Torah Sermons Listed by Parsha
Thoughts on Current Events
Explanation of Jewish Customs
Thoughts on Torah and Holidays
Rabbi Shmuel In The Press
Rabbi Shmuel's Biography
Ohev Sholom--The National Synagogue
Parsha Pesach

April 23, 2014

What is the Proper Shape for a Matzah
Shmuel Herzfeld
Pesach, Day 7, 5774

Many people were shocked by the news that came out right before Pesach: the number one matzah supplier in America, Manischewitz, had been acquired by Mitt Romney’s old company, Bain Capital.

The historian Jonathan Sarna, writes that the history of Manischewitz is “not an object of Jewish history but rather a metaphor for it.” [How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States, 1.]

Manischeiwtz was found in 1888 when Behr Manischewitz (a student of R. Yisroel Salanter) emigrated from Memel to Cincinati.

Behr Manischewitz was not the first to introduce machine made matzah. But he was the first to perfect it in America. Prior to Behr, the matzot were not uniform as almost every synagogue had their own matzah factory. But Behr’s Manischewitz Matzah through his innovations, marketing, and well-accepted piety quickly overtook the whole market. By 1920 Manischewitz was able to produce more than 1.25 million matzot every single day. They literally transformed the entire market and shipped matzot around the world making matzah an international food that was available all year round.

It is because of Manischewitz that the standard matzah became square. Prior to Behr Manischewitz the standard Matzah did not exist. Every synagogue made the matzah according to their own version and tradition, with uneven skills and results. Once Behr arrived, his expertise elevated and standardized the entire product and drove the non-cookie cutter matzah makers out of business.

I thought about Behr Manischewitz every time we baked Matzah in our shul this year. We had a lot of fun baking matzah. We put our hearts and souls into the baking process, but our matzot were definitely not square. A few were square. A few were circular. But most were just there. Existing in shapes I don’t even think have a name.

Let’s go back to Sarna’s image of matzah as a metaphor for Jewish history.

Does it matter that our shul’s matzah is not square or a circle? Should we be trying to square our matzot? Or does it not matter what shape our matzah comes in?

I think it does matter and ideally we should be trying to make our matzot into a square or into a traditional circle.

There is a great power to our entire community having a unified shape to our matzot.

Communal unity is a core message of our faith and especially of Pesach.

One of the main messages of all of our holidays and especially of the holiday of Pesach is that if an individual wants redemption then that individual needs to be part of a larger community. The path to spiritual redemption goes through community. Thus, in order to have communal redemption we need communal unity.

When we pray for redemption in our Mussaf service every day of chag, we say these words: “Our Father, our King, reveal the glory of Your kingdom to us swiftly. Appear and be exalted over us in the sight of all that lives. Bring back the scattered ones from amongst the nations, and gather our dispersed people from the end of the earth. Ve-karev pizureinu mi-bein hagoyim, u-nefutzoteinu kanes mi-yarketei aretz.”

We don’t say that bring me back, so I can be in Jerusalem. We say bring back all of our scattered brethren. The prayer is for a communal redemption.

This is the idea behind the concept of oleh regel, which commands us to visit the Har Habayit three times a year (Devarim 16); i.e. three times a year the Jewish people gather together as a community in Jerusalem in order to worship.

Pesach itself uniquely emphasizes the importance of community.

In the time of the Beit Hamikdash, the central ritual of the festival was the Korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb.

The Korban Pesach contains laws that emphasize the communal role of the ritual.

Thus, one verse states that the pascal lamb should be taken along with either our household or with our neighbor. “Veim yimat habayit me-hiyot mi-she velakach hu ush-kheino ha-karov el beito” (12:4). In other words, it ideally must be eaten in a communal setting.

This is further implied by the words, ve-shachatu oto kol kehal adat yisrael (12:6).

Rambam writes (Korban Pesach, 1:9) that this means:

“The Paschal sacrifice should be offered in three groups, as implied by Exodus 12:6 "And all of the congregation of the community of Israel shall slaughter it." Three collective terms are used "congregation," community," and "Israel." There should be no less than 30 people in each group.”

In other words we have a singular concept by Pesach that a quorum of 30 people—three times a minyan—is required to sacrifice the Paschal lamb.

So too, the halakhah requires us to register for the korban pesach in advance. We need to be part of a pre-registered group in order to partake of this holy food. Since no meat is allowed to be left over we ideally try to include as many people as possible in our pre-Pesach registration. The upshot of this is that an individual is strongly discouraged from having a group of only one person. As Rambam writes: (2:2):

When one individual sacrifices a Paschal sacrifice for himself alone, it is acceptable, provided he is capable of partaking of it in its entirety. As an initial preference, an endeavor is made not to sacrifice the Paschal sacrifice for the sake of one individual alone, for Numbers 9:12 states: "They shall offer it."

This tradition of eating the korban pesach in a group setting is retained by us through our tradition of eating a Passover Seder in a large group. Having a seder by oneself is strongly discouraged and this is why we open the Seder with the words, “let all who are hungry come and eat, kol dikhfin yeitei ve-yeichal.”

Thus, a central message of Pesach is that we need to be part of a community in order to achieve our full spiritual redemption.

Why is this the case? After all many people tell me that they prefer to find spirituality on their own, so why should we encourage them to join a community?

