Posted in Being Jewish in Toronto, Life

Thursday Thirteen – 13 Things you needed to know about Passover and Matzo!

I just spent the better part of 2 weeks talking about Matzo, Passover and the dietary restrictions during the holiday and the rest of the time and I realized that a lot of the information I was giving may not be factually correct. 

I figured the best way to be sure would be to read up on the main questions that were asked of me and in doing so realized I could whip the answers into a Thursday Thirteen and have it on file for eternity on this thing we call the Internet. 

This post is for Jew and non-Jew alike…

So sit tight, hide the chomitz, break out that 3rd and 4th set of dishes and let’s get ready to be educated.

13.  Matza, Matzo, Matzah… Which is it? –  It’s whatever you want it to be, actually.  There is not proper translation to English from Hebrew and the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, spells it as matzo, matzah, matso, motsa, motso, maẓẓo, matza, matzho, matzoh, mazzah, motza, and mozza. The plural is any one of; matsot, matsoth, matzot, matzoth, matzoths, mazzot, and mazzoth.  Or, as I tended to refer to it during the 8 days of Passover, “it’s like a giant cracker”.

12.  Is it mandatory to eat Matzo during the 8-days of Passover?  Matzo represents unleavened bread and is  traditionally eaten by Jewish people during the holiday of Passover because bread and other food which is made with leavened grain is forbidden according to Jewish law during the holiday – more on that later.  Matzo is NOT required, during the 8 days however it is eaten as an obligation during the two seders on the 1st and 2nd night of the holiday.  

Growing up, during the first seder, my uncle would eat the matzo required and announce this was the 2nd last piece he would eat all year, and on the 2nd seder he would proclaim that piece to be the last piece he would eat all year.

My wife keeps that tradition alive in our household.  

11.  Where do the references to eat this unleavened bread come from anyways?  Matzo is mentioned in the Torah several times in relation to the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt where they were slaves:

The commandment to keep Passover is recorded in the Book of Leviticus:

In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month between the two evenings is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord; seven days ye shall eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. And ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the Lord seven days; in the seventh day is a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. (Leviticus 23:5)

And they shall eat the meat on that night, roasted over the fire, and matzos, with bitter herbs, shall they eat it.
—Exodus 12:8
In the first month, in the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, you shall eat matzos, until the evening of the twenty-first day of the month.
—Exodus 12:18
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
—Deuteronomy 16:3
Six days you shall eat matzos and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God; you shall do no work therein.
—Deuteronomy 16:8
10.  Why matzo you ask – I said I would return to this question?  There are a plethora of explanations behind the symbolism of matzo depending on whether you are speaking with an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew.  So here is my view from the Reform side which I’ve been telling others since I was a wee little Conservative Jew.  Passover, as a commemoration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, saw the Israelites flee in such a hurry that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise; the desert being hot, baked the bread flat, hence we eat matzo to remind us of unleavened bread.
9.  How is matzo made?  What can be eaten and what cannot?  Not surprisingly, the precise detailed religious requirements for matzo are not universally agreed upon as there is an underlying disagreement in the Jewish community around what grains may be used during the holiday and which are considered chomitz (not suitable for Passover).
The Torah makes mention of five specific species of grain which become chomitz once they get wet and thus are not able to be consumed during Passover.
The actual species are not known with certainty, although they would necessarily have been crops that grew in the middle east in Biblical times.
1. Wheat
2. Barley
3. Spelt
4. Rye
5. Oats
Some sects of the Jewish community have performed some historic and botanical research and determined that the five grain species native to Israel should more specifically have been;
1. Durum Wheat
2. Two-row barley
3. Emmer
4. Einkorn wheat – or Shiphon
5. 6-row barley – or Shibbolet.
The process: Matzo dough is quickly mixed and rolled out quickly without allowing time for it to sit and allow for the yeast to rise.  In addition, the matzo is pricked with a fork (or similar tool) to keep the finished product from puffing up, and the resulting flat piece of dough is cooked at high heat until it develops dark spots, then set aside to cool and, if sufficiently thin, to harden to crispness. Dough made from the five grains is considered to begin the leavening process 18 minutes from the time it gets wet; sooner if eggs, fruit juice, or milk is added to the dough. The entire process of making matzo takes only a few minutes.

8.  Is Matzo fattening?  Matzo contains around 111 calories per 1-ounce/28g serving according to the USDA Nutrient Database),

7.  Do you have to eat Matzo dry as you just said getting it wet makes it chomitz?  Matzo does not have to be eaten dry, and it has several roles during the holiday.  As a substitute for flour or pasta it is found in matzo balls, cakes, cookies, fried, as noodles, in matzo bagels, cereals… The list grows by the year. 

6.  Matzos and Christianity:

According to Western Christian belief, matzo was the bread used by Jesus during in the Last Supper as there he was celebrating Passover.  Communion wafers used by Roman Catholics and some Protestants sects are flat for that reason.

5.   In a little more depth now, what is Passover – It is a Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish (lunar) calendar, which is in spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and is celebrated for seven or eight days. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.

