The meaning of Matzah: affliction or liberation but always bread.

The bible tells us that people cannot live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3), a statement so powerful it is repeated in the New Testament.

 Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods. Evidence on rocks in Europe from 30,000 years ago shows starch residue left from the plants which had presumably been pounded to create flour in order to make early flat bread.

With the Neolithic age and the spread of agriculture, bread from grains became the mainstay of the human diet. Yeast spores are everywhere – in the air and even on the surface of cereal grains, so any dough left to rest in the open air will over time become naturally leavened. But people quickly learned to help the process along -Pliny the Elder reports that the Gauls and the Iberians used the foam skimmed from beer to produce “a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.” Those who drank wine instead of beer in the ancient world used a paste composed of grape juice and flour that was allowed to begin fermenting, or else they used wheat bran steeped in wine, as a source for their yeast. But the most common source of leavening was to retain a piece of dough from the previous day to use as a starter for the new dough.

Probably that is why every year or so one had to start again, to not keep on endlessly adding a piece of dough from before to the new mix of flour and water, but to break what we would see as the cycle of infection and make a new start with this important food.

Bread means so many things to us – it was used to pay the workers’ wages in ancient Egypt and the word is still used today to denote wealth – both ‘bread’ and ‘dough’ are slang expressions for money.  The word ‘companion’ denotes someone with bread (com + panis). The Roman poet Juvenal satirised superficial politicians and the public as caring only for “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses).

The cultural importance of “bread” goes beyond slang, to serve as a metaphor for basic necessities and living conditions in general. A “bread-winner” is a household’s main economic contributor whose role is “putting bread on the table”. A remarkable or revolutionary innovation is often referred to as “the greatest thing since sliced bread”. Bread is the staple requirement in all human societies.

The word “bread” itself is curious – it has been claimed to be derived from the root of brew though it may be connected with the root of break, for its early uses are confined to broken pieces, or bits of bread. But in Hebrew the etymology is even more curious – “Lechem”, the Hebrew word for bread, is the same root as “lochem” – to do battle, and unlike the Teutonic languages, the third possible root “lacham” means not to separate, but to join together.   Using all three meanings, Ludwig Kohler, the author of a dictionary of biblical Hebrew, suggests that this third root – to be joined together, explains both battle and eating bread – in battle there is hand to hand combat and soldiers are bonded together in groups, in eating bread together people bond together in solidarity – breaking bread with someone is a powerful signifier or peace with them. Of course, the opposite may also be true – wars are fought over resources, and what is the most basic resource alongside water? Bread.

So what has this to do with the emblematic food of Pesach?  Matzah is symbolic of two kinds of bread: both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation.   As we consider this festival and the foods we don’t let ourselves eat – for Pesach should not be, as it increasingly seems to be becoming, a time when we can imaginatively create dishes that mimic chametz, with breakfast cereals and potato flour pasta made kosher for Pesach, – but we should be thinking of the staples of our lives, what they are based upon, how we are separated and how we are joined, how we add value to our lives rather than live them mechanistically.

By eating matzah we are helping ourselves consider what is freedom, what is poverty, and how fine the line between the two. We are reminding ourselves of what is basic and important in our lives and what is the froth of the leavening.  Every so often we have to stop, to break the chain of habit, to start again from the beginning and Pesach is that time. Just as we break the cycle of infection of using a piece of dough from the previous day by making our bread with no additions except the elemental flour and water, so we take a week to live our lives in simplicity, to think about what we have been doing unthinkingly.  Bread is freedom and bread is poverty. Bread is broken and bread is joined. As we navigate the ambiguity and the possibilities of lechem in the form of matzah, we have the choice to think again. Are we in freedom? Do we oppress? Are we broken and separated from what matters? Are we joined to others in a strong bond?

The festival of Pesach will soon be over, but I hope the thinking it demands of us goes into the weeks of the Omer as we build and count up towards Sinai and the accepting of Torah.

 

Pesach thoughts

The story of Pesach is one of renewal. Originally it seems that there were two festivals to do with the Spring – there was Pesach which was a celebration of the new lambs, and there was Chag HaMatzah, a holiday which celebrated the first grain harvest of the year and the using up of the old. At some point, (maybe around 1250 BCE when the Exodus is said to have taken place), the two Spring festivals became one.  The verb ‘pasach’ means to jump over (the way that lambs jump about in the fields) so it became used to describe how God passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and did not kill the first-born people inside. The word Matzah came to be understood as the unleavened bread that was eaten because of the haste of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt.  As ever, Judaism is adept at taking what already exists in the ritual lexicon and reinterpreting it, renewing it in order to bring about a different significance and meaning.

Pesach was a primarily a festival which rejoices in the Springtime and the hope of renewal and revitalisation it brings. It is also now an historical festival, marking the real beginnings of the Jewish people, something that will find its culmination in Shavuot. And Pesach is also a festival dedicated to ideological and the spiritual renewal– it is a festival of freedom, a promise and foretaste of ultimate redemption.

With Pesach and the Spring we are at a new beginning. The physical world is waking up and there is a sense of possibility. As Pesach approaches we deep clean our homes, removing the hametz – the old and fermented goods. The process symbolises a kind of spiritual new beginning, the removal of the stale from our lives and the opportunity to start again. 

Preparation for Pesach is a very physical activity, from Purim onwards we carry on an extreme version of spring cleaning, doing what used to called in my Yorkshire childhood ‘bottoming’ (as in I’ll get to the bottom of that wardrobe / pile of papers / overstuffed kitchen drawer). The sheer upheaval is enough to make one tired, yet it also forces a sort of internal reflection.  While making free with the bleach and the various cleansers the mind can sort of disengage and has time to think.  In fact it is not unlike the way prayer works – as the mouth and body follow the prescribed words and choreography of the siddur, the mind finds itself free to range further.

But Pesach isn’t only about the physical renewal nor the spiritual replenishment it brings – Pesach requires us to locate ourselves in our ancient narrative, to tell our story once more and place ourselves within it. To make certain our children are also listening and hearing it and taking it for themselves. Hence the rituals around the Seder, many of which are designed to attract the children, to pique their interest and draw them in. Without the telling of the story and the conversation about it that follows, Pesach is simply a Springtime ritual in order to celebrate the new agricultural year that follows the cold and forbidding winters. Without the discussion and dialogue about what the story is teaching us about freedom then and now, we are simply following an empty ritual.

 A gloss on the word Pesach teaches that besides being the verb for jumping over, it can be divided into two Hebrew words – ‘peh’ meaning mouth, and ‘sach’ meaning talking or conversation. The whole point of Pesach is to talk, to tell, to sing, to describe, to discuss, to argue examine and consider what the meaning is for us now. If we celebrate only with ritual, if we simply plonk ourselves down at the nearest Seder and work our way through the haggadah, we will be doing this most powerful of festivals a disservice. Pesach, the preparation time leading up to it, and the Seder itself all sanction conversation between the generations – to tell the story again and again, to understand what it means in our day and age. So as we prepare the ritual items for Seder, we invite friends and family to join us in the retelling of the haggadah , and merge the stories of springtime lambing and first grains with the stories of exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic re-entry into our history. We ask ourselves the contemporary meaning of our story. We talk to each other about what we each think about freedom, what we see in the world,  and we consider what we can do about what we see. That is surely worth all the work in preparation for the festival, and it gives us our work for the year to come.