Talmud pages

Pesachim 42

Women's work.

If you’ve ever seen photographs of people making matzah in matzah factories, one of the things you may notice is that all the workers are men. And this is true of pictures of kids visiting matzah factories today, and it is also true of old black and white photographs taken inside matzah factories. And honestly, this fact may not strike you as strange — until you read today’s daf. Today’s daf discusses a number of the technical aspects to be aware of when baking matzah: 

Rava taught: A woman may not knead dough for matzah in the sun, nor with water that has been heated by the sun, nor with water collected in an urn heated by coals. And in addition, she may not remove her hand from the oven (i.e., interrupt her baking) until she finishes forming all the loaves from the dough, so that it should not become leavened in the interim. And she requires two vessels, one in which she mixes the water into the dough and one in which she cools her hands so that the heat from her hands does not cause the dough to leaven.

These laws ensure that the matzah dough remains at least tepid, if not downright cold. The point is to make sure that the matzah does not begin to ferment before it goes into the oven and the official time-keeping begins. But what I really want to note here is that the subject of these laws is a woman. Hebrew and Aramaic are both gendered languages, which means that verbs are conjugated differently depending on the gender of the person or object who is the subject. And like most gendered languages, the default when the gender of the person or object is unspecified is masculine. But here, the subject of these actions is explicitly and intentionally a woman. 

Today’s daf paints a picture in which women were the ones who made the matzah for their households for Passover. Or at the very least, it is women who do the kneading and the forming of matzot. So why do all those pictures of matzah factories only depict male bakers? It is certainly possible that photographers were mostly interesting in photographing the male workers whose visibly Jewish beards and payot made for a more recognizable photograph. But in fact, women’s participation in matzah-making has actually declined over the last two hundred years.

According to Jonathan Sarna, by the 19th century, making matzah by hand “had become a highly gendered process — men and women had different roles — and it was divided into a series of well-defined sequential steps.” Women were the ones who did the kneading and the rolling before a man poked holes in the dough, placed it on a long pole, and baked it. The first machine introduced into the process was an automatic rolling machine — and given the gendered division of labor, it put many female matzah makers out of work. 

With the rise of industrialization and the decrease of people making matzah in their homes, the work that remained was understood to be men’s work. Even today, when women work outside the home in a range of professions, the majority of matzah makers are men. 

Today’s daf is an important reminder to us that technology has a huge impact on our lives, gender roles and our performance of Jewish rituals. This was true in the time of the Talmud, where — in a world without refrigeration — water had to be used first thing in the morning to knead matzah, because later in the day it was too warm and fermentation would progress too quickly. It’s true today, when matzah-making machines have automated large parts of the process and few of us are making matzah by hand. And who knows what the technologic and halakhic future may hold!

Read all of Pesachim 42 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 2nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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