Passover is upon us, and for the next week, Jewish homes throughout the world will be filled with the familiar and unmistakable sound of crunching matzah, as a virtual symphony of consumption of unleavened bread is performed with gusto.
Flakes will fly, as small pieces of matzah flutter through the air, showering our dishes, cutlery and glassware with a thin layer of crumbs, each one unique as a snowflake, perhaps to remind us somewhat vividly of our own individuality.
But amid all the chomping and chewing, it is easy to forget the powerful symbolism of this simple food, which for millennia has served as a tangible and edible link to our collective past as a people. That would be a shame indeed, because in its very essence, matzah has much to say to the modern Jew.
As children, we are taught in basic terms that matzah is eaten on Passover to commemorate the haste with which the Jewish people left Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus (12:39).
As we mature into adulthood, additional layers of meaning are embedded into our consciousness, with matzah often portrayed both as lechem oni, the “bread of affliction,” as well as a symbol of freedom.
The masters of Musar, Jewish ethical thought, frequently invoke matzah and bread as imagery representing the vast gulf between humility and arrogance, while the Zohar, the primary book of Kabbalah, refers to it as “food of faith”.
But looking through the prism of Jewish history, and particularly the trials and tribulations that befell our ancestors in exile, I would like to suggest that matzah also embodies another important trait, that of Jewish defiance, determination and heroism.
From the Inquisition to the Holocaust, the direst of circumstances did not deter Jews from forgoing bread and eating matzah at Passover, even at the risk of torture or death.
With unbowed pride and an unbroken spirit, Jews insisted on defying their tormentors in the only way they could, by clinging tenaciously to the commandment to eat matzah.
Take, for example, the Bnei Anusim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”), the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret down through the generations.
The Inquisition, which hunted down these crypto-Jews with a frightening mix of zealotry and cruelty, frequently put on trial people they suspected of observing Jewish customs, and burned those found guilty at the stake.
Nonetheless, the archival records of the Inquisition are filled with references to accusations against Bnei Anusim who secretly ate matzah on Passover and held covert Seders.
As Prof. David Gitlitz notes in his work Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews, Passover “was recognized both by crypto-Jews and their persecutors as THE Jewish festival.”
In 1678, nearly two centuries after the forced conversions, the tribunal of the Inquisition recorded that a woman suspected of being a Judaizer named Ana Cortes would “celebrate the Passover for seven days.” During the holiday, they noted, “she had to eat unleavened bread nor could she have any leaven in the house. And that she was to prepare little flat cakes on new brick and to cook them on the fire, and these were to be distributed among her relatives.”
IN MEXICO in 1649, a crypto-Jew named Pedro de Tinoco admitted that his grandmother had taught him about Passover. The records from his trial note, “He helped knead the unleavened bread,” and that his grandmother instructed him to eat it while reclining, which he did while putting the matzah “with some herbs and parsley in his mouth.”
One cannot help but read these accounts with admiration. Imagine the courage it required for a family living in the shadow of the Inquisition to risk discovery by holding a Seder, eating matzah and refusing to eat bread, all in an attempt to keep alive their covert Jewish beliefs.
If that is not a testament to Jewish valor, what is?
Even during the dark days of the Holocaust, we find accounts of brave Jews who went to incredible lengths to obtain matzah in the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe, resisting the Germans by upholding their faith.
An April 16, 2008 article in The New York Times told the remarkable story of Hadassa Carlebach, whose father Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, hid dozens of Jews in France from the Nazis, finding hiding places for 60 people in farmhouses outside Grenoble.
Carlebach described how as Passover approached in 1944, they had managed to obtain some wheat, which they wanted to use to make matzah. There was a communal oven in the village, but it was too dangerous for the Jews to venture out during the day for fear of being captured. “So in the middle of the night we went in, burned the oven to kosher it, and baked the matzah in a hurry,” she said, adding, “I was so scared, but we had one matzah per person for Passover with the wine that we made ourselves from raisins. Besides the danger, we celebrated with the sincere hope that we were going to be liberated.”
In our modern world, with matzah so readily and easily available, it is not surprising that we often take it for granted, with some merrily complaining about its taste, texture and occasional after-effects. But matzah is more than just a morsel of food. It is a transcendent item, one that transports us above and beyond time and connects us with our ancestors who left Egypt.
But matzah is also a symbol of Jewish resistance and faith, one that was sanctified down through the generations by the sacrifices made by countless Jews to observe the precept even at times of national calamity.
So when you bite into your bit of matzah and consider its meaning, it is worth taking a moment to remember those who came before us and the extraordinary efforts they made while yearning for the freedom and Jewish sovereignty that our generation is blessed to enjoy. For the matzah we eat is far more than just a crunchy delight. It is an annual reminder that even in the darkest of days, the Jewish people never can or should lose hope.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post