Parshat Pesach

Torah Reading for Week of March 25-31, 2018

“Matzah – A Bread with Many Meanings”
By Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew Language

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

At the outset of the seder, we declare the matzah to be לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, i.e. “the bread of affliction” or “the bread of poverty”. This term is an aramaization of the term the Torah uses in Deuteronomy 16:3, לֶחֶם עֹנִי. The identification of the matzah as a bread of deprivation and discomfort presents a potential paradox, as it seems we celebrate our freedom with its opposite, with a bread characterized by, and the product of, constraint. After all, the matzah is a simple bread that does not have the benefit of added ingredients or the time to rise. The fact is, however, that this is not a contradiction. The past Egyptian penury represented by the matzah is itself a reminder of our present freedom from Egypt. Likewise, the rush that precluded the rising of the matzah was itself the rush that facilitated our sudden and long-awaited escape from Egypt. This simple bread itself is an expression the opportunity for the nation of Israel to be free. With that in mind, here are a few alternative translations for לֶחֶם עֹנִי:


The Bread of Simplification – The Maharal explains that the bare-bones matzah represents the gift of simplicity. We are truly free when we are able to simplify our lives, to strip away what is extraneous. When we are unencumbered by concerns and priorities foreign to us, we can determine our own future. By being relieved of our dependence on material trappings and stripped of our preconceived notions about our selves, we become free to dedicate ourselves to divine service and to the needs of our souls.


The Bread of Cooperation – The Talmud in Pesahim 115a describes matzah as the kind of bread that can only be baked through cooperation. Since the matzah must be baked quickly, one person must keep the oven hot while the other prepares the matzah itself. Whereas normally it would be the constraints of poverty that would necessitate such cooperation to make an efficient use of cooking fuel, we find on Passover that cooperation is a goal in itself. The goals of the seder are met as a group. We achieve freedom from our own limitations with the help of our fellows.


The Bread of Conversation – Shmuel in Pesahim 36a and 115a interprets לֶחֶם עֹנִי as the bread that occasions answers. He bases this interpretation on the fact that the Hebrew root √עני can also mean to answer or respond. The bulk of the seder functions as a set of questions and responses meant to stimulate conversation about the exodus from Egypt and about our own personal potential for inner freedom.  The central mitzvah of the seder, to tell the story of the exodus to our children and to the child inside of us, is only accomplished through conversation and meaningful personal engagement.


The Bread of Song – Besides having its own set of meanings, the Hebrew root √עני can also represent the Semitic root √gh-n-y, meaning “to sing”. This is why the expression וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם (Ex. 15:21) is often translated as “and Miriam sang to them”. During the seder, we sing G-d’s praise over the matzah, and we sing out together of the hope and joy of togetherness and freedom.