Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
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Last week we ventured into the mysterious terrain of the Leviticus sacrificial cult and its possible modern application - obviously a subject of some interest since we got some great comments and discussions. This week we are delving deeper into the small print of the priestly procedures, focusing on one element that has a lot to do with the upcoming holiday of Passover: the mysterious matza.
If you pause to think of it, Passover is a product of an elegant evolution – what started 2,000 years ago or so as a ceremonial BBQ conducted outdoors under a full moon, with greasy hands, freshly slaughtered lamb and quick words of praise has turned into an elaborate feast full of obligatory nuance. We may have lost the BBQ but we did retain some of the key ingredients, including a carbohydrate much loved, loathed, and possibly lost in translation. What is interesting about this week's Torah episode, Tzav, is that it shows us how matza was not a food item exclusively reserved for Passover – rather, it is a sacred food item identified with the priestly privilege and with the boundaries of what is or is not 'kosher' or 'holy' all year round. Chapter 6 in Leviticus describes the procedure of the 'gift offering' – a donation of flour or grain handled by the sons of Aaron the high priest themselves. Verses 7 and 8 describe what they do with the leftovers:
'What is left of the offering shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes in the sacred precinct, they shall eat it in the enclosure of the tent of meeting… It shall not be baked with leaven."
The Hebrew for 'unleavened cakes' is 'Matzot', translated elsewhere as 'bread without yeast', 'unleavened bread', 'flat baked goods' or 'holy things'. The focus is on a type of bread that did not involve the natural process of 'rising' – yeastless, basic, the simplest form of nutrition. Matzot appear all thru Leviticus – a familiar item on several other sacrificial procedures that have nothing to do with Passover. So how did they become the icon most recognized with this holiday?
We know Matza from the story of the hurried escape from Egypt – the original fast food on the run, sanctified and commoditized. While this may be true history and Judeo Gastronomic mythology, it is also possible that the practice of eating this symbolic bread existed separately, as a way to honor life's basic sanctity and nutrition. The priests had to eat the leftover matzot at a specific time and place – much like our modern obligation regarding Passover. Symbolic and still unleavened, this is one tough cracker that has made it into history and rose to the top of the Jewish food list – yeast or no yeast. Ultimately, the matza became an icon of potential, of hopeful possibilities yet to come. It is the bread of hope.
This Passover, as you take your first bite of this biblical bread, we invite you to take your time, appreciate the sacredness of the moment, the amazing history of what you are about to ingest, and the transmitted half-baked mystery that helps keep some nights more exciting and special than all others.
Have a delicious and meaningful Passover!