process of transforming Pesach from a Temple ritual, a ritual of sacrifice, to a telling ritual, in which the most important observance is the stylised asking and recounting of the story at the Seder.  For them, matzah (along with other special props on the seder plate) represented asking and telling.  Matzah and the search for chametz is transformed into an educational trigger!


Another version of the ‘symbolism theory’, famously, expands the parallel between the leavening process and our own egos, our pride, our swelling up. A much quoted example of this is found in the Talmud.  A Sage of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Alexandri, would end his daily Amidah not with the words of Mar bar Rabina that we now use, but with the following prayer: “Ruler of the Universe, You know that it is our wish to act according to Your will, but what prevents us from doing so? The yeast in the dough.”  Thus, when we clear chametz from our homes this week, we will symbolically sweep out the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – at least for seven days.


Why am I sharing all these understanding this Shabbat morning? Matzah and chametz are rich, complex symbols: of rejection of idolatry; recognition of one’s own vulnerability; the importance of questions; of rejection of pride and the yetzer hara.  In this week we should not lose sight of this meaning – to privilege only that which is less significant (the details of Pesach kashrut, the week of shopping and of cleaning) over what really matters – finding meaning in ritual life.  To be rich, and sustaining, our Judaism must make us not just better shoppers and cleaners but better people.

And so, to end, a story, I’m sure apocryphal, of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of Mussar, a movement concerned primarily with ethical behaviour:

It is told that once on Pesach, Salanter was ill and could not fulfil his normal role of examining the place where they made the matzah to make sure that it was cleaned properly. So, in his place, the job fell to his students, who were worried that with all the laws and details, they might overlook something important.  So they asked the Rabbi if there was anything in particular they should make sure not to miss. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “One thing.  When you are there at the matzah factory, remember to be good to the old lady who works there.”