Was Matzah Something New?


Matzah existed before the Exodus.

Since the Egyptians are said to have pioneered the leavening process in baking bread, unleavened bread must previously have been the norm.

Even when leavened bread became available, it was probably limited to the aristocracy and the wealthy. It was too expensive for the ordinary person, who had to continue eating something like matzah (though the matzah they made was thicker and softer than ours).

This may be why the Haggadah calls matzah “lechem oni”, the bread of affliction or poor man’s bread “which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt”.

It is said that by the time of Moses, there were as many as forty types of bread in Egypt, and some or all would have been flavoured and eaten with onions.

When the waters of the Nile were too low, the economy was in jeopardy and people threw bread into the river as an offering, since divinity was attributed to the waters. Maybe this is the origin of the phrase, “Cast your bread upon the waters” (Kohelet 11:1).

Originally bread (as well as matzah) was baked at home. It was only about three centuries ago that professional matzah bakeries began and the matzah became hard and crisp, though some non-Ashkenazic communities still prefer soft matzah.

When the Israelites left Egypt they looked forward to eating rich men’s bread as a mark of freedom, but they were in such a hurry that there was no time for the dough to rise and they had to make do with unleavened bread once again.


The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is very strict. The Torah insists, “No chametz shall be seen or found in your border” (Ex. 13:7).

The symbolism of the chametz law has a message for everybody.

Chametz represents the sin of pride: as matzah is made from grain that is capable of becoming chametz, so every human being is capable of getting a puffed-up ego, behaving arrogantly, showing off and becoming impossible to live with.

Chametz represents the need to keep one’s self-pride under control.

Chametz also stands for the evil inclination in a person (the “yetzer ha-ra”), the internal ferment that has the power of bursting up and leading the person to commit a transgression.

The Jewish sages say that even the evil inclination can be good for a person; they mean that one’s ambitions and energies are a blessing because they lead to heroic achievements, but only if they are subjected to the “yetzer ha-tov”, the good inclination, directed wisely and controlled well.


Q. Why is Pesach so late this year? Why does it sometimes coincide with Easter and sometimes not?

A. The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, but because of Pesach it is also linked with the sun.

According to the Torah, Pesach must fall in the month of Aviv – the spring month – and the spring, like all the seasons, is governed by the sun.

As the Jewish calendar has roughly 354 and a quarter days, eleven less than the solar year, there is a corrective mechanism to ensure that Pesach will not end up too far away from the northern hemisphere spring.

This corrective mechanism is the extra month of Adar that comes seven times in every 19 years, ensuring that there will be a correlation between lunar and solar years.

The result is that in a leap year, when we have the extra Adar, Pesach is relatively later, and in a non-leap year it is relatively earlier.

In early church history there were certain communities who celebrated Easter on 15 Nisan, the full moon, when the Jews kept Pesach. In an attempt at separating the two events the first Council of Nicaea decided in 325 CE that Easter should always fall on a Sunday, which rarely coincided with the full moon.

Which Sunday? By the eighth century the rule was established that it should be the Sunday after the spring full moon.

However, the Christian and Jewish calculations of the new moon are not quite the same. Hence on some occasions Easter Sunday falls on the first day of Pesach, but it is rare to have a first day of Pesach on Sunday (with the accompanying problems of Erev Pesach being on Shabbat).

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at www.oztorah.com.

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