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The holiday of Passover has a complex set of rules regarding what may be eaten. Since one is obliged to eat matzah on Passover, it is no surprise that much has been written about matzah, not only when to eat, it but how much must be eaten and who must fulfill this obligation. This article looks at a number of texts dealing with the intricacies of consuming matzah on Passover.
When Is One Obligated to Eat Matzah?
The command to eat matzah appears ten times in the Torah. Nine times the command is for seven days, "Seven days shall you eat matzah" (Exodus 12:15). The tenth time, however, says, "Six days you shall eat unleavened bread" (Deuteronomy 16:8).
A simple and obvious statement of the law (which did not, however, become the accepted practice) is stated by the tanna (rabbi of the Mishnaic era) R. Shimon, originally in the Sifre Deuteronomy (a Tannaitic Midrash):
"Has it not already been said, 'Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread'? Then why does the Torah say 'You shall eat no leavened bread ( hametz ) with it'? When one is obligated to eat matzah, there is also a prohibition against hametz; when there is no obligation to eat matzah, there is no prohibition against hametz" (Bavli Pesachim 28b, cf. Sifre Deuteronomy 130).
The obligation to eat matzah and the prohibition against hametz are co-extensive. Since the prohibition against hametz is clearly for seven days, the obligation to eat matzah, according to Rabbi Shimon, also lasts seven days. This is also the approach of the apocryphal book of Jubilees, and is also the custom of the Karaites and the Samaritans, groups that broke off from the main body of the people of Israel. The most common rabbinic interpretation of the verse from Deuteronomy that prescribes six days rejects this early understanding:
"One verse says, 'Seven days you shall eat matzah,' and one verse says, 'Six days you shall eat matzah.' How can both of these verses be maintained? The seventh day was included (in the first verse) but then excluded (from the second verse). That which is excluded from a more inclusive statement is meant to teach us about the whole statement. So, just as on the seventh day it is optional ( r'shut ), so all the other days, it is optional. Does this mean that it is optional on the first night too? The verse 'In the first month, on the fourteenth day in the evening, you shall eat matzah' (Exodus 12:18) fixes it as an obligation ( hovah ) to eat matzah on the first night" (Mekhilta, Pischa 8).
According to this midrash, Deuteronomy refers to the first six days, and accordingly, the seventh day of the holiday has no obligation to eat matzah. But since there is no essential difference between the seventh day and any of the other days, the rabbis argue, what is true of the seventh day must be true of all of the days. Therefore, there is no general obligation to eat matzah throughout the holiday. On the other hand, the explicit verse from Exodus 12:18 does create a requirement to eat matzah on the first night. Outside of the land of Israel, Jews who observe two days of the holiday are rabbinically obligated to eat matzah at each of the seders, but not on the other days of the festival.
How Much Matzah is One Supposed to Eat?
During the seder, one makes two different blessings over the matzah. The first blessing is hamotzi ("…who brings forth bread from the earth"), which is recited whenever one eats bread, and which is obligatory at any festival meal. The second blessing recalls the particular obligation to eat matzah ("…who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us concerning the eating of matzah"). In general, when one is obligated to eat something, the standard amount is a volume equivalent to that of an olive, a k'zayit.
How should one fulfill this obligation to eat matzah? Hamotzi on other festivals is usually said on a whole loaf of challah, so on Passover should one eat the olive's-bulk of matzah from the top of the three matzot on the seder plate, which is still whole and is therefore analogous to a loaf? Or should one eat from the middle, broken matzah for the fulfillment of the obligation to eat matzah?
Joseph Karo writing in the standard code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, predictably requires a bulk of matzah equivalent to two olives:
"One washes one's hands and makes the blessing and takes the matzot... in hand and makes the blessings 'hamotzi' and 'on eating matzah.' Then one breaks from the top, complete matzah and the broken middle piece, both together... One eats an olive's bulk from each of them while reclining. If one cannot eat matzah equivalent to the bulk of two olives together, eat the one for hamotzi first and then the one [for the blessing] on eating matzah. Then one takes an olive's bulk of bitter herbs... and makes the blessing on eating bitter herbs and eats it without reclining. Then one takes the third matzah and breaks a piece from it to wrap with the bitter herbs" (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 475:1).
Modern authorities have debated whether the air pockets in matzah count toward measuring an olive's bulk, and most say that they do not. They also have debated about whether an olive's bulk is really the size of a modern olive, or whether it is actually the bulk of an egg. That makes a single "olive's bulk" equivalent to approximately two-thirds of a standard, machine-made matzah or the area equivalent to an average adult hand of hand-made matzah. In addition, modern authorities also define a time limit within which one should, ideally, consume the matzah.
Is All Matzah the Same?
