Bread, the Symbol of Jewish History
This month we celebrate the holiday of Passover, observing G-d’s commandments to Moses in Exodus 12:17-18:
You are to observe the festival of matzah, for on this very day I brought your divisions out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you are to observe this day from generation to generation by a perpetual regulation. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzah.
This is not something new. You have heard this year after year since you were a child. We all know that on Passover we eat Matzah (unleavened bread). So at this point you must be asking, why write an article about bread, the antithesis of this holiday? I do so to show the importance of bread not only during the festival of Passover, but during every Jewish holiday, and shall show how this simple food item is an integral part Jewish religion and culture.
Larousse Gastronomique defines bread as “[f]ood made from a flour-and-water dough with yeast which is fermented, kneaded, and baked in the oven. The action of the raising agent gives bread its characteristic texture.” However, this may include unleavened bread, which is bread that is not fermented, or only allowed to rise for a short period of time (e.g., matzah). Bread, or at least unleavened bread, has been baked for almost 30,000 years. Scientists have found evidence of flour in archeological sites in different areas throughout Europe. Leavened bread has its origins in the land the pharaos (which coincidently happens to be the background of the Passover story). Traces of bread have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from as far back as 10,000 years ago. One fact to keep in mind is that bread is the one food item that is served at any meal, at any time, at every corner of this world (regardless of culture or religion).
For thousands of years bread has been (and still is) a staple for every culture around the world. It has also been used in religious ceremonies for almost as long. For instance, bread has long been used during Buddhist ceremonies by placing it on incense burners in honor of the spirits of the dead. Muslims bake bread during the feast of Id al-Fitr (which occurs after the month-long fast of Ramadan). Christians take part in rite of the Eucrist (communion). Also note, the city of Bethlehem means “House of Bread” (בֵּית לֶחֶם) in Hebrew and its roots go back long before the beginning of Christianity – the city was mentioned in the Torah in Genesis (side fact – this city was also the birthplace of a King David). The ancient Romans would bake bread on the ninth day of June each year for use in a ceremony to honor their goddess Vesta. Going back even further, the priests in ancient Egypt used bread in their offerings to Orisis. [For a long list of other cultures that use bread, see Bread and Other Cultures at http://agexted.cas.psu.edu/fcs/4hfl/BreadCultures.html.]
The significance of bread into Jewish culture and religion is even more intertwined. The word bread is mentioned in the Torah numerous times. The HaMotzi (הַמּוֹצִיא), prayer for bread, is said at the beginning of each “meal.” The idea of the breaking of bread, and being hospitable, is mentioned many times throughout the Torah. Bread and wine are the two food items that are always present at a Shabbat evening meal, and prayers are said for both. In fact, on Shabbat evening it is traditional to have two challahs with the meal to symbolize the double portion of mana that the Jewish people received every Friday while wandering the desert (isn’t it amazing how everything comes back to Passover?). Another mitzvah, which is the one that began this article, is that of not eating leavened bread during Passover.
One more interesting fact about bread and the Exodus which I would like to pass on before I conclude this article. Throughout history, the type of bread that one ate would sometimes reflect one’s social class. Think about paintings from the Middle Ages – the pictures of the wealthy would often include a basket of fine bread on the table, while the peasants would either only show the grains or wheat that they have sown or a simple loaf of bread. According to archeologists, this same societal separation may have been true at the time Moses lead the Jewish people from Egypt. The slave owners probably ate a more refined style of bread while the slaves ate a very simple and less leavened style (in fact, the first mention of matzah in the Torah is by the name lechem oni (ינוע םחל), which is translated as “the bread of the poor.”) – and while they needed to bake the unleavened bread for a quick getaway, there may have also been other reasons for baking matzah, as stated by Mark Kurlansky in Salt:
[Matzah] may also have been what they were used to making, or perhaps it was a conscious rejection of Egyptian culture and the luxuries of the slave owners. Raised Bread and salt curing were emblematic of the high-living Egyptians.
As I have shown above, bread is part of the Jewish existence. It is part of our culture, part of our religion, part of our traditions, and symbolizes who we are. The restriction on bread is part of this holiday to show its importance to us. Matzah is called “the bread of affliction” not because of how we toiled in Egypt as slaves, but how we suffered wandering the dessert for forty years. The next time you eat a piece of bread, or are abstaining from it during the Passover holiday, remember that you are taking part in a symbol of the continuing history of the Jewish people.
For the next part of this article, I am supposed to tie-in a recipe with the food and holiday. After thinking long and hard, I did not want to provide a recipe for a bread dish, nor a unique dish to add to the festive Seder meal. What I have decided on is something that is fun, easy to make, and uniquely Passover – – Matzah Brei.
