Everyone knows why we eat matzoh. The reason is found in the Haggadah. It's a quote from the Torah. The morning after the plague of the first born, we were rushed out of Mitsrayim (Egypt) so very fast that the dough didn't have time to rise. As it says in Shmot 12:33, 34, 39:
33The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, "We shall all be dead." 34So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders. …39And they baked unleavened cakes of dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
Problem: We had eaten our first Passover meal the night before. As it says in 12:1-3, 6-8:
01The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 02This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. 03Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. … 06You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight. 07They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. 08They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with matzoh-unleavened bread and with maror-bitter herbs.
We had been instructed two weeks earlier to eat matzoh the night before. That was enough time for Manischewitz to build a matzoh factory. They had two weeks to bake matzoh. What's going on here?
Answer: There are three kinds of matzoh, and three reasons for eating matzoh.
Reason Three: Is stated above. It is the bread of haste. The dough did not have time to rise.
Reason Two: Matzoh is called lekhem oni (Devarim-Deuteronomy 16:3), the bread of torment, the bread of poverty, the bread of affliction. This was the poor persons' bread that our ancestors ate as they slaved. In other words then, matzoh was the ancient po'boy sandwich. To this day in the Middle East, on hot summer days peasants and workers take flower, mix it with water, put it on a hot stone, and in a few minutes they have basic bread to eat. Matzoh was the food in the lunch buckets of our Jewish ancestor slaves as they labored in Mitzrayim-Egypt. It is the cheap bread of torment.
Reason One: The night before we left, the night of the first Passover meal, when God Passed Over our houses because of the blood on the doorposts, as the Egyptian first born were killed, we were celebrating the only animal offering meal found in the Torah that takes place in the home and not in the Temple. To be a nation of priests means that every Jew has to do for him or herself what in every other religion priests do for everyone else. Offering meals consist of pure food. All leavening is rot. Matzoh is pure bread, just flour and water, elemental. It has not been allowed to leaven, to rise and to begin the process that if unstopped by baking, would result in rot. As it says in the Torah: Any grain offering that you bring forward to the LORD shall not be made leavened…(Vayikra-Lev.2:11) Thus, on that first night of freedom when we were still slaves, we became free by asserting the following: Every home a Temple; every table an Altar; every meal an Offering; every Jew a Priest. An offering meal consists of only pure, untainted by rot.
Thus, matzoh has three names. For reason one, it is just called the matzoh. It is unleavened. For reason two, it is called lekhem oni, the bread of torment. For reason three, it is called lekhem d'khipazon-bread of haste.
There are three matzohs at the Seder table. There are two loaves of bread at every Sabbath and holiday table. The two loaves of bread at the Sabbath table celebrate the double portion of manna that fell in the desert, when our ancestors wandered for forty years. A double portion fell every Friday, so that on Shabbat they would not have to go out of the camp to collect bread. On Passover, we honor the holiday as we do every Shabbat, with two whole loaves, or in this case, two matzohs. In the very beginning of the Seder, however, we have a third matzoh a middle matzoh, we break that middle matzoh. Take a look above, and you'll know why (see reason #2). Matzoh is lekhem oni. Not only do we eat poor bread, we have to eat poor bread the way a poor person eats poor bread. A poor person never has a whole loaf of bread. So, when it comes time to make those two wonderful brakhot, blessings, over the matzoh, the standard one for bread, and then the special blessing for the unique experience of eating matzoh at the Seder, eat a piece from the whole matzoh on top to honor the holiday, and celebrate the holiday. And, also, eat a piece from the middle matzoh, so that you can eat poor bread like a poor person.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.