Matzah is unleavened bread made from one of five species of grain – wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats – mentioned in the Torah. The Torah commands Jews to eat matzah during Passover in Exodus 12:18: "In the first month [i.e. Nissan] from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening." The Oral Law understands this to mean that while chametz is prohibited all eight days of Passover, matzah is only required to be eaten on the first day of the holiday.
Ashkenazi matzah is a hard thin wafer, while Sephardim make softer, thicker matzot by using a much more watered batter. This soft matzah does not have a long shelf life, which necessitates baking and freezing it shortly before Passover, and indeed, before the advent of freezers, Sephardim baked matzah daily during the holiday.
Matzah is referred to as leḥem oni, "the bread of affliction" (Deut. 16:3). On this basis the Karaites , who interpreted the Bible literally, make matzah only from barley, which was used to make the poor man's bread. The same phrase is used in the talmudic discussion of whether matzah made from flour mixed with wine, oil, honey, or eggs instead of water may be used on Passover. Although it is not regarded as fermenting if there is no admixture of water, matzah made from any such ingredient is forbidden on the first night since it constitutes "matzah ashirah," the "matzah of opulence," in contrast to the "bread of affliction" (Pes. 36a). Generally, matzah ashirah was permitted only for the sick or the aged (OḤ 462). Rashi, and subsequent Ashkenazi decisors (posekim), give credence to the concern that liquids other than water increase the rate of fermentation, and therefore prohibit healthy people from using egg matzah, i.e., matzah ashirah, for all of Passover. In recent years, people with celiac – an intestinal disorder with a dangerous reaction to the gluten in wheat – have been able to fulfill the mitzvah with oat matzah made from a specific non-gluten strain of oats. Spelt matzah is also commercially available for people with medical needs.
The Duty of Eating Matzah
Whereas the prohibition against eating ḥameẓ or having it in one's possession applies to the whole of Passover, the positive commandment of eating matzah generally applies only to the first night (in the Diaspora the first two nights). According to R. Elijah of Vilna, one fulfills a commandment to eat matzah on the other days of Passover as well. In Temple times, this duty was based on the verse "with matzah and bitter herbs shall they eat it," i.e., the Paschal lamb, and is also based on the verse "In the evening ye shall eat matzot" (Ex. 12:18). In many circles, only "matzah mitzvah," i.e., matzot baked on Passover eve, is used at the seder. This is reminiscent of the Passover sacrifice, which in Temple times was offered on Passover eve and eaten at the seder. There is also the widespread custom of eating only "matzah shemurah" on the night of the seder, although some, as a special act of piety, eat it throughout the festival.
One must abstain from eating matzah on the eve of Passover beginning with sunrise on the 14th of Nisan, but a long-time ḥasidic custom was also adopted to abstain beginning at Purim a month before, while others refrain for two weeks starting with Rosh Ḥodesh Nisan.
The manifold precautions which must be taken at the various stages of the matzah's production are designed to prevent any fermentation whatsoever of the flour. The flour suitable for the baking of matzah can be divided into three categories of decreasing stringency:
(1) "guarded flour," which is closely supervised from the time the wheat is harvested and is used for the preparation of matzah shemurah;
(2) "Passover flour," where supervision to prevent fermentation begins with the milling of the wheat;
(3) "ordinary flour," which does not have supervision until the point of being mixed and is used to make "ordinary," or machine, matzah.
Under normal conditions of climate and temperature, flour mixed with water begins to ferment in approximately 18 minutes. Should the water be above room temperature, however, the process is accelerated, but it can be delayed by the continual manipulation of the dough. In order to prevent water from becoming too warm, only "mayim she-lanu" – "water which has rested" (Pes. 42a) – i.e., water which has been left in a vessel overnight to reach room temperature – is used in the baking of matzah, and thereafter the mixture of flour and water is constantly manipulated until it is ready for baking. Care must be taken that the whole process from kneading to final baking does not exceed the 18 minutes. No ingredients other than flour and water are permitted for Passover matzah. Although it is accepted by most decisors that salt is not a fermenting agent, its use in matzot is forbidden in order to prevent fermentation (Sh. Ar., OḤ 455:5). Some Yemenites, however, do have the custom of baking their Passover matzah using salt.
Over decades, special equipment was developed for the baking of hand-made matzah, which can be found almost universally throughout the Jewish world. Immediately after the flour is first mixed with water, the relatively dry batter is kneaded using a specially designed smasher, in which the batter is placed on a flat surface and a hinged bar is used to pummel the dough. The dough is then flattened by using rollers made only of solid pieces of wood or metal without crevices, to prevent the possibility of pieces of dough getting wedged and becoming ḥameẓ. Perforation of the dough, after being rolled into shape and before baking, enables air bubbles to escape, and prevents the dough from rising and swelling during baking. The holes are made by rolling a small wheel with sharp teeth attached to a handle, known as a "reddler," back and forth across the dough.
The industrial revolution combined with a growing urban population across Europe resulted in the amounts of traditional hand-made matzah produced being insufficient to provide enough matzot for everyone in need. The result was the introduction in 1838 of the first primitive machine that rolled matzah. Twenty years later, a bitter halakhic debate ensued over its permissibility, owing to the fear that the machine process might cause fermentation, and also whether a machine was able to fulfill the requirement of matzah being made with the proper intent. The dispute continued for more than half a century, until the machines improved technically and the rabbinic authorities began to accept those superior machines. Today the tons of world matzah – over $100 million in sales – are produced primarily by two major companies in the U.S.: Manischewitz, which built the first matzah factory in the United States, and Streit's, as well as a dozen factories in Israel.
A major shortage of matzah for the Jews of Russia occurred in 1917 with the collapse of czarist rule and the take-over by the Communists, and again beginning in 1929, with the collectivization of farms by Stalin. The crisis became so severe that world Jewry was called upon to help provide the Passover needs of the Jews of Russia. During the two world wars, the widespread mobilization of Jewish soldiers created an additional need for matzah distribution never before experienced in modern Jewish history. Organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Welfare Board provided matzot for them and for needy Jews around the globe.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Telushkin, Joseph. Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1997.