The information below is only applicable for Passover 2020

Guarding Our Matzot, Personalizing Our Mitzvot

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

The late great Jerusalem posek, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, delighted in the various kinds of matzot brought by his children and grandchildren to the Pesach Seder. Some preferred the round handmade matzah from one particular bakery or another, while others favored square machine manufactured matzot. Whereas some might consider this preference a point of contention widely debated by halachic authorities, Rabbi Auerbach was very happy to see each of his offspring follow a particular position and preference, all within the legitimate parameters of halacha.

Matzah, one of the relatively simple foods that adorn our Pesach Seder, is, after all, made exclusively from just two ingredients: flour and water. At the same time, matzah is also the most complicated food, both halachically, with the particular way it must be processed, and in the myriad types of matzah available to consumers today.


One might think: What substantive differences can possibly exist between one matzah and the next? But distinctions have long existed between different kinds of matzot. While it is biblically mandated to “guard the matzah” (Shemot 12:17) from its exposure to water, which might commence the leavening process, early authorities have debated the point in time when the “guarding” must begin; at the point of harvesting the grain, from the milling of the grain, or only during kneading
the dough?

Standard matzah is guarded from the point of milling the flour. Shmurah matzah is guarded earlier,
all the way back to the harvesting of the wheat. The Shulchan Aruch states that while standard matzah is adequate for the rest of the festival, we should use shmurah matzah for the Seder night. Many use shmurah throughout the holiday as well. Under extenuating circumstances, regular (unguarded) flour may be purchased and baked into matzah following the most lenient position, provided that the wheat was not tempered (a process that involves wetting the grain before milling).


The Shulchan Aruch advances the position that the matzot used at the Seder should be baked on erev Pesach, after noon (the same time that the Korban Pesach was sacrificed). While poskim conclude that this is not a requirement, there remain some (particularly Chasidim) who maintain this position and who personally gather to bake their Seder matzah in the hours before the holiday. Other poskim have discouraged baking matzah on erev Pesach or on the holiday itself, because of the concerns associated with the potential of creating chametz at a time when it is already forbidden.


The Shulchan Aruch writes that the thickness of matzah may be up to a tefach (approximately three inches). Many poskim, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, have discouraged baking matzah thicker than the wafer-like cracker we have become accustomed to, because of concerns that the baking will not be thorough and the potential for chametz.

Still, some Sephardic communities have a tradition to use matzah that is thicker than a cracker but nowhere near the permitted tefach.


Until the mid-19th century the
manufacture of matzah had probably not changed much over the centuries. With the arrival of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, many traditionally manual processes were automated. In 1838 a French Jew by the name of Isaac Singer invented the first dough-rolling machine for matzah. That device was approved by many prominent rabbinic authorities in France and bordering Germany, including Rav Yaakov Etlinger of Altona.

The phenomenon of machine matzah moved eastward and in 1856 a Viennese baker established a commercial machine matzah bakery there. While this concept was endorsed by illustrious rabbinic personages such as the Lemberger Rav, Rav Yosef Shaul Natanson, it was also met with fierce opposition by renowned leaders like Rav Shlomo Kluger of Brody and Rav Chaim Halberstam of Sanz.

The opposition centered around a number of issues: 1) could the equipment be sufficiently cleaned every eighteen minutes as should be required for matzah?, 2) many poor people, who earned their livelihood from matzah baking, would be replaced by the machines, and 3) matzah for the Seder night needs to be made li’shma, with special intention to be used for the mitzvah; how can good intentions be delegated to a machine?

The machine matzah proponents defended its endorsement arguing that 1) dough that is subject to constant motion will not become leavened (chametz) (see Shulchan Aruch OC 459:2). Therefore, the constant motion of the machine precluded the need to continuously clean the rollers in the machine; in fact, cleaning the machinery could be done equally as well or even better than many hand matzah operations, 2) the machine baked matzahs would enable mass production, lowering the price of matzah which would ultimately
benefit the poor, and 3) the matzah machines were no different than any other tool used in hand baking—like a rolling pin, the mitzvah intention of the operator was the key to making
the matzah li’shma.

However, even today some maintain that not only must the matzah be kneaded and baked by hand, but that even the milling process should be accomplished with a hand mill vs. a motorized mill.


As mentioned previously, dough that is subject to constant motion will not become chametz. Standard machine matzah may be baked on equipment without cleaning for hours on end. Mashgichim carefully watch for pieces of dough that may become lodged in immobile positions.

Others prefer machine matzah that has been processed in the traditional method in eighteen-minute intervals with full cleaning between. Those matzahs are referred to as eighteen-minute matzahs.


Because of the sensitivities associated with matzah baking, in the Shulchan Aruch the Rema states that it is admirable for a person to be attendant for the grinding of flour for his own matzah. Certainly, for subsequent stages in the process it is preferable if the individual can be personally involved. For this reason, many participate personally when their matzah is being produced.


Traditionally, matzah has almost always been produced from wheat. Halachically, any of the five grains—wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats—may be used to make matzah. With the growing popularity of baked products made with grains other than wheat, and particularly the desire or need
to reduce or eliminate gluten from diets, spelt and oat matzah have become popular.

The required checking of wheat against sprouting caused by moisture is a tried and true, generations-old procedure. Because spelt and oats have not been commonly used for matzah, there are no traditional examination methods for those grains. Therefore, some prefer to avoid spelt and oat matzah unless it is necessary for extreme dietary needs.

Since oats must undergo a debittering process usually achieved with heat, liquid, and/or chemical additives, they present additional challenges. In response, oat matzah manufacturers have designed a special, non-additive method to debitter the oats that are used for matzah. Some have also questioned whether our current oats are a different variety from those in the Bible, which would make them unqualified for matzah. The aforementioned Rabbi Auerbach assured that our oats are indeed the biblical oats mentioned in the Torah and may be used for matzah.

Certainly, where there is need, the consensus of halachic authorities is that spelt and oat matzah can be used in place of wheat.


As we grapple with the technological explosion of post industrialism, we are particularly challenged with the human experience engaging in our mitzvot. Many areas of Torah observance that were so connected to daily life are being delegated to others: separating challah, building the sukkah, binding the lulav, winding and knotting tzitzit, salting meat, roasting liver, grinding horseradish for maror, even preparing mishloach manot and the wicks for the Chanukah menorah—the list goes on and on.

Perhaps one of the unspoken concerns of those who discouraged the transition to machine matzah may have been over the depersonalization and delegation of matzah baking specifically, and by extension mitzvot in general.

The story is told of one of the great Chasidic leaders making his way by foot, bucket in hand, to draw water from the river for mayim shelanu (water left resting overnight required for matzah baking), which was at some distance from the town. One of the wealthy townspeople rode by in his carriage and offered the Rebbe a ride to the river. Responded the Rabbi, “I am headed to do a mitzvah. Why would I want to share the mitzvah with
your horse?”

The verse “guard the matzot” is expanded by our sages to “guard our mitzvot” (Yalkut Parshat Bo). Our approach to mitzvot should apply to all of the mitzvot of the Torah, which are a gift from Hashem. In our contemporary, stressed-filled lives, it may not be reasonable to personally perform all aspects of each mitzvah, as they once were historically. Nonetheless, as we celebrate Pesach, we can hopefully still appreciate and engage in the beautiful mitzvot with our human involvement and personal touch as much as possible. The mitzvot of the Torah are intended to fulfill the verse, “And to cleave to Him” (Devarim 11:22). By engaging in the mitzvot in a personal way, we truly engage our Creator.

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

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