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Matzah: Bread of Affliction, Bread of Liberation

March 24, 2021 | by Jeff Jacoby

Symbol of slavery or freedom? Exploring the seeming contradictory meanings of this ancient bread.

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry convened a hearing in Jerusalem. Its lead-off witness was David Ben Gurion, who was then the foremost leader of the Jewish community in Palestine.

The task of the committee was to report on political and social conditions in Palestine, which in March 1946 was still under British rule. The future of Palestine was an issue on which the two allies did not see eye to eye. American public opinion supported Jewish aspirations to a measure of sovereignty in the Holy Land, and President Truman was pushing the British government to allow 100,000 survivors of the recently ended Holocaust to immigrate into Palestine.

But Britain opposed Jewish immigration. Hostility to Jews was rampant throughout the Arab world, where the British Empire had extensive commercial and diplomatic interests, and Whitehall was unwilling to get on the wrong side of Arab opinion. Though Britain’s historic Balfour Declaration of 1917 had famously endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the government had reversed that position in 1939, barring most Jews from entering the land and thus choking off an escape route from Europe just as the Nazi genocide was getting underway.

Today the Anglo-American Committee is largely forgotten. Its findings became moot in November 1947, when the United Nations recommended that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Nonetheless, Ben Gurion's heartfelt testimony making the case for Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is still worth reading, as I remarked in a column a few years ago:

In one memorable passage, the man who would two years later become Israel's first prime minister addressed the astonishing longevity of the Jews' love affair with Zion.

“More than 300 years ago a ship by the name of the Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World,” Ben Gurion told the committee. “It was a great event in American and English history. I wonder how many Englishmen or how many Americans know exactly the date when that ship left Plymouth, how many people were on the ship, and what was the kind of bread that people ate when they left Plymouth.”

Few Americans, of course, know any of those minutiae. But countless Jews, Ben Gurion went on, know the details of a far older journey.

“More than 3,300 years ago the Jews left Egypt. It was more than 3,000 years ago – yet every Jew in the world knows exactly the date when we left. It was on the 15th of Nisan. The bread they ate was matzot. [To this day] Jews throughout the world on the 15th of Nisan eat the same matzot – in America, in Russia – and tell the story of the exile from Egypt. [They] tell what happened, all the sufferings that happened to the Jews since they went into exile. They finish [their retelling with] these two sentences: ‘This year we are slaves; next year we will be free. This year we are here; next year we will be in Zion, the land of Israel.’”

The 15th of Nisan returns once again this coming weekend. And as they have for 33 centuries, Jews the world over will once again sit down to the Passover Seder – the ritual feast and storytelling that marks the start of the festival – and once again eat matzah (plural: matzot), the unleavened flatbread of the ancient Middle East. Of course there is much more to a Seder than eating matzah. The ceremonial meal is replete with customs and rituals: the bitter herbs, the four cups of wine, the recounting of the Exodus, the “Four Questions” asked by the youngest at the table, the tears-like salt water into which a vegetable is dipped, the hiding of the afikoman, the Cup of Elijah, and reclining as a gesture of freedom. But there is no question that matzah is the most celebrated symbol associated with Passover, so much so that the Hebrew Bible itself routinely refers to the holiday not as “Passover” but as chag ha-matzot – the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Matzah is the simplest of prepared foods, made from nothing but flour and water, baked before it has a chance to rise. Yet its meanings are rich and seemingly contradictory.

On the one hand, it is the “bread of affliction.” That is how it is described in Deuteronomy , and how it is spoken of near the very start of the Seder, when the matzah is uncovered and those around the table announce: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” As a child I was taught – and innumerable generations of Jewish children were taught before me – that we eat matzah on Passover to recall the slave rations of our ancestors. Matzah is hard, meager, slow to digest. If it doesn’t taste good, at least it doesn’t go bad. During the years of bondage in Egypt, matzah was the daily reminder to the Israelites of their lowly status, the crust that symbolized the degradation and misery of their existence.