Ingredients (two servings):
3 squares of Matzah Egg matzah preferred (some brands are better than others)
2 Eggs Large or extra large
3 Tbl Butter For cooking the brie (sometimes I have a heavy hand)
Salt & Black Pepper To taste
1 Tsp Sugar If you like sweeter brie (may use sugar substitute)
¼ Tsp Vanilla True vanilla extract is not KP, so use imitation
Step 1: Moisten the matzah boards with water or with some milk (which is not as easy). It should be easy to break, but not soggy. The size of the pieces is a personal thing, but I like them between the size of a quarter and a dime. Place the moistened matzah into a bowl.
Step 2: Crack open the eggs into a small bowl or glass, and salt and pepper (and sugar/vanilla if making it sweet), mix them up, and then add it to bowl with the matzah.
Step 3: Mix up the mixture so that all of the matzah has some egg mixture on it.
Step 4: Heat up the butter in a pan until melted.
Step 5: As soon as the butter is melted (do not let it burn), add the matzah-egg mixture. [FYI – you should maintain a low to medium flame on the range.]
Step 6: There is much controversy regarding the next step for those that like it . So you can either follow Step 6A or 6B and choose your position as to smooth vs. chunky:
6A: There is one school of thought that states that the mixture should be flattened into the pan (make as smooth as possible on top) and cook it for 2-3 minutes, turn it over, and cook for another 2-3 minutes. If it looks too “runny,” turn it and continue cooking for another 60 seconds on each side (some prefer it on the well done side).
6B: The other school of thought (which I adhere to) states that the mixture should be allowed to settle for 30-45 seconds, but should be mixed every 15-20 seconds so that it cooks the mixture until it is golden brown.
Step 7: Serve immediately. There are many toppings that you can put on the table to top off this dish: maple syrup, jelly/jam, brown sugar, ketchup, mustard, etc. (be creative).
There are many variations to this dish that use the basic recipe above. Some of these are:
Peppers and Onions – Fry up these ingredients in oil or butter prior to adding the matzah-egg mixture.
Vegetarian – Add broccoli, spinach, peppers, onions, etc. to this dish, once again, you should cook up the vegetables prior to adding the matzah-egg mixture.
Cheese – My kids like this one. I cut up cheese (or use shredded) and add it to the mixture prior to adding it to the pan. Note that the outcome will produce brie which will remain a little softer.
Salami n Onions – You will need to convert any of the above ingredients into non-dairy substitutes (water for milk, parve “butter” for butter, etc.), but it is a dish that is good for not only breakfast, but lunch and dinner as well. Just make sure you cut up the salami into smaller pieces and grill well prior to adding the matzah-egg mixture.
Deli Brie – Same as the Salami and Onions, but add in pastrami, corned beef, turkey, tongue, etc.
Commercial: Remember to attend Pasta Night, presented by the Men’s Club on April 12th to celebrate the end of Passover. To enter the “what pasta dish will we serve” contest and register for this event, please visit: [removed]: ALSO INCLUDES: Salad, Garlic Bread, and Beverages
Chef Lon E
Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History (Penguin Books: 2003)
Larousse, Librairie, Larousse Gastronomique (Clarkson Potter: Oct. 2009)
- “A Brief History of Bread,” (Sahah Lohman: History.com: Dec. 18, 2012) @ http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/a-brief-history-of-bread
- “A Brief History of: So You Think You Know Matzo?” (Claire Suddah: Time.com: April 9, 2009) @ http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1890268,00.html
- “Bethlehem” (Wikipedia.org: March-April 2015) @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethlehem
- “Bread & Wine as Religious Symbols” (Michael H. Jenkins: People.opposingviews.com) @ http://people.opposingviews.com/bread-wine-religious-symbols-6375.html
- “Challah: The Braided Sabbath Bread” (Claudi Roden: MyJewishLearning.com: 2012) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/challah/
- “Hamotzi” (LearnHebrewPod.com) @ http://www.learnhebrewpod.com/jewish-prayers/Hamotzi
- “History of Bread” (BakersFederation.org: 2013) @ http://www.bakersfederation.org.uk/the-bread-industry/history-of-bread.html
- “History of Bread” (Wikipedia.org: March-April 2015) @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_bread
- “Matza: A Modern History of Unleavened Bread,” (David Geffen: JPost.com: April 18, 2011) @ http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Matza-A-modern-history-of-unleavened-bread
- “Matzah: Unleavened Bread is the Central Passover Symbol,” (Lesli Koppelman Ross: MyJewisLearning.com: 2014) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/matzah/
A special thank you to Michael B for his help as a consultant on this article.