Matzah’s Majestic Meaning
I don’t know why we ask the first of the four seder questions—“On all other nights we eat both hametz and matzah but on this night only matzah.” The Ha lahma anya paragraph that immediately precedes the questions already answers it. The opening words, “this is the bread of affliction (lahma anya in the Aramaic) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” suggest that the Israelite slaves in Egypt, who presumably had no time to bake bread, ate matzah. And that is why we eat matzah on Passover. So why ask the first question?
This interpretation of the first line of the Ha lahma anya paragraph is problematic, however. Nowhere in the book of Exodus, or anywhere else in the Torah, does it say that the slaves ate matzah. There is, in fact, no basis for such a statement. True, Deuteronomy 16:3 says that, “when you make your paschal sacrifice, do not eat hametz with it; seven days eat matzah, lehem oni, because you left Egypt in haste, so that you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.” JPS translates lehem oni (the Hebrew of lahma anya) as “bread of distress.”
Admittedly, lehem oni is an obscure phrase. The prominent Bible scholar Adele Berlin explained to me that the word “distress” refers to the bread, not to the people who ate it. That is, this verse does not say that the slaves in Egypt ate matzah but just the opposite: that the Israelites ate matzah as they were becoming free people, right before and right after they left Egypt (see below). “Bread of distress” may mean that the bread itself was “distressed” in the sense that the dough did not rise, that it remained flat.
Matzah first appears in the Torah in connection with Lot and his unexpected guests. In addition to making them a meal, he baked matzot, which could be prepared fast (Gen. 19:3). Matzah’s first appearance in connection with Passover is at Exodus 12, which describes the sequence of events on the night of leaving Egypt. The Israelites are told to slaughter a lamb (v. 6), smear its blood on the doorposts (v. 7), and then eat the lamb’s roasted flesh, together with matzot and merorim (bitter herbs) (v. 8). The celebrants should be ready to depart when eating this nighttime meal—loins girded, feet in sandals, and staff in hand (v. 11). The chapter later says (vv. 14–17) that the Exodus from Egypt should be observed in perpetuity by eating matzot for seven days, beginning with the anniversary of the Exodus, which, in our terms, is 15 Nisan. These verses make it clear that matzah symbolizes God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
But that is not all. The chapter goes on to say (v. 39) that when the Israelites left, they took with them dough that had not yet risen. Since they had not anticipated the need to depart so very fast, they had not prepared provisions for the journey. The raw dough was baked into matzah, probably by the sun, since they carried their kneading troughs on their shoulders (v. 34). This detail about the dough is intended as praise of God for the rapid way in which He got all the Israelites out of Egypt safely. At midnight, as soon as God’s tenth plague hit the Egyptians, they pressured the Israelites to leave (v. 33). And the Israelites left, in haste. These verses, therefore, give rise to a second symbolic meaning of matzah. It stands not just for redemption but for the rapidity of the redemption.
Centuries later, the Rabbis of the Mishnah also grasped matzah as bread of redemption, not of slavery. Rabban Gamliel says that to discharge one’s obligation at the seder, a person has to say three things: Pesah (the Passover sacrifice), matzah, and maror. He goes on to explain, “Why do we eat matzah—because our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt” (M. Pesahim 10:5). That is, Rabban Gamliel sees matzah in positive terms only.
When the Haggadah later incorporated his statement about matzah into the seder ritual, the language changed somewhat. As his teaching appears in the Haggadah, Rabban Gamliel says that matzah reminds us that “before the dough had time to rise, God revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” This is a conflation of the two nuances of matzah—bread of redemption and bread of rapid redemption. This paragraph, and not Ha lahma anya, is the answer to the first of the four questions.
As for the opening statement of Ha lahma anya, I think the standard English translations are misleading. A better way to render the line is: this is the bread of distress that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, on the night that they left. The italicized words do not appear in the Haggadah but adding them is a fair interpretation.
The reason I find it important to offer this correction to the meaning of matzah is that viewing it as bread of redemption is not only closer to the plain sense of the words of the Torah but communicates a far loftier lesson. Matzah, by its flatness (not its crispness, which is a relatively recent phenomenon), reminds us of a peak moment in our past: God’s intervention in Jewish history, the end of our enslavement, and the beginnings of our peoplehood.
When we mention the Exodus frequently in our prayers, for example with the phrase זכר ליציאת מצרים (zekher leyetziat Mitzrayim) in the Kiddush on Friday night and festivals, we are not just thanking God for past beneficence. We are also implying that, as a holy people, we will not tolerate slavery anywhere in the world today. We celebrate our own freedom by rededicating ourselves to free others who are still enslaved. This is the great moral lesson of Passover. And it is triggered by looking at the flatbread on the seder table and letting it jog our memory.
At your seder this year, you can do the following: read the Ha lahma anya paragraph aloud, along with its English translation, and then flip to a page much later in the Haggadah, to the statement of Rabban Gamliel about the meaning of matzah, and read it aloud also. Ask the seder guests to compare the two paragraphs. Hopefully they will notice the discrepancy between the two and begin to think about the message of matzah and the grand ethical teachings of Passover.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).