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Fresh-Baked Matzah and the Spirit of Capitalism

Every spring, as Passover approached, my late father-in-law would reminiscence wistfully about what it was like in the old days, outside the Galician town where he grew up, when he helped his family bake their own matzah.  His parents, like most of the other Jews in the shtetl, lived from hand to mouth, and often had difficulty obtaining enough to eat. But Passover was different, he said.  After months of saving, his parents and siblings would bring their flour to a spot just outside town where they would join their neighbors and, in a carnival-like atmosphere, bake all the matzah they would need during the coming week.  My father-in-law’s own father even had the prestigious job of shoveling the dough into the oven. 

As I summon up a picture of the old days that I never experienced, I don’t regret having missed out on the hunger pangs, but I do feel the loss of the sense of community and am sorry that the technology of plenty has deprived us of the shtetl residents’ physical, tactile, and emotional closeness to Passover matzah, or for that matter to most of the other food we eat.  The capitalist economy and our urban and suburban lifestyles have distanced us from the raw materials that go into everything we eat, from home-made vegetable soup to the mysterious concoctions with which flight attendants supply us, and in advance of Passover most of us simply buy our matzah.  We might go for a box of perfectly square Manischewitz straight from a supermarket shelf, or, if we are feeling particularly pious, order the super-kosher handmade matzah at some $20 a pound (which lends new meaning to the biblical reference to matzah as the “bread of poverty”).  But even shmurah matzah comes in a neat cardboard box! 

In our post-industrial economy, religious products have become commodities, with major supermarkets treating matzah as a loss leader and Eucharist wafers—in the minds of some the very body of Christ—offered for purchase on the Internet (overnight shipping available).  In the 21st century, even the heartfelt celebration of our national freedom, the miraculous Exodus and the commencement of our service of the God who redeemed us, ends up conflating profit with prophet. 

But there has been something of an effort to turn back the clock, at least in Israel, where some individuals and communities, including my own, have set up small-scale matzah bakeries.  It takes about 20 minutes to transform our synagogue social hall into a matzah bakery, and little in the way of supplies: a folding table for the flour, a sheet of solid stainless steel to use as a work surface, wooden broomsticks to roll the still-soft dough into the metal and brick oven, and lots of throw-away plastic tablecloths to cover everything.  In the weeks leading up to Passover, the majority of the more than 200 families in our synagogue community in Beit Shemesh show up for three-hour baking sessions.  Several volunteers handle logistics, while a handful of us, deputized by the rabbi, serve as supervisors.  Our job is to make sure that the dough is prepared within the prescribed 18 minutes, that all the surfaces are perfectly clean between batches, and that the final product has been fully baked.  We have all been doing this for some 10 years, without anyone losing the taste for it.

My own family now feels closer than ever to the mitzvah of baking matzah.  The experience has helped to solidify our community, since it takes 15 or 20 relatives, neighbors, friends (and occasional strangers) working together to do the job right.  I enjoy helping to supervise the usual gang as they spar in friendly competition over who makes how much and how quickly, but I have also had the pleasure of helping to guide distant relatives and foreign students who gather once a year for the hands-on experience, and even a group of developmentally disabled teens and their counselors.

Please do not think of this practice as being in any way related to the smug and perhaps counterproductive local-food movement that allows Westerners with huge carbon footprints to assuage their guilt by paying too much for organic Brussels sprouts at a farmers’ market.  Even here, we don't succeed in dropping off the capitalist or technological grid entirely, or make any real effort to do so.  We use top-quality stainless steel, and each of the solid metal rolling pins costs in the $100 range.  Money changes hands, with synagogue members and non-members both paying a fee to use the facilities, and the project serves as an important synagogue fundraiser.  Our rabbi loves his laser thermometer, which from a distance of several yards can tell the exact temperature of each spot in the oven at any given moment.  We just want to have a bonding experience with our kids and friends while making Passover more fun, more meaningful, more personal, and maybe just a bit tastier. 

By the time this practice started, my father-in-law was too frail to take over his own father’s job of operating the oven.  But I do hope, as he stood rolling the specially designed matzah-dough-hole-puncher, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, that he felt something had come full circle.  Ma’aseh avot siman labanim, “The deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons.”  He was imitating his own parents by building family and community around active, hands-on participation in a mitzvah.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel.  He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

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Michael on March 19, 2013 at 8:58 am (Reply)
The gratuitous dig at locavores (many of whom are undoubtedly motivated by the same desire to recreate community around food that you articulate here) detracts from an otherwise nice treatment.
    Yoel Finkelman on March 19, 2013 at 10:43 am (Reply)
    Fair enough, Michael. My apologies to the locavores.
Akiva on March 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Reply)
Dr. Finkelman,

I would like to contact you to see if this is something that I can do (with a group of course). Do you have time to talk on the phone anytime soon?

Yoel Finkelman on March 19, 2013 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
Feel free to be in touch at first name dot last name at gmail
Jeff Secunda on March 20, 2013 at 1:47 pm (Reply)
Leshem Matzah Mitzvah!!!
- from an old Bostoner.
groinem on March 21, 2013 at 5:55 am (Reply)
Many Rabbis (including the Boruch Ta'am) used to express themselves "when will they invent a machine for this?". There are so many halachic pitfalls that we should be grateful for the new system we have nowadays. I am sure our ancestors, who were doing the best they could under their circumstances, were doing the right thing. But in our days when we have much better kashrus options, it does not seem right to give up on those halachic advantages for the sake of community.
Go make a basketball team or a group charity game.
    Yoel Finkelman on March 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm (Reply)

    An odd approach to halakhah, to say the very least.

    In every halakhically meaningful way,the products produced in our local matzoh bakery are absolutely a fine fulfillment of the mitzvah of eating matzoh. In part, this is because we already keep various stringencies that the greats of the past -- you know Rambam, Ramah, R. Akiva -- could not have imagined since they did not have things like running water, paper towels, stainless steel, plastic sponges, or the like. And, we can be sure that the matzoh is made lishmah (for the sake of the mitzvah), because we do that ourselves. There is no halakhically meaningful way in which anything produced in our local matzoh bakery could possibly be construed as chametz.

    But you suggest that in order to fulfill another layer of previously unimaginable stringencies, we should give up on things like chibat hamitzvah (positive feelings about mitzvah), chinuch banim (educating children), building community, etc.

    In any case, we would never organize a basketball game because that would be bittul Torah. :-)

      groinem on March 22, 2013 at 5:57 am (Reply)
      An odd approach to Halacha? Doing the best you can with the resources in front of you is odd in your worldview?
      We have no information about how Matzos were baked in the times of those Gedolim you mention. We have a bridge in between us and them who have taught us exactly how we can do it. Ignoring it seems an unnecessary risk. The Divrei Malkiel has a list of his own methods of baking Matzos which seem stricter than those practised in today's bakeries.
      How did you take care of "Bayis asher lo husak", "Pi HaTanur" that are not in the focus of the average layman. Ask any bakery that has chaburos of Talmidei Chachomim and Machmirim coming to his bakery with minimal knowledge of the logistics of baking Matzos.
      This is analagous to a father deciding to write his Barmitzva boy's Tefilin himself because of chibuv hamitzvos. Imagine how those Tefilin would look.

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