Thou Shalt Not Forbid, IV Four-Inch Matzah

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Everybody “knows” that matzah can be made only from closely guarded wheat which was ground under strict supervision and baked into thin crackers. We also expect the hand-made matzah to be almost burnt, and we are aware of many observant Jews who would not eat “Gebrakht”, or wet matzah. There are even those who constantly sweep matzah crumbs from the table into bags to avoid their leavening. In a conversation I had with a colleague about this strange practice, he commented that God is surely very happy upon seeing his fervent believers keeping his commandments with such zeal. I concurred that if we could attribute human emotions to God, there we be some happiness there, but, again in human terms, it would be more like “yeah, my favorite sit-com is on”.

The obsession with matzah dryness, thinness, and ash-like qualities has become an economic burden and a social divider, even though it has been around only for three or four hundred centuries. Here is what R. Yaakov ben Hakham Tzvi Ashkenazi of Emeden, aka Yaavetz (1697-1776), has to say in his commentary to the statement of the Tur that one should not soak wheat before grinding it, as was customary in Talmudic time to make the grinding easier[i]:

The ruling of the Gaon [that one can buy commercial flour for matzah] is correct, and it follows the clear ruling of the Talmud that one could buy unleavened dough baked by non-Jews. There is only a requirement that the matzah eaten for the mitzvah of the Seder-night [מצת מצוה]will be guarded from the moment of kneading. Therefore, if one bought commercial flour and kneaded it for the sake of the mitzvah of matzah, he doesn’t need any other matzah… some Geonim were strict regarding soaking wheat, but that is only for מצת מצוה, and even that is an exaggerated stringency which goes against the Talmudic discussion which indicates that it is an obligation to soak the wheat… I therefore cannot fathom the great concern of the Magen Abraham[ii] regarding the ruling of a rabbi who allowed people to use commercial flour, and even demanded that the rabbi would fast and repent for his ruling.
Why do those who take a strict approach toil for no reason to forbid that which is permitted according to the Talmud? They would not even allow it at a time of need, and they demand atonement for nothing.

As history proved, the toil of the strict rabbis was not in vain. The exorbitant prices of supervised matzah, the anxiety of those who fear that their matzah will turn to hametz right there on the table, and the religious walls erected between people based on the fine print on their matzah packages, are all a result of the push for stringency.
In that context, it is interesting to read the following words of Shulhan Arukh[iii]:

If, on Pesah, one found a piece of bread at home, and he doesn’t know whether it is hametz or matzah, he is allowed to eat it.

מצא פת בפסח בביתו, ואינו יודע אם הוא חמץ או מצה, מותר אפילו באכילה

The Mishnah Berurah explains:

דין זה הוא לפי מנהג זמנם שהיו אופין מצות עבה קצת ולא היו חלוקין בתארם מככרות של חמץ
This law is in accordance with their practice of baking thick matzah which looked like hametz loaves.

R. Haim Mordechai Margulies (1780-1820) attests to that practice, and explains that the concern about wetting the matzah applies only to those very thick matzot in which pockets of unbaked dough can hide: [iv]

There is no concern [of unbaked pockets] with thin matzah… in places where they still bake thick matzah, the rabbis should warn them not to make them more than four inches thick.

To summarize the discussion so far, these are practices of baking matzah which were prevalent in our not too recent past:

  1. Soaking wheat in water to make grinding easer.
  2. Buying commercial flour for matzah baking, if other flour is not available.
  3. Requiring supervision from the moment of kneading the dough only.
  4. To be strict, one would require supervision from the moment of grinding.
  5. Matzah would be made very thick.
  6. Avoidance of making the matzah wet applied only to thick matzah.

The question should be raised: were there negative consequences to the triumph of the strict approach, despite the warnings of Yaavetz, or was he the short-sighted one?

Part 2

Yesterday I posed this question: Were there any negative consequences to the triumph of the strict approach [not allowing commercial flour], despite the warnings of Yaavetz, or was he the short-sighted one?

It would be difficult to answer the question objectively, since the results cannot be measured in clear-cut numbers, quantities, or phenomena, and are rather a matter of attitude. I, however, do believe that had other rabbis heeded the call of Yaavetz, they would have saved observant Jews a lot of trouble and heartache.

While the ruling of Yaavetz was not a call to drop all cautionary measures and use only commercial flour, he wanted people to understand the definitions of hametz and matzah for two reasons:
1. To allow them to rule for themselves in changing circumstances.

2. To eliminate the hametz-anxiety factor.

Unfortunately, Yaavetz’s attempts have failed and as a result, we look back at centuries of increasing anxiety around matzah consumption. The anxiety manifested itself in the decision of many observant Jews to not eat matzah on Pesah [except for the first two nights], the war against the matzah-baking machine [which originally was no more than a dough flattening device], many years of inability to have matzah in the Soviet Union, exorbitant prices for “extremely kosher” matzah, the fear of getting the matzah wet [which also ruins the Seder and does not let one enjoy any meal], and ridiculous articles in the papers about the black-clad Hassidim watching over parched wheat fields in the driest parts of the U.S. We can just imagine the next generation of wheat grown on waterless diet under umbrellas.

