Daily Israel Report

In Time for the Holiday: What is Matzah? How is it Baked?

Learn about Yemenite and other Matzahs and watch INN and INR staffers in a joyous matzah-baking fest in honor of the upcoming holiday of Passover.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 3/18/2010, 5:04 PM / Last Update: 3/25/2010, 12:54 AM

Israel news photo

Passover is known as the Festival of Matzot, based on the Torah commandment to eat matzah on the first night (on the first two nights, outside Israel) and the commendable practice of eating matzah throughout the holiday. Matzahs come in various forms; see below for a video of the actual baking process.

Matzah is the baked product of grain and water that has not been fermented (leavened). Hametz, its forbidden-on-Passover counterpart, is any fermented grain product. Only wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye can become matzah or hametz, according to the Torah. Ashkenazi custom also prohibits the consumption on Passover of rice, millet, and bean products, known on Passover as kitniyot; one reason is because they swell when dampened and resemble leavened products.

Fermentation takes place only after the flour and water have been in contact for at least 18 minutes. In order to become matzah, therefore, the dough must be baked within that time period. This is accomplished by protecting the ingredients from moisture and/or heat before they are combined; kneading and otherwise preparing the dough very rapidly; and then baking it at extremely high temperatures.

For more details, click here.

Different kinds of matzah include the following:

* Simple matzah, made of flour that was carefully watched from the time it was milled. Not all "simple matzah" can be eaten on Passover, it must have "Kosher for Passover" certification.

* Matzah shmurah, made of flour made from wheat that was carefully watched from the time it was harvested, in accordance with Exodus 12:17 "and you must guard the matzahs".  The custom of many is to eat only this kind at the Seder, and others eat only this throughout the week-long holiday.

* Hand matzah. No machines are used, and the flour is the same as in matza shmurah. It is traditionally used to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah at the Seder meal, usually round and quite chewy.

* Egg matzah, known in Hebrew as “rich matzah” – a dough kneaded with fruit juice or eggs.  It cannot become hametz, but one cannot use it to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah at the Seder meal, because of its “richness;” the Torah commands us to eat “poor matzah” (Deut. 16:3). Ashkenazi custom is not to eat it at all during Passover, unless one is ill, weak, or a young child.

* Soft matzah. Unlike the hard matzahs familiar to most Jews around the world, the Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish communities eat soft, pita-like matzahs, as was apparently the custom in most of the Jewish world until recent centuries. In fact, many rabbis permit these matzahs to be eaten on Passover even today; the reason why they have gone out of mode is not a Halakhic [Jewish legal] one, but rather a technical issue: In the pre-freezer period, they did not retain their freshness and softness for more than a day or two, and therefore were customarily baked on Passover itself – when even a “drop” of chametz disqualifies an entire matzah. However, now that there are freezers and soft matzahs can be baked before Passover – when a “drop” of chametz that might fall into a dough is “batel b’shishim” (less than 1/61st of the whole and therefore nullified) – such matzahs would be kosher. They must not be more than approximately a centimeter thick, however; one should consult a rabbi for precise instructions.

Gebrochts
A commonly held stringency forbids the eating of Matzah shruyah (commonly known as  gebrochts), which is matzah or matzah products that were cooked or otherwise became wet after being baked. According to Jewish Law, once matzah is baked, it cannot become hametz. However, some Ashkenazim, chiefly in Hassidic communities, do not eat matzah shruyah, for fear that part of the dough was not sufficiently baked and might become hametz when coming in contact with water.

Matzah-Baking in Beit El
This past Wednesday, staffers of Arutz-7, Israel National News, and Israel National Radio, as well as assorted others, banded together for a intense but joyous matzah-baking fest. Under the supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Holshtein of Beit El, some 15 workers of various ages gathered in a makeshift bakery in the Mateh Binyamin Yeshiva High School in Beit El for three hours of matzah-making.

As explained above, the process is precise and demanding, and is carried out under the constant shadow and fear of mishandling the dough and turning it into forbidden hametz. That is why many rabbis make a point of baking their own matzah for the Seder night or holiday, making appointments to do so at matzah bakeries.On the other hand, the tension was tempered by the joy of fulfilling the special mitzvah of baking Passoer matzah. One of the bakers brought along his guitar, which he strummed and accompanied in song when he took a much-needed break from the physically demanding baking process.

The first step - as can be seen in the accompanying video - is the measuring out of water and wheat flour in exact amounts, both having been specially preserved beforehand. A stopwatch is set for 18 minutes, after which time non-baked dough - and according to many, even unhandled dough within the 18 minutes - begins to ferment and rise, .  

With the clock ticking tensely away, the person chosen for first-stage kneading brings the mixture to a full-fledged but very rough dough as quickly as possible. From there, it is brought to a manual dough-lever device, specially built for heavy-duty kneading. The men at this position have been known to jump up and down while bringing the full force of their bodies to bear upon the soon-to-be-matzah.

Having been shaped into a long roll, the dough is then cut up into small pieces, which "rollers" wielding metal rolling-pins begin shaping into thin round circles, up to about 8 inches in diameter. Most of the pieces do not turn out exactly that shape, however, and some are in fact shaped more like triangles, elongated ovals, and other more unfamiliar shapes, but each of them in turn is quickly delivered to the next station, that of the hole-makers ("Holy Work"...) These latter, using small, specially-designed hole-fashioning tools, create the small openings in the future matzahs that will allow the oven's heat to escape while causing minimum puffing-up.

At this point, with the clock unyieldingly approaching the 18-minute cut-off mark, three of the flat, round, holed pieces of dough are rolled onto a long stick, which is quicky given over to the baker himself. Standing next to the large, flaming, very hot oven, the baker places them inside, and within seconds, the baking process is over - either because the matzah has been successfully baked, or because it has caught fire...

After the matzahs are removed, the 18-minute deadline has been announced, and everyone has breathed a sigh of relief, Rabbi Holstein arrives - fresh from having supervised and checked other aspects of the assembly-line process - and checks each matza individually. Those that are not completely baked, meaning that they are still completing the fermentation process and becoming chametz, are thrown out, leaving only 100% kosher matzahs for the joyous Passover consumption of the participants and their families.