Object of the Month April 2015
Matzah Comb, Iron, Late 18th Century, Germany. 35.6.
The beginning of April brings with it one of the major Jewish spring festivals, Passover, or Pesach. The festival of Passover commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt. During Passover we are often reminded of the struggles endured by the Jewish slaves in Egypt and many of the foods prepared for Passover are rich in meaning and help to convey the Passover story. Possibly the most ubiquitous food of Passover is matzah, an unleavened bread, which is representative of how hurried the Jews were when they were finally freed from slavery. The bread that the Jews were baking didn’t have time to rise before they were chased out by the Egyptians, hence, mitzvah has become the quintessential Passover food staple.
Most matzah has become a standard square shape, with small perforations in a gridded pattern. Through the thousands of boxes of matzah consumed every year, very few people probably think about how the holes got in their matzah. While the process is now industrialized, the historical answer lies in one of Cincinnati Skirball Museum’s most interesting, yet most overlooked objects. Most visitors to the museum see a rusted iron comb laying in our collection and think nothing of it. This object is a matzah comb. It was made in late eighteenth century Germany, and was used to create the uniform perforations in a sheet of matzah. Matzah combs were historically designed in a few different styles: a straight comb, like this one, and a spiked wheel that could be rolled across the dough. The Skirball comb was pressed down into the dough in standardized rows to create the typical matzah shape and texture. The process of scoring and shaping matzah was industrialized in the nineteenth century, making the matzah comb largely obsolete.