The story of the Exodus from the Bible tells that G-d helped the Children of Israel escape slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plague upon the Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves; the tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born sons. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of G-d knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the name of the holiday.  It is said that the Israelites left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise (leaven). In commemoration, for the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason it is also referred to as “The Festival of the Unleavened Bread”.

4.   So what is this “Chometz”?  Chometz is somthing made from one of five types of grains mentioned above, which has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes. During Passover, eating, keeping and even owning chomitz is forbidden. 

Note: Baking soda and baking powder are NOT considered chomitz as they act as leavening agents by chemical reaction, not by biological fermentation.

The Torah commandments regarding chometz are:

  • To remove all chametz from one’s home, including things made with chametz, before the first day of Passover. (Exodus 12:15). It may be simply used up, thrown out (historically, destroyed by burning), or given or sold to non-Jews (or non-Samaritans, as the case may be).
  • To refrain from eating chametz or mixtures containing chametz during Passover. (Exodus 13:3, Exodus 12:20, Deuteronomy 16:3).
  • Not to possess chametz in one’s domain (i.e. home, office, car, etc.) during Passover (Exodus 12:19, Deuteronomy 16:4).

Some Jews use Passover as a spring cleaning and spend weeks before the holiday removing every crumb of chometz from their home.  As in our home, generally any item or implement that has handled chometz is put away and not used during the holiday.

3.  You do what to your dishes?  As a result of the rules to not consume chomitz, families own a 3rd and 4th complete set of serving dishes, glassware and silverware for use only during Passover. The 1st and 2nd sets of dishes represent dishes for dairy and dishes for meat but that is a whole different Thursday 13. 

There are some leeway in the rules, for example; Some chomitz utensils can be immersed in boiling water to purge them of any traces of chomitz that may have accumulated during the year while some families wash their year-round glassware and then use it for Passover under the presumption that glass does not absorb enough traces of food to present a problem.

2.  Tell me – briefly about the seder (also known in Christianity as the Last Supper).:

It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first two nights of Passover for a special dinner called a seder – derived from the Hebrew word for “order”, referring to the very specific order of the ritual.  The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special book called a Haggadah  The Haggadah divides the night’s procedure into 15 parts:

  1. Kadeish קדש – recital of blessing over, and drinking of, the first cup of wine
  2. Urchatzורחץ – the washing of the hands 
  3. Karpas כרפס – dipping of the Karpas in salt water
  4. Yachatz יחץ – breaking the middle matzo; the larger piece becomes the afikoman which is hidden by the leader of the household, found by the children for reward, then eaten.
  5. Maggid מגיד – retelling the Passover story, including the recital of “the four questions” and drinking of the second cup of wine
  6. Rachtzahרחצה – second washing of the hands
  7. Motzi מוציא – traditional blessing before eating bread products
  8. Matzo מצה – blessing before eating matzo
  9. Maror מרור – eating of the maror (a piece of horseradish)
  10. Koreichכורך – eating of a sandwich made of matzo and shredded or sliced maror
  11. Shulchan oreichשולחן עורך – the serving of the holiday meal
  12. Tzafun צפון – eating of the afikoman
  13. Bareichברך – blessing after the meal and drinking of the third cup of wine
  14. Hallelהלל – recital of the Hallel, traditionally recited on festivals; drinking of the fourth cup of wine
  15. Nirtzah נירצה – conclusion

The seder is replete with questions, answers, and unusual practices to arouse the interest and curiosity of the children at the table. The children are also rewarded with nuts and candies when they ask questions and participate in the discussion of the Exodus and its aftermath. Likewise, they are encouraged to search for the “afikoman” which is the piece of matzo which is the last thing eaten at the seder. Audience participation and interaction is the rule, so some seders last long into the night with animated discussions and much singing while others like our get finished quickly so we can eat and take the kids home to bed. 

1.  So aside from matzo, what do you guys typically eat during the 8 days of Passover?

Because the house is free of chometz for eight days, the Jewish household typically eats different foods during the week of Passover. Mostly meals centre around meat and eggs.  But there are other more traditional foods we eat and these include:

  • Matzo Brei – My favourite!  I take 2 matzo’s, 2 eggs and some water to soften.  Mix it around and fry it in a frying pan.  I top with jam and I’m good to go. 
  • Matzo cereal – Matzo meal boiled in water and often served with milk and butter
  • Matzo Kugel – A kugel made with matzo instead of noodles
  • Gefilte Fish – Poached fish patties or fish balls made from a mixture of ground deboned fish, mostly carp, pike and whitefish.  Either sweet or salt and pepper variety.
  • Chicken soup with a lot of Matzo Balls – Dense or fluffy ball-like matzo dumplings
  • Rice – customarily with saffron – Only eaten by Sephardic Jews.  Ashkenazi and Hasidic Jews do not consider rice kosher for Passover as a matter of interpretation.  Rice is not chomitz, but there is a concern that in storage, rice may have been contaminated with even one kernel of wheat or other grains. Those who eat rice inspect it carefully prior to cooking.  Crazy, eh?

Hope you learned something new.  If you have any further questions, post a comment and I can address it, or if you have a handy fact, or tip, I’d love to hear it.