Is All Matza Created Equal?

Is there a difference between hand-made and machine-made matza?

The process of making matza has undergone major changes over the past 200 years, amid great controversy. In many ways, today’s matza market reflects uniquely diverse ways of producing this ancient food.

The Torah (Deuteronomy 16:3) conjoins the prohibition of consuming hametz (leavened bread) on Pessah with the commandment to consume matza, the unleavened bread whose meagerness and “incompleteness” recalls the impoverished slavery of the Israelites and their hasty exodus from Egypt. The sages derived from this conjoining that matza and hametz share similar physical qualities.

Matza became defined as grain flour which, when combined with water, could become hametz, but was made in a manner that prevents it from fermenting. As such, the flour in matza may only come from rye, oats, barley, spelt and wheat (Pessahim 35a). While wheat was historically given preference (OC 453:1), companies have recently produced spelt
and oat matzot which, because they are easy to digest and especially soluble, frequently better accommodate those allergic to gluten.

Many medieval authorities, followed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, believe that flour mixed exclusively with fruit juices or eggs (with absolutely no water) cannot ferment into hametz (OC 462:1). Many Sephardim follow this principle and therefore permit the consumption of “egg matza” (matza ashira). Ashkenazim, however, follow the ruling of Rabbi Moshe
Isserles that banned the use of fruit juices, either out of fear of the accidental inclusion of water or the belief that fruit juices may cause fermentation (462:4). Children and the elderly, however, may eat such matzot. If possible, one should consume regular matza on the Seder night, since the richness of “egg matza” does not properly reflect the “bread of affliction” (lehem oni) depicted in the Torah.

An intense and quick process was developed to bake matza, as the sages ruled hat any dough left unhandled for 18 minutes becomes fermented (459:2). Additional precautions were also used to preserve a cool temperature in the bakery, with the sages further declaring that the flour should only get mixed with special water that was chilled overnight (mayim shelanu).

While the prohibition of consuming hametz stands for all of Pessah, the biblical commandment of consuming matza (Exodus 12:18) exists alone on the Seder night (OC 475:7). The Torah dictates that one should “guard” these matzot (Exodus 12:17), which the sages understood
as a missive to provide additional supervision, beyond protection from hametz contamination. While some medieval authorities believed that careful supervision is only required once the flour becomes mixed with water, Rabbi Yosef Karo deemed that one should not rely upon this lenient opinion except in times of great need (453:4). (Most flour bought in contemporary stores has water contact during its production, rendering it hametz).

Some authorities required one to consume matzot whose production was supervised from harvest (shmura matzot), with others deeming sufficient supervision from the time the grains get milled into flour (matzot pshutot). Today, the former criterion is used for almost all hand-made matzot, while most (but not all) machine matzot receive the latter standard. Some people follow the strictest standard for the Seder night matzot, with others observing this standard for the entire duration of the holiday, as they deem matza consumption as a mitzva
(even if not obligatory) for all seven days (MB 453:25).

The sages further understood the requirement to “guard matzot” dictates that workers producing the matza should actively intend (lishma) that their actions fulfill a commandment (Pessahim 40a). This requirement rendered immature minors as ineligible to produce matza (OC 460:1). It further became the center of the halachic dispute in the mid-19th century over the propriety of using machines to produce matzot. Proprietors of these machines claimed that they would produce greater and cheaper quantities of matza while better preserving kashrut control over the laborious and meticulous process.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, along with several prominent hassidic rebbes, vociferously argued against this innovation, contending that its automation prevented any “mental” intent for performing a mitzva. They also claimed that the machines would destroy the livelihood of many laborers, who additionally provided better assurances of kashrut quality control. Prominent defenders of the innovation, led by Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, contended that the “intent” requirement only mandated consciousness of the mitzva, but did not necessitate physical involvement (koah gavra), and that in any case, humans started the process and maintained physical contact with the matza.

Many of the Eastern European opponents additionally feared that these innovations – the use of machinery along with the change from circular matzot to square matzot (which minimized waste and leftover dough) – might represent or lead to Reform antinomianism. Others dismissed these concerns, with machine-made matzot today understood as essential providers for cheap, high-quality matzot, leaving names like Manischewitz and Streits as hallmarks of the Pessah home.

The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.