There are two primary answers to this question.

First, we can achieve a higher level of spirituality in a community. Our ceiling is higher and we can allow others to reach that ceiling with us.

The reading of the seventh day of Pesach is the az yashir song that the children of Israel sang after crossing the sea and witnessing the manifestation of Hashem at sea.

The verse states, zeh keili ve-anvehu, this is my God and I will glorify him” (15:2).
Rashi writes that God revealed Himself so magnificently at the sea that the maidservant at the sea was able to see God with more clarity than even the later prophets (ra’atah shifcha al hayam mah she-lo ra-u haneveim).

The maidservant on her own would not have been able to see God with such depth, but because she was part of the community, the rising tide elevated everyone and she was able to see God with even more clarity than even great prophets. It is possible that this is also because the great prophets were often loners, isolated from the community. By being a part of the community we will achieve a higher level of spirituality.

I just heard a story about this that drove this point home to me.

The shooting at the JCC and Senior Center in Kansas City was a tremendous tragedy. Even though the murderer tried to kill Jewish people, the three people who were killed were ironically not Jewish. The church planned a service for them and following the service they planned a communal lunch. When some members of the Jewish community heard about this luncheon they wanted to sponsor it. The church told them that it was for 4500 people. But they insisted. When they went to pay the bill the caterer told them there is no charge. The caterer said, “this is about community. We are all a part of this community and we are not charging.”

Being a part of a community elevates our spirituality.

Second, being a part of our community protects our spirituality from faltering. This is a technical law that we saw from the daf yomi last week (Beitzah, 16b).

In order to prepare from chag to Shabbat one needs to perform a ritual called eruv tavshilin. The ritual involves taking prepared foods and starting the preparation before the festival. One thereby demonstrates that the real preparation for Shabbat started before chag.

But what if a person forgot to do an eruv tavshilin? The Talmud tells us that certain rabbis would make an eruv tavshilin for the entire city. Shmuel’s father would make the eruv for all of Nehardea and Rav Ami and Rav Asi would make an eruv for all of Tiberias.

A person is thus protected spiritually by being part of a community.

But this is not only true in a technical legal sense. It is also true on a metaphorical sense.

Around six months ago I started doing the daf yomi for the first time in my life. It has been an absolute joy. One of the reasons why I love it so much and I so strongly encourage everyone to do it is because there is a larger community that I am a part of in studying the Daf Yomi. Knowing that I am part of a larger community of Torah study makes it harder for me to fall off of my goals and skip a day. It helps me reach my benchmarks and keep my learning focused.

Daf Yomi is not the only community wide Torah study available. One of the oldest and most traditional of community wide Torah study practices is the idea of studying the weekly Torah portion with Targum every week (shenayim mikrah va-echad targum).

Being a part of these larger international programs of Torah study will provide us all with protection against our Torah studies faltering and also with the inspiration to continue to study every day.
We are now in the period of the Omer. It is a period of 49 days from Pesach to Matan Torah at Shavuot. In order to fully accept the Torah on Shavuot we should make these 49 days about spiritual growth through communal Torah study. I encourage everyone to step up their commitment to Torah study.

So the message of Pesach is the most complete spiritual redemption can only come as being part of a community. Being a part of a spiritual community will provide us with spiritual elevation, opportunities, protection, and inspiration.

So why do we make our own matzah which is both a unique activity and also lacking the uniformity of the Manischewitz brand?

There is a dangerous mistake that some communities make with respect to this message of the importance of spiritual unity in a community.

In some communities the price for unity is conformity. A community should not confuse unity with conformity.

Recently a friend of mine spent a Shabbat in a Hassidic community. He said he had an amazing experience. He also told me that everyone dressed the same, kept the same schedule, and ate the exact same foods all Shabbat. This Hassidic town (from his perspective) demanded total conformity on every issue.

The challenge of a great community is for unity to not come at the expense of individuality.

One model of this is the Passover Seder. Sure there is unity at the Seder, but there is also a promotion of individuality. We encourage children to ask questions. We encourage each individual to see himself as though he personally left Egypt—chayav adam lirot et atzmo. A proper Seder is community intertwined with individuality.

The reading of the seventh day of Pesach is the famous song of the sea, Az Yashir.

Az Yashir has a famous question about it. How was it sung? By each individual or by the community? After all the verse says, “va-yomru leimor. Ashirah la-hashem. And they said, I sing.”

The point is that Az Yashir is both a communal song and an individual song. Az Yashir is an expression of Israel’s deep faith in God. It’s the verbal result of the people's first hand encounter with God's miracles. It is poetry and it reflects this ideal state of a community on the highest possible spiritual level reacting in a manner of deep connection to Hashem.

This pure connection to Hashem will need to make space for both community and for individuality. That is why az yashir keeps circling back to each of the singular and plural forms.

Going back to our metaphor.

As we baked the matzah, I encouraged everyone to cut away the edges in order to try and make their matzah into a circle or a square.

But that is just a suggestion.

Some people made triangles. One person made her matzah into a beautiful replica of the state of Israel. Some people made hearts. And you know what, they were all matzah. They were all kosher and they were all worthy of making a bracha over.

Sign Up for Weekly Torah Email!
Created by Elite Hosts 2003 - Rights Reserved by Shmuel Herzfeld.