Passover | Round or square matzah at the seder

I recently found myself bumping into my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters in our local supermarkets as we scanned and scrutinized (and, of course, sometimes complained about) this year’s “kosher for Passover” selections.  

Rabbi Raleigh Resnick

As we stock up on matzah and other Passover basics, I’d like to share a little background about matzah and its shape. It’s a bit technical, but enlightening — and could help you decide which box to choose for your seder table.

The Industrial Revolution brought all kinds of technological advances: Many tasks once performed by hand could be performed by newly invented machines. This presented an opportunity for the Jewish community: The baking of matzah by hand is a labor-intensive process, and a machine was invented to automate the process. To minimize waste and streamline production, the matzahs went from round to square.

This generated quite a controversy, with varying opinions (not surprising!).

There are two reasons one eats matzah:

1) As a substitute for leavened bread that we abstain from eating during the eight days of Passover. This is known as matzah peshuta, ordinary matzah.

2) To fulfill the Torah’s commandment to eat matzah at the seders. These are called matzot mitzvah, matzahs for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah.

The only requirement for matzah peshuta is that it be unleavened, baked in under 18 minutes. When machine-made matzah was first proposed, many rabbis opposed the notion, questioning whether one could be certain that no dough was stuck between the rollers, remaining there for longer than 18 minutes and thus tainting the subsequent batches.

In time, machines were improved and most rabbis felt that the machine matzahs were acceptable. Some authorities even said that they were preferable because machines don’t make mistakes.

With matzot mitzvah, the concerns were different. These matzahs needed to be baked lishma, with the intent that they be used for the mitzvah. When the matzahs are rolled out in the bakery, the matzah-makers declare that they are doing so with the intent of using the matzah for a mitzvah.

Those opposing the machine-made matzahs felt that a matzah made by machine cannot fulfill the requirement for intent. Those in favor felt that a machine is no different than a rolling pin.

Additionally, the Zohar (the kabbalistic “Book of Light”) teaches that the round handmade matzahs we eat at the seder are “bread of faith” and “bread of healing,” infusing us with a potent dose of energy that helps us cultivate a firm belief in God and gives our physical body the good health it needs to joyously continue our mission on Earth.

So what’s the bottom line? While machine-made matzah is no doubt kosher for Passover and perfectly fine to eat throughout the holiday, I recommend that you try to use the handmade matzah at the seder. This rustic matzah evokes a sense of history and authenticity, which greatly enhances the atmosphere at the seder and the blessings associated with it.

In 1954, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson launched a campaign to encourage and popularize the use of handmade matzahs. Today, it’s not a rarity to find them in your supermarket’s kosher for Passover section — one less thing to kvetch about as you  shop!

Raleigh Resnick is rabbi of Chabad of the Tri-Valley in Pleasanton.

Rabbi Raleigh Resnick
Rabbi Raleigh Resnick

Rabbi Raleigh Resnick is the spiritual leader and director of Chabad of the Tri-Valley in Pleasanton.