In that context, it is worthwhile to present another famous and “daring” ruling of Yaavetz regarding Pesah, where he explains why were people baking very thick matzah. It was, you guessed it, the disastrous result of another “strict” practice[i]:

אי איישר חילי, אבטליניה למנהג גרוע הלז, שהיא חומרא דאתיא לידי קולא, ונפק מנה חורבא ומכשול (תחת אשר חשבו להתרחק ממנו מרחק רב) באיסור חמץ גמור! כי מתוך שאין מיני קטניות מצויים להמון לאכול ולשבוע, צריכין לאפות לחם מצה הרבה. בפרטות העניים ומי שבני ביתו מרובים, ולא יספיקו להם תבשילים הרבה לשבר רעבונם, מוכרחים על כרחם להספיק להם מצה די לחמם לביתם וחיים לנערותם. מתוך כך אינם נזהרים בעסה כראוי וכחובה, עושים אותה גדולה הרבה ושוהים עליה מאד, וקרוב הדבר שנכשלים באיסור כרת, רחמנא ליצלן. גם המצות עומדים להם ביוקר, ואין יד כל אדם משגת לעשותם די הצורך לבני ביתו… וקטניות נמצאים בזול בלי טורח ובהתר. ואתו לאמנועי משמחת יום טוב, בסבת חומרא שאין לה טעם וריח! לכן אשרי שיאחז צדיק דרכו, יתן אוכל למכביר ונפץ את עלולי החומרות הזרות אל הסלע

If I were able, I would abolish this terrible practice, which is a stringency that leads to a leniency. It is destructive and (instead of guarding themselves from it, as they have hoped) it causes people to stumble with the prohibition of consuming genuine hametz! Because the masses are not permitted to consume legumes, which would have sustained them and satisfied their hunger, they must bake large quantities of matzah, especially poor people and those with large families, who cannot afford meat and vegetables, and they need to rely on matzah as their daily bread. They therefore make large batches of dough [also: thick matzah] and they are not careful to bake it as necessary. Those people probably transgress the prohibition of not eating hametz.
[Commercial] matzahs are also very expensive and many people cannot afford buying them for the whole family, while legumes are cheap, and can be easily and permissibly bought.
They lose the joy of the holiday for a stringency which has neither flavor nor fragrance [i.e. meaningless.]
Blessed be the righteous man [who will permit the consumption of legumes on Pesah], will provide food in abundance, and will smash on the rocks the consequences of these alien stringencies.

The last sentence of Yaavetz is very powerful and it shows his frustration with the “stringent” practices which flourished around Pesah. He laments the fact that the rabbis do not look beyond the immediate halakha and do not assess the long-term consequences of their “strict” ruling. He does not only call for the abolition of the practice, but also for that of its “alien consequences”.

He emphasizes the importance of seeing the whole picture, and also uses a Hebrew term החומרות הזרות which resembles the term עבודה זרה- idolatry. In other words, he believes that those who choose to add prohibitions to the original requirements of halakha are practicing paganism.

It is a dire warning to all those who pile stringencies upon stringencies to stop and think whether they adhere to the intention and will of the Giver of the Law, or maybe they are erecting an altar upon which they worship alien gods, the embodiment of their own fears and anxieties.

[i]מור וקציעה סימן תנג: תשובה דגאון מתקנתא היא, אתיא שפיר אליבא דהלכתא כפשיטותא דגמרא דבצקות של גוים אדם ממלא כרסו מהם, ולמצוה הוא דלא נפיק עד דעבד שימור מלישה ואילך. הילכך אם לקח קמח מן השוק ולש אותו תו לא צריך למצה שמורה אחרת כמ”ש הרא”ש בפשיטות. והטור בודאי קאי ליה בשטתיה דאבוהי מסתמא, דלענין דינא לית בה ספקא. אלא שגאונים אחרים החמירו בלתיתה למצת מצוה בלבד, ואף זו חומרא יתרה היא נגד סוגית התלמוד דמסיק מצוה ללתות במצה דמצוה ורבא קבע בה מסמרות כדאיתא התם, אבל למלא כרסו מבצקות דגוים לית דין ולית דיין, דשרי אף לכתחלה ואצ”ל ליקח קמח מן השוק שלא בשעת הדחק, עאכ”ו בשעת הדחק, שאין בו בית מיחוש.
מעתה לא ידעתי מה החרדה הגדולה אשר חרד עלינו במג”א בהוראת חכם אחד שהורה ליקח קמח מן השוק, ושוב גזר תענית על שגגתו. ולא ירדתי לסוף דעת המחמירים הללו דטרחי בכדי במ”כ, לאסור את המותר מדעת חכמי התלמוד לכתחילה, ואתו אינהו וגזור תעניתא אף לדיעבד ושעת הדחק, כפרה בכדי לא אשכחן
[ii] R. Abraham Abele Gombiner, famous for his commentary on Shulhan Arukh, 1635-1682.
[iii]שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות פסח סימן תמו סעיף ד
[iv]שערי תשובה סימן תסא
וכבר כתבתי שהדבר שמואל כתב שברקיקין אין חשש נפוחה וכן נוהגים עתה שלא לדקדק כלל במצות רקיקין רק כשרואה האופ’ בביאת המצה לתנור היא מנפח ועולה כדרך עוגות חמץ והם בקיאים במעשה ידיהם להכיר אי הנפוח מחמת חימוץ או לא אך במצות עבות קצת יש ליזהר ולדקדק בחילוקים שנזכרו בפוסקים ובמקומות שאוחזין מעשה עבות בידיהם מוטל על המורה למדרש בפרק’ שיזהרו שלא תהיה עבה טפח

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