The Meaning of the Shmurah Matzah

| Pesah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 18, 2014 / 5774 | Holidays

One of the centerpieces of seder night is the eating of matzah, the unleavened bread. And while matzah reminds us of the haste in which the Israelites departed from the land of Egypt, it contains in it another compelling message. The evening of the Passover seder, we are required to eat not just any piece of matzah, but what is known as “guarded matzah.” (This matzah is often called shmurah matzah in North America, and it is special because, from the time the wheat is harvested in the field through baking, there is an additional measure of vigilance to be sure that at no point in the process does the wheat turn into leaven.) The reason that we eat this particular matzah is to call to mind the nature of the event described in Exodus 12:42: “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the Land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.” When the Torah tells us that seder evening was “a night of vigil” (leyl shimurim) for both God and the children of Israel, what is the precise meaning of the term shimurim (watching or vigil), and how does it affect the way we understand the matzah?

While many commentators, including Abraham Ibn Ezra, believe that “a night of watching” refers to God’s act of vigilance in guarding the homes of the Israelites from the Angel of Death, Ramban offers us a very different perspective. Arguing that the expression is deeply connected to the act of the Israelites for all generations, Nahmanides contends that it is quintessentially “a night of watching” for the Israelites. He writes, “it means that the Israelites are to observe Pesah by worshipping God through the eating of the Passover-offering, the remembering of the miracles, and the recitation of praise and thanksgiving.” In other words, it is a night of observance for the Israelites. The Israelites are commanded to observe the Passover ritual in every generation. In this way, it becomes an evening that is devoted wholly to God. Plugging Ramban’s exegesis back into the text (Exod. 12:42) would lead us to read the opening of this verse in this fashion: “It is a night of observance dedicated to the Lord.”

Ramban’s reading compels us to both understand and eat the shmurah matzah in a different way. According to Ramban, this ritual is about sacredness; that is to say, directing our hearts and minds to God on this very special evening. The essential act of the night involves our celebration of God—an event that is timeless, spreading across all generations. Quite beautifully, Ramban links our past, present, and future in this annual commemoration of the Jewish journey toward freedom.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.