Matzah: Simple cracker, detailed story

The matzah aisle in any local kosher supermarket — even some nonkosher ones — is increasingly more likely to resemble a cereal aisle with its myriad options rather than the modesty and simplicity that is matzah itself. 

A recent visit to Glatt Mart, one of Pico Boulevard’s two major kosher markets, revealed 36 different types of matzah. Yehuda’s gluten-free version is the most popular, according to owner Meir Davidpour. “Everybody wants something different,” he said, referring to the numerous kosher-for-Passover certifications that exist on the market. He estimated the store carries at least six types of handmade shemura matzah — matzah held to the highest kosher standard — and at least 30 types of more standard machine-made matzah.

There are innumerable varieties — egg, chocolate, apple, whole wheat, thin tea, Mediterranean, organic and more — from a bunch of brands, including Yehuda, Osem, Geula, Aviv, Manischewitz, Streit’s.

While matzah appears at first glance to be a very simple food — a combination of water, flour and heat — its many types, brands and flavors reflect the underlying intricacies of what is also known as the “bread of affliction.”

Just ask Rabbi Yechezkel Auerbach, a kosher supervisor based in Lakewood, N.J., a town about 70 miles south of New York City with a high concentration of Orthodox Jews. Auerbach is the founder of Independent Kashrus Research (IKR), through which he is a consultant for companies on issues pertaining to kosher food production.

His career in the kosher certification field unofficially began when he was an 8-year-old sanding rolling pins in matzah bakeries on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Officially, it began 25 years ago, and Auerbach is now regarded as an authority in the supervision field, working with major kosher certification labels like the Orthodox Union (OU) and Kosher Supervision of America (KSA). He is responsible for ensuring that all the matzah sold in three of Lakewood’s kosher grocery stores is fit for Passover.

Some of Lakewood’s Jews have their own certification because, Auerbach said. “We want to service our community with what we believe is the highest standard of kashrus.”

The story of Auerbach’s matzah takes place almost entirely in Israel. He visits the country twice per year, first in northern Israel for the harvest, just weeks after the end of Passover. He returns later to Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb, for the baking. From cutting, stripping and grinding the wheat, to cleaning the kernels, baking the matzah and shipping it to the stores, someone must always keep watch over what goes into the matzah. 

This is meant to ensure that no outside substance finds its way into the bakery, potentially rendering entire batches of matzah as chametz, which is the Hebrew word that describes leavened food, which is strictly forbidden for consumption on Passover.

Matzah that is shemura, or “guarded,” is different than the basic machine-made matzah, not in substance, but in degree. Whereas shemura matzah is closely watched from the time that the wheat is harvested, other matzah is only closely watched after the wheat is ground into kernels, not from the time that it is first cut. The shemura version of matzah goes another step further than its unguarded brother — even the water used to make the dough is carefully stored for at least the night before use.

Auerbach said that to prevent contamination, the wheat kernels are “stored away under protective custody” until several months later, when they are ground into flour and baked into matzah. By Chanukah, Auerbach said, most matzah bakeries are in full swing, working furiously to satisfy orders, many of which are made before the previous year’s Passover.

The bakeries, particularly the ones where the matzah is made by hand, evoke romantic images of brick ovens, floured hands, white baker’s caps and the ultimate prize, a hot, bumpy, uneven piece of matzah.

“Each dough is kneaded by hand, it is finished by hand, it is cut to size by hand,” Auerbach said. “Every step is done by a human being who can focus on the matzah.”

Machine bakeries, shemura and nonshemura alike, meanwhile evoke a more industrial, less romantic feel. The factories have an entire floor dedicated to mixing the dough, which is then sent down chutes into machines that shape the dough into long ribbons, poke holes in them and then flatten them and send them to the ovens.

The machine variant is cheaper largely because the machine process requires far fewer hands and is thus more efficient. But for Jews who are particularly stringent about not approaching the dividing line between chametz and kosher on Passover, handmade shemura matzah, according to Auerbach, is the best option. 

Laws pertaining to the baking process are mostly found not in the Torah but in subsequent rabbinic literature. And there are many explanations for not just the physical makeup of matzah, but also its spiritual significance.

The haste with which matzah was baked by the Jews in Egypt and is baked by Jews today, Auerbach said, was “to remind us that there was anticipation and [a] rush of eagerness to get on [to] the next step.”

The variety of types and brands that are available — in Los Angeles and around the world — are likely a combination of market competition and diverse standards of what makes matzah acceptable.

For Rabbi Eli Rivkin of Chabad of Northridge, shemura matzah is not only his personal matzah of choice over Passover, but he has distributed about 100 pounds of it to approximately 250 households in Northridge.

To eat matzah during the Passover seder, Rivkin said, is actually an explicit mitzvah according to Jewish law. And it’s the only mitzvah in Judaism that requires eating a specific food. 

Although he only eats one type of matzah over the holiday, Rivkin sees the many types available in the marketplace as a good sign for Judaism.

“I think it’s wonderful that Judaism is flourishing and that there’s such a wide variety of kosher food available,” he said.

The results of this proliferation were apparent in Glatt Mart’s matzah aisle, where Sigal Mamon-Harosh was pushing a shopping cart filled to the brim with Passover products and several of the 30 boxes of matzah she said she purchased. 

She anticipates about 20 people at each of her family’s two seders. With that many mouths to feed and tastes to satisfy, the wide variety of matzah on the shelves did not disappoint.

“My husband will eat matzah shemura, I eat the whole wheat, the kids eat the egg with the apple, my parents eat the white, and then I have guests that I’m not sure what they eat.”