MATZAH, transliterated into English as matzah, matzoh, or matzo, is unleavened
bread. The history of matzah goes back to early Biblical times. In Genesis we read of Lot baking matzah in Sodom for the two angelic visitors who came to his home. Unleavened bread is mentioned several other places in the Bible. Because matzah does not need to rise, it can be cooked in a very short time. As was the case with Lot, it was often baked and served fresh to unexpected guests.
Matzah is most often associated with the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins immediately after Passover. "In the fourteenth day of the first month at evening is Yahweh's Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread unto Yahweh: seven days you must eat unleavened bread" (Lev. 23:5f).
To properly celebrate this feast, all leaven should be removed from the home: "For seven days no leaven shall be seen with you in all your borders" (Deut. 16:4).
If leaven is present in a lump of dough, it spreads throughout the whole lump and causes it to swell up. The search for leaven and the removal of all leavened products from our homes is an annual reminder to remove all sin and pride from our lives. The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump," and he then instructed them to remove the sin that was being tolerated by them, lest it spread like leaven and destroy them. (See 1 Corinthians 5.) Yeshua reminded His disciples to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadduccees," meaning their doctrine (Matt. 13:6, 12).
The New Testament writers were not the only Jewish people who were aware of the symbolic meaning of unleavened versus leavened bread. Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, wrote this about unleavened bread: "But as for the deeper meaning, this is worth noting, that that which is leavened and fermented rises, while that which is unleavened is low. Each of these is a symbol of types of soul, one being haughty and swollen with arrogance, the other being unchangeable and prudent..."1
Jewish people have been baking matzah for the Feast of Unleavened Bread every year since the time of Moses. Until 1856, when the first matzah-baking machine was invented, all matzah was made by hand. Hand-made matzot were pierced with a small cog wheel to prevent the dough from rising in the heat of the oven. Some people used the cog wheel to draw designs on the matzah. The Talmud records rabbis' discussions on whether or not decorated matzot should be eaten during the week of Unleavened Bread. The rabbis' concern was that the person decorating the matzah might take too much time, and inadvertently let the dough become naturally leavened by its exposure to the air.
The introduction of the matzah-baking machine caused a debate that became even more controversial than the debate over decorated matzah. The controversy over machine-made matzah raged for half a century, and has been described as "one of the most acrimonious discussions in the history of the responsa literature."2
Those who opposed the matzah-baking machine feared that pieces of dough might get stuck in the wheels and become leavened. Another concern was that poor people, who earned extra money for Passover by working in bakeries, would be deprived of this opportunity by the machine. Those who favored the machine said that it could be cleaned easily and often, to prevent leaven from forming. As for the poor bakers' helpers, they said, their plight was no different from that of the scribes who had to find a different line of work after the invention of the printing press.
The machine-made matzah of today differs from the hand-made matzah of the past. Machine-made matzah is square instead of round. It is also thinner. During the Middle Ages matzah was about an inch thick.
Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread begin what Jewish people call "the season of our freedom." For many centuries, though, this season was a time when Jews were fiercely persecuted by Christians. Christian persecution of Jews was by no means limited to the Passover season, but the persecution often intensified at this time of the year. It was during Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread when the Jews were falsely accused of what is called the Ritual Murder Libel or the Blood Accusation. Jews were accused of sacrificing a Christian child every year, and using the blood to make their matzah.
The origin of this bizarre accusation is traced to an incident which took place in England in 1144. A Christian boy named William disappeared during the Passover season. A Jew who had converted to Christianity informed the Christian community that every year around the anniversary of the original Crucifixion, the Jews sacrificed a Christian, and that this had probably been the sad fate of little William. It is my suspicion that little William probably met his fate by the hand of this deranged man, who came up with this story to detract attention away from himself as a possible suspect.
Apparently the English authorities did not believe the man's story, for no Jews were arrested. Unfortunately, such stories always appeal to the masses. The proliferation of supermarket tabloids in our day testifies to the wide appeal that sensational news items have. Such stories become exaggerated and embellished with each retelling, and soon are accepted as fact by a very gullible public. This story of the Jews' annual sacrifice of a Christian was no exception.
The story began to travel east from England, and soon spread throughout Europe. The story was embellished by a claim that Jews had a peculiar odor. It was said that the only way to remove this odor was by Christian baptism, which the Jews refused, or by consuming the blood of a Christian child. This, the accusers claimed, was the reason Jews needed the blood of a Christian child to make their matzah.
During the Middle Ages, when these lies began to take root in the minds of Christians, it was not unusual for children to die before reaching adulthood. Whenever a Christian child died around Passover time, the Jewish community would immediately be suspected of having sacrificed the child to obtain blood. Jews were forced into confession by means of torture. They were then executed and their property seized.
To the credit of some Church leaders, it should be pointed out that there were some popes who did write to condemn the false accusations and the torture and executions of Jews. These popes made it clear in their writings that they believed it was actually the accusers who had kidnapped and murdered the Christian children, and then accused the Jews, in order to obtain the Jews' property.
Unfortunately, the warnings and orders from various sympathetic popes did little to end the Ritual Murder Libel. Local clergymen ignored the popes' orders and stirred up hatred for the Jews, and the accusations persisted. To add credibility to the story, it was claimed that miracles occurred at the graves of the Christian children who had supposedly been "victims" of the Jews. The Church eventually canonized some of these children, giving the Christian populace even more reason to believe the legend of the Jews' Ritual Murder.
Despite the efforts of Jews and sincere Christians to stop the Ritual Murder Libel, the accusation persisted in every century, all the way into the 20th century. Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany made use of the accusation, of course. Even after the Holocaust, a church bishop in Hungary in 1952 refused to have the story removed from a church in his district, despite an appeal by the Austrian League for Human Rights. "The Jews have not yet proved that they never did such things," the bishop stated.3 Apparently this bishop believed that people are guilty until proven innocent, instead of the reverse.
Christians today cannot bring back the innocent Jews who were tortured and killed by Christians in the past. What has been done is done, and cannot be undone. What Christians can do, though, is to acknowledge the sins that their ancestors committed against the Jewish people. We have the example of the exiles who returned from Babylon and "confessed their sins, and the sins of their fathers" (Neh. 9:2).
During this Passover season, it would be good for Christians to make it a point to acknowledge the sins that their forefathers committed against the Jewish people. And to take it a step further, it would be even better if Christians would participate in the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, as the New Testament instructs them to: "For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Feast" (1 Cor. 5:7f).
When this begins to take place on a large scale in the Christian world, Passover can become "the season of our freedom" for Christians as well as for Jews—freedom from a history tainted with the shedding of innocent Jewish blood, and freedom from animosity between Christians and Jews.
1Philo Supplement II, Questions and Answers on Exodus, trans. by Ralph Marcus (Loeb Classical Library), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,1953, pp.24-25.
2Philip Goodman, The Passover Anthology (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961), p. 90.
3Reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 24, 1952.
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