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Matzo– The Bread of Freedom, Affliction (And Addiction?)

I could eat matzo all year round (then again I love kefilte fish). And don’t get me started on Manischewitz Tam Tams, those irresistible snack crackers I used to munch right out of the box when I snuck into my grandparent’s pantry as a kid. Even when the cardboard box is left open for days, Tam Tams taste as good stale as they do fresh.

Matzo, or matzah, or matzot (plural), is a crisp unleavened flatbread that leaves crumbs all over the kitchen counter, and yet when covered with a silk embroidered cloth this flavorless cracker becomes the centerpiece of our Passover seder table. Matzo, while the perfect accompaniment to everything from chopped liver to egg salad, helps us tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, in Hebrew Mitzraim. Unleavened bread was one of the foods the Jews in Egypt were commanded to eat along with the paschal lamb. We eat matzo to commemorate the time when the Israelites were forced to escape Egypt in a hurry in the middle of the night and did not have time to allow their bread to rise. More on the meaning of matzo HERE. We eat matzo on the first and second night at the seder and refrain from eating bread the rest of the week, whether we eat matzo or not. For me, this seven-day Passover holiday, also called Pesach, is an excuse to spread soft butter on matzo as a snack and try new recipes, whether it’s matzo pizza, lasagna, kugel, or granola.  When I was in Weber Elementary School and my classmates gathered for lunch in the cafeteria, my non-Jewish friends wanted to trade their bologna on white bread  for my peanut butter and jelly matzo sandwiches, but I never fell for it, even when tempted with a Twinkie.  Back in the day, my favorite way to eat matzo was when my mom would soften a sheet in water, crumble into pieces, soak in egg, shape into patties, and fry in butter and oil until crisp golden brown on the outside and chewy on the inside. I gobbled them up right out of the sizzling fry pan, drizzled in honey or syrup. We called them matzo pancakes, also known as matzo brei, and still remains a cherished childhood memory. 

While we’re on the subject of food, matzo is the perfect cracker to spread hummus, finely chopped tomato cucumber salad, charoset to make a Hillel sandwich, a palette pleaser to compliment kefilte fish and beet horshradish …whatever your favorite topping matzo never disappoints, just adds lots of carbs. And matzo toffee, also called matzo crack (short for crackers), is an addictive dessert baked with butter, brown sugar, chocolate and nuts. Many more recipes for appetizers, sides, main dishes, desserts HERE:

Now back to the meaning of matzo, which is described as both the bread of affliction and freedom. We were forced to eat matzo when we were slaves, yet this same unleavened bread sustained us on our long journey and when we were liberated from Egyptian bondage. During the seder when we break the matzo we say, “Let all who are hungry enter and eat; let all who are in need come and join in the Passover with us. This year [we are] slaves. Next year [may the slaves be] free.” The hard crust commands us to help the hungry, the needy, the refugee, which is an applicable moral lesson as much then as it is today.

It’s also customary to have three pieces of matzot stacked on the table. One of the explanations is that the three pieces are referred to as Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael as a means of distinguishing them from each other.

The top matzah is referred to as Kohen, for the Kohen takes precedence in all matters.

The middle matzah Levi is broken into two at the beginning of the Seder. The smaller piece is left on the plate and is later eaten along with the Kohen matzah in fulfillment of the mitzvah of matzo (I know that’s a mouthfull); the larger piece is put away for use as the afikoman, which is translated to “that which comes after” or “dessert.”  The seder is not officially over until the afikomen is eaten and we say Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). Saying Grace reminds us to take poleasure in what we’ve achieved without becoming self-centered.

Finding the afikoman was a favorite childhood memory at Passover, probably because it gave us an excuse to get out of our chairs and run around the house during a long seder. The matzo was wrapped in a napkin and usually tucked under a sofa cusion or hidden in a potted plant. Whoever found the afikoman won a prize, either a silver coin or candy, and there was always enough for everybody.

The bottom matzo, Yisrael is used for korech, or dipping in charoset, a scrumptious concoction of chopped or grated apples, nuts, cinnamon, honey and wine that reminds us of the consistency of the cement mixture used to build pyramids in Egypt (only much tastier). This bottom piece of matzo allows everyone at the table to perform a mitzvah.

Another explanation as to the three matzot is that two piees are traditional for Sabbath and festivals (when we usually use two challahs or challot, as a reminder of the double portion of manna (food from heaven) the Israelites gathered before every day of rest in the desert. The leftover third piece of matzo, known as lechem oni or bread of the poor, reminds us that there are those who do not have enough to eat and are left eating scraps. In recent years, it has become popular to add an additional sheet of matzo, representing hope for Jews still enslaved by oppression around the world.

Over the years as a blogger, I’ve written a lot about Passover because this favorite Jewish holiday brings out the curious child in all of us, and we learn by involving all of our senses, which is the subject of my next blog. Check out my Passover writings, such as Why I celebrated Two Seders In The Same Night, Why is This Haggadah Different From All Other Haggadahs, Magical Cup Invites Elijah To Your Seder, and Passover Brings Out the Child In All Of Us, and Passover Is All About Evolving Traditions.