In order for dough to become matzah, it must at least have the potential to leaven. According to the rabbis, leavening ( himutz ) only occurs when flour from the five grains (wheat, oats, barley, rye, or spelt) is moistened with water (by their definition). Flour that is moistened with wine, oil, honey, eggs, or fruit juice does not leaven; the fermentation that occurs is called sirchon (rotting). Despite the negative category name, sirchon is different leavening, which is the category with which the Passover prohibitions are concerned.
Therefore, the matzah-like product made with flour and apple juice that is called "egg matzah" or matzah ashirah (rich matzah) is not subject to leavening, just "rotting," and is theoretically acceptable for Passover use. Widespread custom, however, rejected its use. The Ashkenazic (East European) authority, R. Moses Isserles (known as the Rema), however, is wary of this permission and gives the custom legal force:
"Eggs and other liquids are all considered like fruit juice (which lead to rotting, not leavening). Rema: But in our communities, we do not knead (matzah) dough with fruit juice... And one should not change from this unless in a time of emergency for the sake of a sick or old person who needs this" (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 462:4).
The Ashkenazic restrictions on use of "egg matzah" are usually printed on the box. Even according to Sephardic (Mediterranean) practice, however, one cannot fulfill the obligation to eat matzah at seder with "egg matzah." First, the obligation must be fulfilled with real matzah, and real matzah must have the potential to leaven, which egg matzah does not. Second, the command is to eat "matzah, the bread of poverty" (Deuteronomy 16:3) and not egg matzah, which is also known as rich matzah.
An additional concern comes from the Torah's command, "You shall watch the matzot" (Exodus 12:17). This is understood by the midrash as "watch it so that it does not become unfit" (Mekhilta Pischa 9), that is, it should not be allowed to leaven. When one begins to watch the dough is a matter of some controversy. The earliest sources assume that the watching begins with the kneading of the dough. The common practice today is to watch the flour from time it is ground. Most commercial matzah is watched from the time of grinding.
The most strict approach, however, is to watch the grain itself from the time it is harvested.
"[Rava] said to those who were turning over the sheaves of wheat (during the harvest): 'When you flip them over, do so for the sake of the mitzvah.' From this we can reason that watching is required initially from the beginning to the end" (Bavli Pesachim 40a).
Matzah made from flour ground from grain which has been watched since harvest is called shemurah matzah (watched matzah). Many Jews choose to use shemurah matzah, especially hand-made shemurah matzah, for fulfillment of the obligation to eat matzah at the seder.
Who is Obligated to Eat Matzah?
The eating of matzah is a positive commandment (as opposed to not eating hametz, which is a negative commandment) that takes place at a specific time. There is a general rule in talmudic literature that women are exempt from positive commandments that take place at a specific time (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7). Indeed, women are exempt from reciting the shema, wearing tefillin (both in Mishnah Berakhot 3:3), sitting in the sukkah (Mishnah Sukkah 2:8), shaking the lulav, blowing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit (all three in Bavli Kiddushin 33b).
On the other hand, women are obligated to observe other positive, time-specified commandments such as fasting on Yom Kippur (Bavli Sukkah 28a), lighting Hanukkah candles (Bavli Shabbat 23a), reciting the megillah on Purim (Bavli Megillah 4a), and eating three meals on Shabbat (Rabbenu Nissim on Shabbat 44a). Based on the association of not eating hametz with the positive command of eating matzah (akin to the midrash of Rabbi Shimon, above), women are also obligated to eat matzah at the seders (Bavli Pesachim 43b). For that matter, women are also obligated to drink the four cups of wine (Bavli Pesachim 108a-b), to recite the Haggadah, and to chant the Hallel (psalms of praise) at the seder (Mishnah Berurah 472:14).
Bitterness isn't just a tradition in the Jewish community--it's a commandment. Here we answer some frequently asked questions about Passover's bitter herbs, also known as maror.
Q: Where does the commandment to eat bitter herbs come from?
A: In Exodus 12:8 the Torah commands us to eat the paschal sacrifice, "with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs." This same law is repeated in Numbers 9:20. Though we do not have the paschal sacrifice any more the obligation to eat the bitter herbs remains.
Q: What qualifies as a bitter herb?
A: The Hebrew word used is maror, which comes from the root mar, meaning bitter. In the Talmud, the rabbis came up with a list of qualifications for whatever vegetable you use as maror. It should be bitter, have sap, and be grayish in appearance. It also needs to be a vegetable that grows from the earth, not from a tree. (Pesahim 39a) Though we tend to refer to maror in English as an herb, it would be more accurate to say vegetable.
Q: What are some examples of things that could be bitter herbs at my seder this year?
