Religion & Beliefs

Bread of Hope

Click here for the audio version.  Click here for the podcast.  Last week, we ventured into the mysterious terrain of the Leviticus sacrificial cult and its possible modern application. This week, we are delving deeper into the small print of … Read More

By / March 30, 2007

Click here for the audio version. 

Click here for the podcast. 

Last week, we ventured into the mysterious terrain of the Leviticus sacrificial cult and its possible modern application. This week, we are delving deeper into the small print of the priestly procedures, focusing on one element that has a lot to do with the upcoming holiday of Passover: the mysterious matzah. Passover is a product of an elegant evolution. Today it is an elaborate feast, but Passover started around 2,000 years ago as a ceremonial BBQ conducted outdoors under a full moon, with greasy hands, freshly slaughtered lamb and quick words of praise. We may have lost the BBQ but we did retain some of the key ingredients, including a carbohydrate much loved, loathed, and possibly lost in translation. What is interesting about this week's Torah episode, Tzav, is that it shows us how matzah was not exclusively reserved for Passover. Rather, matzah was a sacred food associated with priestly privilege and with the boundaries of what is “kosher” or “holy” all year round.

Chapter Six in Leviticus describes the procedure of the “gift offering,” a donation of flour or grain handled by the sons of Aaron, the high priest. Verses Seven and Eight describe what they did with the leftovers:

“What is left of the offering shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes in the sacred precinct, they shall eat it in the enclosure of the tent of meeting… It shall not be baked with leaven."

The Hebrew word for “unleavened cakes” is “matzot,” translated elsewhere as “bread without yeast,” “unleavened bread,” “flat baked goods” or “holy things.” Basically, it refers to a type of bread that does not undergo the natural process of “rising.” Matzot appear throughout Leviticus – a familiar item for several other sacrificial procedures that have nothing to do with Passover. So how did it become the food that is most strongly associated with this holiday? We know matzah from the story of the hurried escape from Egypt: it was the original fast food on the run. While this story may be true history or Judeo gastronomic mythology, it is also possible that the practice of eating this symbolic bread existed separately, as a way to honor life's sanctity and promote nutrition. The priests had to eat the leftover matzot at a specific time and place, much like our modern obligation regarding Passover. Symbolic and still unleavened, this is one tough cracker that made it into history and rose to the top of the Jewish food list – yeast or no yeast. Ultimately, matzah became an icon of potential, of hopeful possibilities yet to come.
It is the bread of hope. This Passover, as you take your first bite of this biblical bread, we invite you to take your time, appreciate the sacredness of the moment, the amazing history of what you are about to ingest, and the transmitted half-baked mystery that helps keep some nights more exciting and special than all others. Have a delicious and meaningful Passover!