Lawrence Szenes-Strauss

The curious case of matzah ashirah

In Health, Holidays, Jewish legalese, Pesach on 29 April 2011 at 3:06 PM

Boxes of matzah have all sorts of interesting things written on them. Streit’s puts a message on its package telling consumers to “restore crispness” by placing the product in a warm oven, something I’ve never heard of anybody doing. (They also helpfully inform the consumer that the product must be removed from the box prior to the aforementioned recrisping maneuver, which is terrifying insofar as it implies that somebody once tried to heat up a cardboard box of Streit’s matzot in an oven.) Yehuda, which refers to its unleavened bread product “matzos” despite being an Israeli company, brags about the number of taste test awards it has received from the San Francisco Chronicle. (Incidentally, if you’re in a public space then you might not want to click on the Yehuda link without first turning off your speakers. What made San Francisco’s favorite matzah firm decide that their site should more closely resemble someone’s MySpace page?)

Stranger than both of these is the warning, found on certain types of matzah, indicating that most people shouldn’t eat it. Not much of a marketing strategy, right?
It turns out that this is part of a Jewish legal concern regarding matzah ashirah (“rich matzah”), the collective term for matzah whose dough is made with some liquid other than water. (Typical matzah is made with flour, water and nothing else.) The Shulchan Arukh, the 16th century legal code that provides much of the framework for modern traditional Jewish practice, states that it is acceptable for everyone:

מי פרות בלא מים אין מחמיצין כלל ומותר לאכול בפסח מצה שנילושה במי פירות אפילו שהתה כל היום אבל אין יוצא בה ידי חובתו מפני שהיא מצה עשירה וקרא כתיב לחם עוני

Fruit juice does not leaven at all, and it is permissible on Pesach to eat matzah that was kneaded with fruit juice even if it [the dough] rested all day, but one may not fulfill his obligation [to eat matzah at the seder] with it because it is rich matzah, and scripture says [in Deuteronomy 16:3] “bread of poverty.” (O.H. 462:1)

Now, the Shulchan Arukh was compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the land if Israel in 1563, and drew primarily on Spanish authorities. At around the same time, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Kraków was working on a similar project for Ashkenazi Jewry. He did in fact publish it under the title Darkhei Moshe, but his best known work is the Mapah, an inline commentary on the Shulchan Arukh. (“Shulchan arukh” literally means a “set table”; “mapah” means “tablecloth.”) [See the comments section for further clarification. ~L. Sz.-S. 4 May 2011] His comment in this section:

ובמדינות האלו אין נוהגין ללוש במי פרות … ואין לשנות אם לא בשעת הדחק לצרכי חולה או זקן שצריך לזה

But in these [Ashkenazi] countries it is not the practice to knead [dough] with fruit juice … and one should not change this practice except in an emergency to provide for the needs of a sick person or elder who requires it.

This is roughly what is printed on most boxes of egg matzah: a warning indicating that it is only suitable for Passover consumption by the sick and the elderly, and often children.* (The Shulchan Arukh in O.H. 462:4 mentions that for the purpose of this discussion, the phrase מי פרות, “fruit juice,” categorically includes other non-water liquids, such as eggs.) But why? The Mishnah Berurah, a commentary by the 19th and 20th century Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan,** offers that while most authorities hold that fruit juice does not cause flour to leaven, some are concerned that it might. He further adds that it is well accepted that when water and juice are added to flour, the mixture not only leavens but does so much more quickly than water alone.

It’s a peculiar explanation. During Pesach, chametz behaves like a highly controlled drug: not only is consumption illegal, but so are production and even possession. If there’s really a chance that making matzah dough with fruit juice (or eggs, or aloe vera gel, or whatever) will produce chametz, why even risk it? Rabbi Isserles speaks of an emergent situation involving a sick person, presumably because matzah ashirah is easier to digest, but so are many, many other foods that are not matzah and carry no risk of creating chametz. (Here’s a good general rule: if you are experiencing gastric distress of any kind, matzah, even special fruity matzah, is not the solution.) All authorities agree that matzah ashirah is insufficient to fulfill one’s obligation to eat matzah at the seder, and that’s the one time we’re explicitly required to eat it.

What’s more, nobody seems to buy that explanation today. Would the OU, an organization not known for leniency, really approve a box of matzah that might very well contain chametz? Of course not, but the OU’s seal of approval for Passover can be found on the Manischewitz box depicted above. In fact, it’s odd that the Mishnah Berurah, a work generally noted for its tendency to resolve controversies by adopting the stricter opinion, would treat the subject thus.

So what’s the real deal with matzah ashirah? I have no idea, but am open to your thoughts.

* I don’t have a box to check for the exact wording because I am not especially fond of egg matzah much too pious to keep such things in my home without a compelling reason.)

** Very few people, even those knowledgeable of Jewish law, would recognize the name “Yisroel Meir Kagan.” In Jewish circles there’s a peculiar habit of referring to the author of a prized religious book by the title of the book rather than the author’s name, and Kagan has the unusual distinction of being known by two noms de libre: the Mishnah Berurah and the Chafetz Chayim (the latter being widely considered the definitive work on lashon hara).

  1. Heating Streits’ Matzah in the oven as suggested *does* make the older, staler matzot crispier and the taste does actually improve, but it doesn’t taste like fresh, new matzah.

    I am the second generation in my family to have tried the experiment…it’s an especially useful “methodology” to apply around Purim when you’re trying to finish up that extra matzah still left over from that great 5 lb deal you got last spring…

  2. A clarification on the works of Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema): The way the works are known these days, at least, is that the Darkhei Moshe is the Rema’s fuller explanation of how he arrives at his rulings, presented as a commentary on the Tur (The Arba’a Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher), parallel to Rav Karo’s Bet Yosef.

    The Mapah (often just known as “the Rema”) is the more widely-known gloss on the Shulchan Arukh which contains the distillation of his rulings from the Darkhei Moshe, capitalising on, and perhaps adding to, the Shulchan Arukh’s popularity.

  3. Thanks, Tim. I’ve included a note in the body of the article referring people to this comment.

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