Manischewitz. Osem. Yehuda.
For many, these names and others are synonymous with Passover, as they are some of the world’s most popular brand names in supplying the unleavened flatbread.
It is possible that the ritual of buying square, machine-made matzah — packaged in plastic wrap and cardboard boxes from the grocery store — is a bit of a disconnect from the Jews’ flight from Egypt thousands of years ago. Which begs the question: “How different was the matzah back then?”
“The answer is: We don’t know,” said Barry M. Gittlen, professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Towson University.
Gittlen, who has spent the better part of his professional life as an archaeologist, said while it’s not impossible for ancient matzah to have been preserved, it’s not a common find.
“Archaeologists in various excavations have found pottery jars filled with charred grain, charred figs and charred olives. When we have organic things that are charred, it protects them from total decomposition,” he said. “But we’ve never found any charred matzah.”
Given that there’s no physical evidence or specific mention of the matzah-making process in the Torah, Gittlen says the composition of original matzah remains shrouded in mystery.
“As to the shape, as to the composition of matzah and how it was probably prepared,” he said, “I’m not sure any later authors go into that.”
For more than 30 years, Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County in Columbia, Maryland, has spent the weeks between Purim and Passover baking matzah at the Model Matzah Factory. Despite the lack of evidence, Baron is sure of one thing: Jews fleeing Egypt didn’t have sophisticated equipment.
“There weren’t any machines when they left the land of Egypt, so they could not have made square machine matzahs,” he said, adding that at his facility, he and the children make matzah by hand. The easiest shape to form when making matzah in one’s hands, Baron said, is a circle.
In terms of other details — the matzah’s taste, scent or texture — Baron agrees with Gittlen.
“We’re supposed to imagine that we’ve left the land of Egypt, but I don’t know anyone who was actually there,” he said with a laugh.
“The authors of the text probably knew what it looked like and how it was made, but they were interested in other things than writing down the recipe,” said Gittlen, adding that most mentions of matzah in the Torah are there to define ritual use and don’t discuss how matzah was made.
In addition to the factory machines that churn out matzah now, the Israelites were without a conventional oven. However, Baron speculates that the ancient practice might not be quite as different as it is today.
“It could have been roasted over fire. There could have been stones there, and baked on those stones,” Baron said. “The stone bottom to our oven is what really bakes the matzah so quick. The stone is what absorbs and intensifies the heat.”
While Baron is careful to say he’s far from certain about matzah’s origins, there are some theories he finds dubious.
“There are those that have the account that it was baked by the sun,” he said. “I don’t know how accurate that is.”
Read more in Matzah Madness!