Thursday, April 2, 2020
What do you think of when you imagine a piece of matzah? For many Jews today, the iconic image of the unleavened bread is square, perforated, and extra crunchy. The mass-produced matzah of our grocery shelves came into the world through the innovations of Behr Manischewitz. Manischewitz’s matzah revolution began (much like Hebrew Union College) here in Cincinnati, in the late 1800s. Manischewitz purchased his first bakery in 1899 and developed a matzah making machine that produced square, flat, crunchy matzah at breakneck speeds1.
After that, the rest is history. Handmade matzah can still be found, and is consumed during Pesach by many who believe the kavvanah or ‘human’ intentionality of the matzah making process is instrumental to fulfillment of the commandments of the holiday. But the vast majority of matzah made and consumed today follows in Manischewitz’s footsteps.
So what did matzah look like before sharp and uniform lines and crunchy consistency became mainstream? There’s more than one answer! Matzah comes in several forms – hard, soft, round, square, thick, thin. In rabbinic literature, there are many discussions of matzah that clue us into the once-prominent practice of making soft matzah which may have resembled large, flat, and rollable laffah bread. Soft matzah is difficult to come by these days, but continues to be the communal standard among the Yemenite Jewish community.
So where can we look for images of the matzah-that-once-was? Here at the Klau Library we are blessed with a variety of illuminated Haggadah manuscripts, some of which contain depictions of the artists’ contemporary matzah. Below is a selection of some of the finer images of the bread of affliction:
From HUC MS 450 (Italy, ca. 1742). The production line for a community’s matzah bake. From left to right, the workers are making and cutting the dough, the women at the center table are rolling the dough flat, the men at the table to the right are perforating it with comb-like tools, and then the bakers are placing it in the oven. This entire process is to take less than 18 minutes according to traditional Jewish law.
A more detailed image from HUC MS 450. The matzah looks to have perforations and cross-hatched scoring. The figure shown is presenting the middle matzah (noted by the number of dots appearing on each piece, indicated with added arrows), to break for the Yachatz portion of the Passover Seder.
Two figures from HUC MS 444 (Germany, ca. 1480). Their matzah is so large it takes two people to lift!
Another, more detailed drawing from HUC MS 444. The cross section of the matzah suggests a thickness similar to a pita pocket.
This figure from HUC MS 445 (Germany, ca. 1740) proudly carries his oblong matzah under his arm.
HUC MS 420 (France, 1727) has few illustrations, but this scored and rimmed matzah makes an appearance, alongside what appears to be a stalk of wheat.
This hand from HUC MS 448 (Amsterdam, 1785) is holding a matzah with geometric scoring and a rim similar to that in HUC MS 420.
You can view our selection of digitized Haggadot manuscripts here.
And view our entire online collection here.
Have a happy and safe Passover!
Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitization Specialist
- Sarna, Jonathan. “How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States.” 2005. http://www.torahcafe.com/professor-jonathan-sarna/how-matzah-became-square-the-manischewitz-story-video_157b4ab2d.html
- Zivotofsky, Ari Z. and Ari Greenspan. “The Thick and Thin of the History of Matzah.” Hakirah,, volume 17, 2014, 105-123. http://hakirah.org/Vol17Zivotofsky.pdf