Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Finding Your Inner Matzah

March 31, 2011 3:09 pm 1 comment

Pesach is the one holiday on which Jews are required to become obsessed with food. This is actually a unique opportunity, since as modern Americans we usually do not have to think about where our food comes from or the far-reaching effects of our food choices. For instance, when I buy a hamburger, I don’t think about how the grain which fed the cow was grown on a vast monoculture farm using synthetic fertilizers. I don’t dwell on how the runoff from these fertilizers and the waste from the cow farm are creating an oceanic dead zone the size of New Jersey off the coast of Texas. I don’t even want to think about how my hamburger bun is made from those same grains. In short, most of us don’t usually analyze our food choices.

Which brings us back to Pesach.

On Pesach we are commanded not to eat any leavened bread or even to own any leaven (Shemos 12:15). Some people don’t eat any processed food during Pesach for fear that a small amount of leaven might have inadvertently entered the food production process.

But what is leaven exactly? The leaven of Pesach is yesteryear’s yeast, or as Henry David Thoreau described it in Walden, “[T]he soul of bread, the spiritus which fills its cellular tissue.” More accurately, leaven is yeast and bacteria in the form of a wet, bubbly mixture of flour and water used to make traditional leavened bread, or what we today refer to as sourdough. Coincidentally, the ancient Hebrew word for leaven is “se’or,” which sounds very similar to the word “sour.”

However, it is interesting that the yeast which ferments dough into leavened bread is basically the same yeast that turns grape juice into wine. Yet leavened bread is forbidden during Pesach, while fermented grape juice (i.e. wine) is an essential element of the Pesach Seder. (Indeed, the consequence of eating leavened bread during Pesach is spiritual excision, while drinking fermented grape juice at the Seder is a mitzvah from the Rabbis.)

As an avid fermentation hobbyist, having a deeper understanding of bread and wine helps me understand this difference. Leaven is constantly bubbling as the yeast within it metabolizes the simple sugars in the mixture into carbon dioxide. Bread dough holds in these bubbles, and this is what causes bread to rise. On Pesach, we approach this air-filled bread as a metaphor for our own egos, while the flat matzah represents humility. There is a well-known phrase from the opening of Koheles: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (1:2) In Hebrew, the word for vanity (hevel) also means breath or breeze, emphasizing the connection between vanity and airiness. On Passover, we try to rid ourselves completely of any self-serving ego.

On the other hand, the winemaking process is a process of refinement. Yeast produces carbon dioxide bubbles during the wine fermentation process as well, but those bubbles escape. What remains is a cultured drink, much more complex and refined than the original grape juice. For this reason, our sages teach that the four glasses of wine we drink at the Pesach Seder are in memory of the four phrases of redemption that G-d used when taking us out of Egypt. Out of these four phrases, wine is especially connected to the fourth when G-d said, “I will take you to Me as a People.” The fulfillment of this level of redemption only came about at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event for which we had to prepare and refine ourselves.

Paradoxically, the same yeast affects both the bread and the wine, but engenders a totally different change. And perhaps this is the message. Our sages teach that we have a powerful energy within us, which naturally pushes us in the direction it wishes to go. If we feed into it, we end up with a bloated ego. If, on the other hand, we use this energy for our own self-refinement, we develop fine character traits and we merit that the Torah should be given to each one of us personally.

This message is fitting when we look deeper into the role of leavened bread and the chagim.

If bread is bad and represents an inflated ego, why does the Torah require two loaves of leavened bread to be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuos – only 50 days after Pesach? Because Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah, which corresponds to the fourth phrase of redemption, “I will take you to Me as a People.” On Shavuos, the bread is synonymous with self-refinement to the point that even the ego itself has been refined and is now used for holiness.

This Pesach, may we experience our own personal redemption from any and all parts of ourselves which hold us back from achieving our full potential. May our personal redemption lead to the full and final collective redemption of our people with the coming of Moshiach very soon.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Food Spirituality/Tradition ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah

    ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah – Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’

    Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’ – There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one? In their newly published book The Ambassador, authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner — who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary and adviser to […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Lifestyle A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A unique group of young fashion bloggers and designers recently visited Israel to learn more about the country’s fashion industry and diverse culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Korea, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the 10 participants toured the country and met with top Israeli fashion designers throughout last week. “It was an amazing experience,” said Meissene Maghni from Toulouse, France — one of the participants of the program. “I’m Muslim and I really wanted to see Israel […]

    Read more →