According to the traditional practice, the Passover seder table must contain a stack of three matzahs. The middle piece is broken early in the service, with one half of it being set aside as the “afikoman.” That leaves two and a half matzahs for fulfilling the related precepts and reciting the appropriate blessings later in the evening.
Several different reasons have been proposed to explain the need for three matzahs. Some of these focus on symbolic associations with the number three. However, as is often the case in the study of Jewish practices, the original explanation is to be sought in an intricate complex of legal considerations.
On a normal Sabbath meal it is customary to break bread over two loaves. The Talmud derives this rule from the story of the manna in the wilderness, the bread from heaven that appeared to the Israelites in the wilderness every morning except on the seventh day. “And it came to pass, that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread.” The double portion of manna that was delivered on Friday sufficed for the Israelites’ needs on the seventh day, and this great miracle is commemorated when we partake of two loaves at our Shabbat meals. Out of respect for the holiness of the occasion, the loaves should be whole and unbroken.
Passover, however, offers its own unique spin on the practice. Of course, any bread that is used in connection with the festival of freedom must be of the unleavened variety. However, the Torah designates matzah as “bread of affliction.” According to tradition, we express this theme visually by the use of a defective, broken matzah.
So how are we to accommodate these conflicting demands—of whole loaves for a festival and of a broken matzah for Passover? It is in this halakhic conundrum that we will find the source for our familiar insistence on having two and a half matzahs on the seder table. Rav Pappa declared in the Talmud: “all agree that on Passover one should place the broken piece inside the whole one when breaking bread.” That is to say, we are to cover both bases by using both whole and broken matzah.
Problem solved—or so it would seem at first glance.
Medieval authorities inform us about a difference that arose between the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Israel with respect to the matzah at the seder. “The residents of Babylonia, when Passover occurs on the Sabbath, place the broken matzah between two whole ones; and on a weekday they use one broken and one whole matzah...; whereas the people of the land of Israel, whether on a weekday or on the Sabbath, place the broken piece on the whole matzah.”
The earliest records do not specify what were the issues that underlay the divergent practices. It would appear that they had to do with the status of “double loaves” on festivals. The original biblical story about the manna referred only to the weekly Sabbath, so it was not obvious whether the requirement of two loaves also extended to festivals that occur on other days of the week. Various midrashic texts reflect differing opinions on this question.
At any rate, it is understandable that the Babylonian Jews would have drawn a distinction between seders that fell on Friday nights and those that occurred on other days with respect to the obligation of the two unbroken loaves. This distinction was mentioned in the prayer book of Sa’adiah Ga’on.
Another likely point of contention concerned the relationship between the “double bread” requirement and the need for whole loaves. Though on normal Sabbaths or holy days it makes sense that we should insist that the breads be whole, it is also conceivable that Passover could be viewed as an exception to that rule. Since the Torah mandates the use of “bread of affliction” uniquely for the Passover meal, then perhaps a broken matzah qualifies as a full-fledged loaf for purposes of the double-bread requirement at the seder. This would explain the policy of those Jewish communities for whom one and a half matzahs were deemed sufficient for proper observance of the precept.
Indeed, this very rationale was enunciated by the tenth-century Babylonian Ga’on Rav Sherira who noted that, in contrast to Sabbaths and other festivals when it is obligatory to partake of two loaves, on the Passover table there should be only one and a half loaves in fulfilment of the “bread of affliction” requirement. A source cited by Rav Sherira’s son Hai Gaon went so far as to insist that it was utterly forbidden to use two whole matzahs for the seder ritual, as this would undermine the symbolism of the “bread of affliction.” On the other hand, another influential text emanating from the geonic academies, Amram Ga’on’s “Order of Prayer,” instructed that “we take hold of two whole loaves and a broken piece,” irrespective of whether Passover falls on the Sabbath or on a weekday.
For several generations afterwards, we find that the Jewish communities of the world were divided between the 1½-ers and the 2½-ers—and neither of them was making any distinctions between Shabbat and weekdays. Some authorities asserted categorically that Sabbaths and festivals were equally subject to the obligation of double loaves, whereas others described the use of an additional unbroken matzah on weekdays as nothing more than a precautionary measure lest people forget that such a requirement exists on Shabbat.
The major Sephardic codes, including such preeminent authorities as Rabbi Isaac Alfasi and Maimonides, all favoured a literal reading of Rav Pappa’s statement in the Talmud about placing the broken matzah inside a (presumably single) whole one. This position was the dominant one in Yemen, in older Italian works, and elsewhere.
In France and Germany, on the other hand, the 1½-ers, such as Rabbis Peretz and Yom-Tov of Joigny in twelfth-century France, never amounted to more than a small minority. Most Jews likely thought that it was safer to do follow the more stringent option, rather than omit an element of the ritual that might turn out to be religiously significant.
A notable exception to the Ashkenazic pattern was Rabbi Elijah of Vilna in the eighteenth century. With his characteristically dismissive attitude toward popular customs, he invoked the authority of the Sephardic codifiers and argued that the Torah’s emphasis on the bread-of-affliction motif was best served by minimizing the quantity of unbroken matzahs on the seder plate.
Once the three-matzah stack had had gained universal acceptance, it stimulated commentators to propose symbolic interpretations, as they did for other number-based elements in the seder and Haggadah (such as the Four Cups and Four Sons). An explanation that enjoyed popularity among French and German authors linked it to the thanksgiving sacrifices. According to the Torah, these were accompanied by offerings of matzot, three of which were offered up on the Temple altar. The three mandatory matzahs at the seder thus remind us that our deliverance from Egypt was a definitive occasion for conveying our thanksgiving.
Rabbi Eleazer Rokeaḥ associated the number with the three seahs of bread that Sarah prepared for her angelic visitors in Genesis 18:6. According to rabbinic tradition, this episode took place on Passover.
And in all this voluminous literature of classic sources discussing the practice, one would be hard pressed to find any mention of the one explanation that is most familiar to us by virtue of its inclusion in so many Haggadah commentaries and on embroidered matzah-covers: the link to the three divisions of the Jewish people, Kohens, Levites and Israelites.
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