A: The Mishnah (Pesahim 2:6) lists five possibilities that can be used at the seder, but it's hard to know for certain exactly what plants they are referring to. The one that is most clear is called hazeret in Hebrew, which is commonly understood to mean lettuce. So many halakhic authorities today say the best form of bitter herbs is romaine lettuce, even though it is not initially bitter, but has a bitter aftertaste. The outer older leaves of romaine lettuce can contain a grayish milky sap that is very bitter. If lettuce is not available, any vegetable is suitable, and other common options are celery and horseradish (also known as chrein).
Q: What is the symbolism of maror?
A: Though it isn't explicit in the Torah, bitter herbs are commonly held to be a symbol of the bitterness the Israelites felt when they were slaves in Egypt. By eating the herbs we feel bitterness ourselves, and can more easily imagine ourselves as slaves. When we dip the maror in the haroset we are associating the bitterness we feel with the hard labor the Israelites experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.
Q: Why would we say a blessing over something that's bitter and symbolizes hardship and suffering?
A: When we dip maror in haroset we recognize that bitter and sweet often come together in life. To be a Jew is to see both the bitter and the sweet in the world, and to bless God for both. Maror also reminds us that misery is not meaningless. The pain that the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt was not for naught. It led to their cries for freedom, and ultimately their redemption.
At the Passover seder table, three matzahs are placed in a stack. Near the beginning of the seder, the middle matzah is broken in two pieces, and the larger piece of this matzah is called the afikomen. It is saved to be eaten after the meal.
Many families have the custom of hiding the afikomen--either the parents hide it and the children search for it, or the children hide it and parents search. A prize is often given to whoever locates this important piece of matzah. The seder cannot continue until the afikomen has been located and consumed.
The omer refers to the forty-nine day period between the second night of Passover (Pesach) and the holiday of Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, Jews would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means "sheaf" and refers to these early offerings.
The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Pesach:
"You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Lev 23:15-16)."
In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As the holiday of Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Peach and Shavuot.
While Pesach celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.
When to Count the Omer
The counting of the omer begins on the second night of Pesach. Jews in the Diaspora generally integrate this counting into the second seder.
The omer is counted each evening after sundown. The counting of the omer is generally appended to the end of Ma'ariv (the evening service), as well.
What to Say...and What Not to Say
One stands when counting the omer, and begins by reciting the following blessing:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha'Olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tizivanu al sefirat ha'omer.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to count the omer.
After the blessing, one recites the appropriate day of the count. For example:
Hayom yom echad la'omer
Today is the first day of the omer.
After the first six days, one also includes the number of weeks that one has counted. For example:
Hayom sh'losha asar yom, she'hem shavuah echad v'shisha yamim la'omer
Today is thirteen days, which is one week and six days of the omer
The inclusion of both the day (thirteen) and the week (one week and six days) stems from a rabbinic argument about whether the Torah mandates counting days or weeks. On the one hand, the biblical text instructs, "you shall count fifty days;" on the other hand, the text also says to "count. . . seven complete weeks." The compromise position, manifested in the ritual, is to count both days and weeks.
The blessing for counting the omer, as well as the language for each day of counting, appears in most prayer books at the end of the text for the evening service.
Because the blessing should precede the counting (and not the other way around), many Jews will not say what day of the omer it is until after the ritual counting. Thus, the reminder about what day to count is often phrased as "yesterday was the fifth day of the omer."
Many people precede the counting of the omer with a meditation that states one's intention to fulfill the commandment. This meditation serves to focus the individual on the task at hand and to remind him/her of the biblical basis of the commandment:
Hineni muchan um'zuman l'kayem mitzvat aseh shel s'firat ha'omer k'mo shekatuv baTorah: Us'fartem lakhem mimaharat hashabbat miyom havi'echem et omer hat'nufa, sheva shabbatot t'mimot tihiyenah. Ad mimaharat hashabbat hash'vi'it tisp'ru chamishim yom.
Behold, I am ready and prepared to fulfill the mitzvah of counting the omer, as it says in the Torah: You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days.
Whoops. . .
One rabbinic debate considers whether there is one cohesive mitzvah to count seven weeks and fifty days or whether each night of counting constitutes a separate mitzvah. This debate would seem immaterial, if not for the proscription against reciting a blessing "in vain"--that is, not for the purpose of doing a mitzvah.
If there is a separate mitzvah to count each night, then forgetting one night would have no effect on one's ability to count subsequent nights. If, however, there is one collective mitzvah to count the entire period, then missing one night disrupts the entire count.
The rabbis effectively split the difference, and conclude that a person who forgets to count the omer on a particular night may count the next morning without reciting a blessing, and then may continue counting as usual--with a blessing--that night.
