Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Evolution Of Matzoh

Commercial Matzoh
Those of us that keep Passover expect to eat square crackers called matzoh at the service, matzoh probably made by Mannishevitz. In nearly four decades of Passover observance, I don't recall anything but these matzohs. Some people love them, most just tolerate them, and some liken them to cardboard without all the flavor. I lose interest in matzohs after the Days of Unleavened Bread are over. The point is that when most of us think of matzoh, this is what we picture.

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Rise of the Matzoh Machine

Matzoh Machine circa 1855
I'm told there are 512 perforations per square of matzoh, I leave that as an exercise for the reader. I was surprised to learn that these matzohs are a relatively recent invention, the machine for rolling the dough was invented in 1838 by a French Jew named Isaac Singer . And by 1903, Behr Manishevitz had automated the process with three machines to knead, roll, stretch, perforate, and cut the dough - Yesterdish, matzoh balls [1]. In 3500 years of Passover Matzohs, perforated, square matzoh boxed by Manishevitz has only been around for 100 years. Yet for decades, I thought this WAS matzoh, that there was unleavened bread, and there was Matzoh. But matzoh is simply the Hebrew word for unleavened bread, "From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzo." - Exodus 12:18 - Wikipedia(Matzoh) [2]. And the word matzoh means sweet (bread), as opposed to sourdough (bread). In other words, all unleavened bread is matzoh.


Homemade Matzoh

Before Singer and Manishevitz, matzohs were made by hand, usually round and irregularly shaped. So You Think You Know Matzo [3]. Singer's machine was no doubt useful for keeping within the 18 minute time limit that flour could be in contact with water before spontaneous leavening occurred.  The 18 minute rule is from the Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Aruch chapter 459  [4]), NOT the Bible. This requirement puzzles me, because ancient Israel took their unleavened dough with them when they left Egypt, while plundering the Egyptians for gold and silver, and walking to Succot took all day - Exodus 12:34-39, clearly more than 18 minutes. "The matzah our forefathers ate on their flight from Egypt would not be certified as 'Kosher for Passover' today." - Nazarene Israel [5]. Nevertheless, machine-made matzoh went from a controversial novelty to the default Passover matzoh in less than 100 years. Why were they changed from round to square? Manishevitz. "He made the matzoh square, rather than the circles it had always traditionally been." - Yesterdish, matzoh balls [1], Jonthan Sarna [6]. At first, Singer and Manishevitz faced resistance from Jewish rabbis for their machine-made matzoh, but they eventually won out -

There are many many recipes for unleavened breads, but according to the rabbis, most are not suitable for Passover use. However, even among the Jews, there is not universal agreement on what is appropriate for Passover use. Many believe that the matzoh eaten during the Days of Unleavened Bread (the seven days after Passover) need not follow the strict rules of Passover matzoh. In other words, it can be soft, thick, and have flavor. Sometimes the Days of Unleavened Bread are called Passover in some texts, as in this quote.

At the Passover seder, simple matzo made of flour and water is mandatory. Sephardic tradition additionally permits the inclusion of eggs in the recipe. The flour must be ground from one of the five grains specified in Jewish law for Passover matzo: wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oat. Matzo made with wine, fruit juice, onion, garlic, etc., is not acceptable for use at any time during the Passover festival. Wikipepdia(Matzo)  [2]
I have been unable to find a source that explains why matzoh must be only flour and water, the only justification I can think of is that it is called the bread of affliction. Some argue that Passover matzoh should also contain salt and olive oil, because that's the recipe for unleavened bread used in Tabernacle offerings, specifically the grain offering described in Leviticus 2. "Biblical matzo was made with flour, water, salt and olive oil" - Temple Sacrifices [7]. It is not clear to me why these rules should apply to the Passover offering, it was not a grain offering at the Tabernacle.

Shmurah Matzoh

Shmurah Matzoh
Dan Barber [8] describes a type of handmade matzoh called shmurah acceptable to Orthodox Jews, shmurah means guarded or watched. And it is watched from field to harvest to milling to baking. The Orthodox rules for shmurah are complex - only one of the five grains may be used, dried in the field to 14% moisture, rabbi inspected harvest, no wild garlic, no sprouting grains, then mixed, rolled, and baked by hand within 18 minutes. If you would like to try making it yourself, read Matzah Baking [9]. Shmurah matzoh and square matzoh are made from flour and water, nothing more. 
It appears that machine-made matzoh became popular so fast because the rules for making shmurah matzoh at home are simply too difficult. And thanks to Behr Manshevitz, store bought matzoh became affordable to even the poor. But I can't find Scriptural justification for the complexity. Or the ingredients for that matter. From the time of Israel leaving Egypt until Singer and Manishevitz, matzoh was made by hand. Now, machine-made matzoh is the default, especially at the Passover service.

But Wait, There's More

Nowadays, we assume matzoh to be a thin cracker. But according to Ari Zivotofsky [10], it was not always so.
What can be concluded is that until the middle rishonim (late Middle Ages) all matzot were thick and baked daily so its eaters could enjoy it warm and soft on the holiday. ... The Torah therefore was not only permitting, but mandating to bake and eat fresh “bread” each day of Pesaḥ (Passover festival).
Code of Jewish Law
known as Shulchan Aruch
Rather, it seems that the final stage in the evolution of the cracker thin matzah was because of another halakhik* ḥumra**: the concern that with thick matzah it is more difficult to prevent and to ascertain chimutz***. As seen above, the Ashkenazik authorities in the 17th–19th centuries were concerned about thick matzah becoming chametz and made a concerted effort to produce thinner and thinner matzah from drier and drier batter.  This became easier to do thanks to the powered machines that could knead very dry batter. ... The development of the modern thin, hard matzah thus seems to have been driven solely by halakhik concerns rather than sociological or practical issues.
* Jewish law
** obligation
*** leaven, also spelled chametz
What does that mean? Rabbis were concerned that the middle of thick matzoh might become leavened before the dough was fully cooked - that is, it might take more than the 18 minutes allowed by Jewish law to knead and bake. It is more difficult to "prevent and ascertain" leaven in thicker matzoh. So the rabbis pushed for thinner matzoh made with drier dough. This is where Isaac Singer's machine comes in - it made handling the drier dough possible. With a thin dry cracker, it is obvious no leaven got a foothold in the matzoh.
Why are modern matzohs thin crackers? Because the rabbis wanted to eliminate ANY chance of leavening. Isaac Singer invented key technology to help make that happen. It was simpler to buy Passover-ready matzoh than to follow all the rules to make it at home. And the end product could be mass marketed.

 I invite discussion on the following questions.
  • Why is Passover matzoh made with only flour and water?
  • Are other types of matzoh acceptable at Passover? (oil, salt, egg, ...)
  • Have you eaten hand made matzoh at Passover?
  • Have you made matzoh for Passover?
  • Does Passover matzoh have to be a hard cracker? Can it be soft unleavened bread?


1. http://www.yesterdish.com/2013/07/24/matzoh-balls/
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matzo
3. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1890268,00.html
4. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Shulchan_Aruch/Orach_Chaim/459
5. http://www.nazareneisrael.org/articles/calendar/unleavened-bread-recipes/
6. http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2017/April/matzo-passover-sarna.html
7. http://richardwaynegarganta.com/Feasts%20and%20Sacrifices.htm
8. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/opinion/sunday/why-is-this-matzo-different-from-all-other-matzos.html
9. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/recipe/matzah-baking-an-18-minute-project/
10. http://www.hakirah.org/Vol17Zivotofsky.pdf