Eating Matzah At the Seder

The bread of poverty has a rich history in Rabbinic literature.

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The holiday of Passover has a complex set of rules regarding what may be eaten. Since one is obliged to eat matzah on Passover, it is no surprise that much has been written about matzah, not only when to eat, it but how much must be eaten and who must fulfill this obligation. This article looks at a number of texts dealing with the intricacies of consuming matzah on Passover. To read the texts in Hebrew and English, click here.

When Is One Obligated to Eat Matzah?

The command to eat matzah appears ten times in the Torah. Nine times the command is for seven days, "Seven days shall you eat matzah" (Exodus 12:15). The tenth time, however, says, "Six days you shall eat unleavened bread" (Deuteronomy 16:8).lota matzah 

A simple and obvious statement of the law (which did not, however, become the accepted practice) is stated by the tanna (rabbi of the Mishnaic era) R. Shimon, originally in the Sifre Deuteronomy (a Tannaitic Midrash):

"Has it not already been said, 'Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread'? Then why does the Torah say 'You shall eat no leavened bread (hametz) with it'? When one is obligated to eat matzah, there is also a prohibition against hametz; when there is no obligation to eat matzah, there is no prohibition against hametz" (Bavli Pesachim 28b, cf. Sifre Deuteronomy 130).

The obligation to eat matzah and the prohibition against hametz are co-extensive. Since the prohibition against hametz is clearly for seven days, the obligation to eat matzah, according to Rabbi Shimon, also lasts seven days. This is also the approach of the apocryphal book of Jubilees, and is also the custom of the Karaites and the Samaritans, groups that broke off from the main body of the people of Israel. The most common rabbinic interpretation of the verse from Deuteronomy that prescribes six days rejects this early understanding:

"One verse says, 'Seven days you shall eat matzah,' and one verse says, 'Six days you shall eat matzah.' How can both of these verses be maintained? The seventh day was included (in the first verse) but then excluded (from the second verse). That which is excluded from a more inclusive statement is meant to teach us about the whole statement. So, just as on the seventh day it is optional (r'shut), so all the other days, it is optional. Does this mean that it is optional on the first night too? The verse 'In the first month, on the fourteenth day in the evening, you shall eat matzah' (Exodus 12:18) fixes it as an obligation (hovah) to eat matzah on the first night" (Mekhilta, Pischa 8).

According to this midrash, Deuteronomy refers to the first six days, and accordingly, the seventh day of the holiday has no obligation to eat matzah. But since there is no essential difference between the seventh day and any of the other days, the rabbis argue, what is true of the seventh day must be true of all of the days. Therefore, there is no general obligation to eat matzah throughout the holiday. On the other hand, the explicit verse from Exodus 12:18 does create a requirement to eat matzah on the first night. Outside of the land of Israel, Jews who observe two days of the holiday are rabbinically obligated to eat matzah at each of the seders, but not on the other days of the festival.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.