Eating Matzah At the Seder

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

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Therefore, the matzah-like product made with flour and apple juice that is called "egg matzah" or matzah ashirah (rich matzah) is not subject to leavening, just "rotting," and is theoretically acceptable for Passover use. Widespread custom, however, rejected its use. The Ashkenazic (East European) authority, R. Moses Isserles (known as the Rema), however, is wary of this permission and gives the custom legal force:

"Eggs and other liquids are all considered like fruit juice (which lead to rotting, not leavening). Rema: But in our communities, we do not knead (matzah) dough with fruit juice... And one should not change from this unless in a time of emergency for the sake of a sick or old person who needs this" (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 462:4).

The Ashkenazic restrictions on use of "egg matzah" are usually printed on the box. Even according to Sephardic (Mediterranean) practice, however, one cannot fulfill the obligation to eat matzah at seder with "egg matzah." First, the obligation must be fulfilled with real matzah, and real matzah must have the potential to leaven, which egg matzah does not. Second, the command is to eat "matzah, the bread of poverty" (Deuteronomy 16:3) and not egg matzah, which is also known as rich matzah.

An additional concern comes from the Torah's command, "You shall watch the matzot" (Exodus 12:17). This is understood by the midrash as "watch it so that it does not become unfit" (Mekhilta Pischa 9), that is, it should not be allowed to leaven. When one begins to watch the dough is a matter of some controversy. The earliest sources assume that the watching begins with the kneading of the dough. The common practice today is to watch the flour from time it is ground. Most commercial matzah is watched from the time of grinding.

The most strict approach, however, is to watch the grain itself from the time it is harvested.

"[Rava] said to those who were turning over the sheaves of wheat (during the harvest): 'When you flip them over, do so for the sake of the mitzvah.' From this we can reason that watching is required initially from the beginning to the end" (Bavli Pesachim 40a).

Matzah made from flour ground from grain which has been watched since harvest is called shemurah matzah (watched matzah). Many Jews choose to use shemurah matzah, especially hand-made shemurah matzah, for fulfillment of the obligation to eat matzah at the seder.

Who is Obligated to Eat Matzah?

The eating of matzah is a positive commandment (as opposed to not eating hametz, which is a negative commandment) that takes place at a specific time. There is a general rule in talmudic literature that women are exempt from positive commandments that take place at a specific time (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7). Indeed, women are exempt from reciting the shema, wearing tefillin (both in Mishnah Berakhot 3:3), sitting in the sukkah (Mishnah Sukkah 2:8), shaking the lulav, blowing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit (all three in Bavli Kiddushin 33b).

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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.