Now we share the matzah around the table. The matzah is called the bread of affliction, representative of the meager food given to slaves. It also represents freedom, as the midrash about the exodus explains, the Israelites had to leave Egypt quickly once they were given permission, and in ancient times bread rose by collecting the naturally-occurring yeast in the air. However this took a very long time, so the Israelites simply took their dough without letting it rise and baked it in the hot Egyptian sun. The result was a flat, cracker-like bread, which is more or less the matzah we eat today.

The modern matzah owes its shape and cheap price to the ingenuity of Behr Manischewitz, a Lithuanian Jew who immigrated to Cincinnati in 1886. It's unclear why he and his family immigrated, possibly because the Cincinnati Jewish community needed a ritual slaughterer (shochet) and Behr was known as a respected shochet to some Jews in the US. Many shochets were also matzah bakers, including Behr's father, and Behr capitalized on the growth of the American Jewish communities by opening a matzah factory.

Matzah had previously been baked in synagogue bakeries or contracted by synagogues to outside bakeries under rabbinical supervision, but as the communities in the US didn't revolve around a small number of shuls as in the Old Country, many of the tasks that had been communal and located in the shuls, such as kosher meat and mikvahs, were brought out of the synagogues and became independent entities. Matzah baking took the same route, and in the middle of the 19th century independent matzah bakers started to appear.

However, maintaining kashrus in a bakery separate from the synagogue proved difficult. Matzah baking is a difficult and precise process, where there can only be 18 minutes between water and flour contact and the baking of the matzah, and no contaminants can be present. Several rabbis, including Manischewitz, went into the matzah baking business to counter this trend.

The biggest change in American matzah factories was the introduction of machines in the production process. There were many rabbinical debates over the halachic validity of using machines, a debate which continues to this day. The first machine was introduced to roll out the matzah, invented in 1838 by a French Jew named Isaac Singer. Manischewitz took the automation to the next level, using at least three different machines as part of the matzah making process: one that partially kneaded the dough, one that rolled it, and one that stretched the dough, perforated it, and cut it. Later he introduced a gas-fired matzah baking oven (which allowed for better and more even distribution and control of heat) and an enormously important (and patented) "traveling-carrier bakeoven," a conveyor belt system that made it possible to automate the whole process of matzah baking: the dough was placed on one end and it slowly moved through the oven chambers emerging as evenly-baked identically shaped matzah on the other end.

These machines produced square, uniformly tasting matzahs that could be easily boxed and shipped with minimal breakage. Handmade matzah was and still is basically round, easily breakable, and largely variant from box to box. Manischewitz matzahs are much cheaper than handmade matzahs because there is less congealed labor time in each square, and while the traditional authorities may balk at the idea of an automated process different from the time-tested traditions, the automation of matzah making is an example of how introduction of mechanized production can increase yield and decrease fatigue and difficulty for workers. Rolling and kneading are labor intensive processes done by hand and time is lost when the workers have to carefully clean their hands and surfaces to avoid contamination. Neither of these are an issue with machine matzahs. With proper safety oversight and workers control we can make sure that the automation of production, already a significant change in how we produce commodities, can serve to relieve stress and worker hours needed to serve the entire working class, rather than making jobs precarious and inflating the profits of the capitalists.


R. Amy Bernstein of Kehilat Israel Torah study class

haggadah Section: Motzi-Matzah