Gluten-free matzah

Although matzah is a symbol of our exodus from Egypt, it is, for some, a literal bread of affliction.
March 25, 2015

Although matzah is a symbol of our exodus from Egypt, it is, for some, a literal bread of affliction. Traditional matzah is made of flour milled from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. All of these grains — except oats — contain high levels of gluten, a protein that, if ingested by someone with celiac disease, can lead to serious health problems. Although there is no gluten in pure oats, they are almost always cross-contaminated by other grains in the storage process (they also have a protein called avenin that is similar to gluten and induces a negative reaction in 10 to 15 percent of people with celiac disease). One in 133 Americans is believed to suffer from celiac disease, which slowly (and painfully) destroys the villi, or fingerlike projections, that line the small intestine. Nearly 18 million Americans have what scientists theorize is “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a condition that, though not as severe as celiac disease, can cause digestive upset.

This time of year, many Jews who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity ask themselves: “How can I fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah if I know it will make me sick?”

Of course, no denomination of Judaism would ever suggest that a person who has celiac disease or gluten intolerance should eat a traditional matzah. The question is whether the person is morally exempt from partaking in the ritual. The answer, like many in Judaism, can be found in technicality and interpretation. Jewish law states that we can eat and say blessings only over matzah that is made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. At the beginning of a seder, one of three matzahs is broken in two. As the seder progresses, participants recite a general blessing over grain (ha-Motzi), then a specific blessing over matzah. They must then eat the matzah. A person with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can recite blessings and break matzah but cannot fulfill the mitzvah of eating it. One must ask: Are people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance spiritually exempt from fulfilling the mitzvah or are they bound by law and excluded from performing this basic — yet fundamental — Jewish ritual? 

Are they excused from the law or are they unwillingly breaking it? 

Jewish law prioritizes physical health over ritual. For example, people who are ill or pregnant cannot fast on Yom Kippur.  Gluten in matzah, though seemingly inconsequential, leads to an unexpected ethical gray area. Every denomination of Judaism will provide a different answer. Luckily, modern gastronomy has cooked up a tasty option that can help some Jews break their matzah and eat it, too.  

Enter the Passover of the future: Made from tapioca and potatoes, gluten-free “matzah-style squares” are delicious and completely kosher for Passover. However, it is important to remember that “kosher for Passover” does not necessarily mean that the food can be used during ritual to fulfill a mitzvah. In its most literal interpretation, Jewish law does not permit a person to substitute traditional grain matzah for a gluten-free option (unless it is made of oats, which, as previously stated, can cause similar digestive problems). Therefore, companies cannot market their non-oat, gluten free crackers as “matzah” (they must use “matzah-style squares” instead). 

A Reform person might argue that the spiritual and emotional act of eating matzah is more important than what is actually in the cracker and that traditional matzahs can be easily substituted with gluten free matzah-style varieties. Matzah-style squares may have complicated the Passover scene, but they also provide new alternatives for people who have struggled with both stomach and Scripture. 

If a person allows him- or herself to substitute traditional matzah with a gluten free “matzah-style” cracker, he or she will get to fully participate in a seder. Although the market for gluten free matzah isn’t exactly saturated, two kosher brands are leading the movement. Manischewitz’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are made with tapioca and potato starch instead of the five traditional grains. Yehuda’s Gluten Free Matzo-Style Squares are also made from tapioca and potato starch and are certified gluten free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). Both varieties can be ordered online and at some Ralphs locations.

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