Eating Matzah At the Seder

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

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How Much Matzah is One Supposed to Eat?

During the seder, one makes two different blessings over the matzah. The first blessing is hamotzi ("…who brings forth bread from the earth"), which is recited whenever one eats bread, and which is obligatory at any festival meal. The second blessing recalls the particular obligation to eat matzah ("…who has sanctified us with the commandments and commanded us concerning the eating of matzah"). In general, when one is obligated to eat something, the standard amount is a volume equivalent to that of an olive, a k'zayit.

How should one fulfill this obligation to eat matzah? Hamotzi on other festivals is usually said on a whole loaf of challah, so on Passover should one eat the olive's-bulk of matzah from the top of the three matzot on the seder plate, which is still whole and is therefore analogous to a loaf? Or should one eat from the middle, broken matzah for the fulfillment of the obligation to eat matzah?

Joseph Karo writing in the standard code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, predictably requires a bulk of matzah equivalent to two olives:

"One washes one's hands and makes the blessing and takes the matzot... in hand and makes the blessings 'hamotzi' and 'on eating matzah.' Then one breaks from the top, complete matzah and the broken middle piece, both together... One eats an olive's bulk from each of them while reclining. If one cannot eat matzah equivalent to the bulk of two olives together, eat the one for hamotzi first and then the one [for the blessing] on eating matzah. Then one takes an olive's bulk of bitter herbs... and makes the blessing on eating bitter herbs and eats it without reclining. Then one takes the third matzah and breaks a piece from it to wrap with the bitter herbs" (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 475:1).

Modern authorities have debated whether the air pockets in matzah count toward measuring an olive's bulk, and most say that they do not. They also have debated about whether an olive's bulk is really the size of a modern olive, or whether it is actually the bulk of an egg. That makes a single "olive's bulk" equivalent to approximately two-thirds of a standard, machine-made matzah or the area equivalent to an average adult hand of hand-made matzah. In addition, modern authorities also define a time limit within which one should, ideally, consume the matzah.

Is All Matzah the Same?

In order for dough to become matzah, it must at least have the potential to leaven. According to the rabbis, leavening (himutz) only occurs when flour from the five grains (wheat, oats, barley, rye, or spelt) is moistened with water (by their definition). Flour that is moistened with wine, oil, honey, eggs, or fruit juice does not leaven; the fermentation that occurs is called sirchon (rotting). Despite the negative category name, sirchon is different leavening, which is the category with which the Passover prohibitions are concerned.

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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.