Handmade shmurah matzah is making the rounds

Handmade shmurah matzah is all the rage, and by the time you read this, Costco and Whole Foods and even some of the smaller markets that carry it probably will be completely out.

“Costco in Novato has carried shmurah matzah the past two years — 110 pounds of it — and they sold out early both years,” said Chabad of Novato’s Rabbi Menachem Landa. “I just called to see if they could get some more. They said no, but promised to triple their order next year.”

Not to worry — you can still get some in time for Passover, which begins on April 3 this year.

Landa said the Chabad-Lubavitch movement will distribute an estimated 4 million handmade shmurah matzahs worldwide this year. Locally, more than 40 Chabad rabbis in the greater Bay Area are distributing it, said Rabbi Yosef Levin, executive director of Chabad of the Greater South Bay in Palo Alto.

What exactly is shmurah matzah?

It is “guarded” matzah, made from wheat watched carefully from the moment of harvest, throughout transportation to the mills and during the milling process. The flour is guarded as it travels to the matzah bakery and there, once the flour and water are mixed by hand, every precaution is taken to assure the baking process is speedy, with no opportunity for leavening.

Handmade shmurah matzah cooks very quickly — only 15 to 30 seconds according to Rabbi Moshe Langer of San Francisco.

“The whole process, from the water touching flour until out of the oven, is five minutes or less,” Langer said. “The oven is super hot and the matzah is thin.”

Machine-made shmurah matzah also is available, but local rabbis say it is not popular in the Bay Area.

Much of the handmade shmurah matzah sold here is baked in wood-burning brick ovens in Israel, Montreal, New York or Ukraine. The matzah is made with white, whole wheat or oat flour. The matzah is round, and much bigger than the familiar square, machine-made matzah. It ranges from about $15 to $26 a pound, depending on the type of flour, with between nine and 11 matzahs in a pound.

Who buys it? Levin, who first distributed shmurah matzah in 1980, said the customers are an eclectic group. “We sell about 400 pounds a year to a cross-section of people, and that includes people who are not that observant, but Pesach means a lot to them,” he said. “I’d say three-quarters of the people who buy from us do not identify as Orthodox.”

Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Noe Valley and his son Shmuli photo/courtesy chabad of noe valley

Interest in handmade shmurah matzah has grown steadily in the past 10 years or so, according to Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley. “It’s a beautiful idea. One reason it has become more popular is that it is a more authentic experience,” he said. “Shmurah matzah is the oldest recipe in Jewish history, and when we eat it, we are celebrating all the symbolism and rich meaning of that.”

Potash prefers — and distributes — shmurah matzah made in Ukraine. “I find it very significant, very moving, when you consider that Ukraine was once a place where the celebration of Judaism was against the law,” he said.

Langer also prefers the Ukrainian matzah, ordering it from a distributor in Brooklyn, New York. “I think of this matzah as a spiritual homeopathic remedy that nurtures our faith,” he said, adding that Chabad of San Francisco will be giving out 70 or 80 pounds of it in small gift boxes.

Levin said shipping hand-made matzah across the country is a delicate operation. If not handled carefully in transit, the matzah can look more like matzah meal upon arrival. Levin said he now uses a supplier who ensures “the pallet arrives exactly as it leaves Brooklyn, and now the overwhelming majority of the matzot are whole.”

Last year, Rabbi Moshe Fuss of Chabad of Fremont ordered whole wheat and regular handmade shmurah matzah from Israel. This year, he went with a smaller bakery in Montreal. Several rabbis noted that though some shmurah matzah is baked and packaged as early as October, it will “crisp up” with a few minutes in the oven before serving.

Regardless of the source or the type of wheat preferred, Fuss said that eating handmade shmurah matzah helps strengthen the Jewish community. “It’s another way to connect with what happened in Egypt, and now we’re going through a tough time too, with all the anti-Semitism in the world,” he said.

“When families band together at Pesach, this is a way to spread kindness, to strengthen and embrace who we are and to celebrate what beautiful things Judaism brings to society.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.