The Passover Haggadah demands that each person see him or herself as having personally come forth out of Egypt. Accordingly, the seder is one of the most sensory-heavy rituals of the Jewish year. During the seder, we don't just tell the story of the Exodus, we see, smell, feel, and taste liberation.
Many of the elements of this sensory experience appear on the seder plate (k'arah), which serves as the centerpiece of the seder table. The seder plate traditionally holds five or six items, each of which symbolizes a part (or multiple parts) of the Passover story:
Karpas--a green vegetable, most often parsley. Karpas represents the initial flourishing of the Israelites during the first years in Egypt. At the end of the biblical book of Genesis, Joseph moves his family to Egypt, where he becomes the second-in-command to Pharaoh. Protected by Joseph's exalted status, the family lives safely for several generations and proliferate greatly, becoming a great nation. The size of this growing population frightens the new Pharaoh, who enslaves the Israelites, lest they make war on Egypt. Even under slave conditions, the Israelites continue to reproduce, and Pharaoh eventually decrees that all baby boys be killed. In the course of the seder, we dip the karpasin salt water (Ashkenazi custom) or vinegar (Sephardi custom) in order to taste both the hope of new birth and the tears that the Israelite slaves shed over their condition.
Karpas also symbolizes the new spring. One of the names for Passover is Hag Ha-Aviv or the holiday of spring. Right around Passover the first buds emerge, and we look forward to the warmth and sense of possibility that accompany the beginning of spring.
Some Ashkenazi Jews use a potato for karpas, as green vegetables were not readily available in Eastern Europe.
Haroset--This mix of fruits, wine or honey, and nuts symbolizes the mortar that the Israelite slaves used to construct buildings for Pharaoh. The name itself comes from the Hebrew word cheres or clay. Ashkenazi Jews generally include apples in haroset, a nod to the midrashic tradition that the Israelite women would go into the fields and seduce their husbands under the apple trees, in defiance of the Egyptian attempts to prevent reproduction by separating men and women.
Sephardic recipes for haroset allude to this fertility symbolism by including fruits, such as dates and figs, mentioned in Song of Songs, the biblical book that is most infused with images of love and sexuality.
Maror--This bitter herb allows us to taste the bitterness of slavery. Today, most Jews use horseradish as maror. Originally, though, maror was probably a bitter lettuce, such as romaine, or a root, such as chicory. Like life in Egypt, these lettuces and roots taste sweet when one first bites into them, but then become bitter as one eats more. We dip maror into harosetin order to associate the bitterness of slavery with the work that caused so much of this bitterness.
Hazeret--A second bitter herb, used in korech or the Hillel sandwich, which consists of matzah and bitter herbs (some add haroset as well). Many Jews use horseradish for maror and romaine lettuce or another bitter green for hazeret. Others use the same vegetable for both parts of the seder, and do not include hazeret on the seder plate at all.
Z'roa--A roasted lamb shank bone that symbolizes the lamb that Jews sacrificed as the special Passover offering when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The z'roa does not play an active role in the seder, but serves as a visual reminder of the sacrifice that the Israelites offered immediately before leaving Egypt and that Jews continued to offer until the destruction of the Temple. Vegetarians often substitute a roasted beet, both because the red of the beet resembles the blood of the sacrifice and because the Talmud mentions beets as one of the vegetables sometimes dipped during the seder.
Beitzah--A roasted egg that symbolizes the hagigah sacrifice, which would be offered on every holiday (including Passover) when the Temple stood. The roundness of the egg also represents the cycle of life--even in the most painful of times, there is always hope for a new beginning.
There are a few traditions regarding the arrangement of items on the seder plate. Most commonly, the maror is placed in the middle of the plate. The hazeret is at the six o'clock position followed by, moving clockwise, karpas (seven o'clock), beitzah (11 o'clock), z'roa (one o'clock), and haroset (five o'clock).
On the Table
In addition to the items on the seder plate, the seder table should also have three pieces of matzah wrapped or covered in a cloth and a container of salt water or vinegar in which to dip the karpas. Some seder plates have a compartment for matzah underneath, or include space for salt water among the other symbols. In most cases, though, matzah and salt water or vinegar sit near, but not on, the seder plate.
Many contemporary Jews add additional items to the seder plate to symbolize modern liberation struggles. The most common new item is an orange, which honors the role of women and/or gays and lesbians in Jewish life. The orange symbolizes the fruitfulness that these previously marginalized communities bring to Jewish life. Some Jews place an olive on the seder plate to signal hope for eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
One way to encourage participation in the seder is to ask each guest to bring one item that, for him or her, represents liberation. Participants might bring family heirlooms that remind them of their family's immigration story, newspaper stories about current liberation struggles, or other symbolic objects. Each guest should place this item near the seder plate and, at an appropriate time in the seder, explain its significance