That is how the Seder begins: by harking back to the “bread of affliction.” Yet before anyone in the room will have a chance to eat matzah – to say nothing of the lavish meal to follow – its meaning will have changed. In a key passage, the Haggadah (the text recited during the Seder) quotes a different biblical passage to explain the meaning of the unleavened bread at the table:

This matzah that we eat – what does it signify? It signifies that our forefathers’ dough did not have time to rise before [God] redeemed them. As it says [Exodus 12:39]: “They baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into sheets of matzah, because it had not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, nor had they prepared for themselves any other provisions.”

All at once, matzah has ceased to be the bread of affliction, and has become the bread of freedom – not the bare-bones food that sustained the Israelites during the years of hard labor, but the bare-bones food they prepared as they stood on the cusp of liberty. All their lives they had eaten matzah under the severe constraints of servitude, denied even the time to bake a proper loaf of bread. Now, as they rushed to leave Egypt and all its cruelties behind, they were again in too much of a hurry to bake a proper loaf of bread. Once again they prepared the hard dry flatbread they knew so well. But this time it epitomized not the wretchedness of being downtrodden, but the eager anticipation of people whose lives were suddenly filled with promise and possibility.

“Freedom is in the psyche, not in the bread,” writes Irving Greenberg in The Jewish Way, his engrossing book on Judaism and the Jewish calendar.

The difference between slavery and freedom is not that slaves endure hard conditions while free people enjoy ease. The bread remained equally hard in both states, but the psychology of the Israelites shifted totally. When the hard crust was given to them by tyrannical masters, the matzah they ate in passivity was the bread of slavery. But when the Jews willingly went from green fertile deltas into the desert because they were determined to be free, when they refused to delay freedom and opted to eat unleavened bread rather than wait for it to rise, the hard crust became the bread of freedom. Out of fear and lack of responsibility, the slave accommodates to ill treatment. Out of dignity and determination to live free, the individual will shoulder any burden.

That isn’t the only message conveyed by the matzah at the Seder.

The traditional Passover meal is the most widely observed ceremony in Jewish life. Though the Haggadah is long and the rituals may seem archaic, though pre-Seder preparations can be exhausting, an estimated 70 percent of American Jews attend a Seder every year. At all of them there will be matzah, and an invitation to share it: “This is the bread of affliction. . . . Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Does it not seem odd that this traditional expression of hospitality is voiced not when the elaborate Seder meal is on the table, but much earlier, when there is nothing but dry matzah on offer? The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the renowned public intellectual and British peer who passed away last fall, wrote once that he puzzled over this seeming incongruity. What kind of hospitality is it, he wondered, to ask others to partake of your “bread of affliction”? He discovered the answer in Primo Levi’s great book, Survival in Auschwitz, one of the very first published accounts by a survivor of the most notorious Nazi death camp.

Toward the end of his book, Levi recalled the frightful days of January 1945, when the Germans had fled the camp and the Red Army was advancing. Most of the prisoners still able to walk had been evacuated, dispatched on the brutal death marches westward. Only those too ill to move remained behind. For 10 days they struggled to survive on whatever scraps of food they could scrounge. Levi, having found some wood and coal, worked to light an oven and bring some warmth to his desperate fellow prisoners. He writes:

When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of 23, with typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed.

Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the [concentration camp] said: “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor.”

The offer to share bread “was the first human gesture that occurred among us,” Levi observed. “I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge [prisoners] to men again.”

Levi’s words, wrote Sacks, provided the explanation he had been looking for: Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings:

One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the Seder by inviting others to join us.

The bread of affliction and the bread of liberation are indistinguishable. It isn’t the matzah that changes. It’s us.

This article originally appeared in Jeff Jacoby's weekly newsletter, Arguable, which is sponsored by the Boston Globe.

Photo credit: Todd Rosenblatt

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