This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Those Magnificent Men and Their Matzah Machines*

What an efficient piece of work is a box of matzahs! With its compact brick-like shape, it can be easily transported and stacked on supermarket shelves; and it provides a convenient means for kosher travelers to maintain a minimum diet while venturing into ritually challenged frontiers.

Not so those expensive hand-baked matzahs that we purchase for the seder. With their unwieldy shapes, they have to be individually wrapped and packaged as if they were delicate crystal; and even so, special blessings are still advised in order to insure that they arrive intact, and not as a jumble of disconnected crumbs.

Of course, through most of our history Jews did not have any choice in the matter, and all matzahs were of the hand-made variety, usually baked at home or in a communal oven. It was therefore quite a momentous turn of events when the Industrial Revolution came along and redefined a practice that had remained virtually unchanged since Moses' times.

The turning point came in 1857 in Austria, where the first mechanical Matzah device was put to work. The machine was designed to knead the dough, squeeze it through a set of metal rollers, perforate it and deliver the pieces promptly to be baked in the oven.

At that stage the notion of a square matzah had not yet occurred to anyone, and this gave rise to some serious halakhic problems. For the roundness of the matzahs was achieved with a sort of cookie-cutter. In the quest for efficiency, the left-over corners were then regathered and combined with the new dough. This raised fears lest, by allowing the dough to circulate too long between kneading and baking, it might actually start to leaven. In order to avoid such a dreadful eventuality, our beloved square matzah came into being. Continual improvements in the speed of the matzah-machines increased its acceptability among many Jews.

Not all Jewish leaders were pleased with the new developments, and several prominent rabbis were quick to voice their opposition to the newfangled matzah machines.

The struggle against innovation was spearheaded by the celebrated Rabbi Solomon Kluger of Brody, who immediately issued a directive forbidding the use of mechanically prepared matzah on Passover.

Rabbi Kluger's objections were based on a number of considerations. Primary among them was the old fear that, even after the switch to square matzahs, bits of old dough could still adhere to the gears and cogs of the mechanism longer than the time-period permitted by the halakhah. Complex machinery was, after all, difficult to keep clean.

With the advent of milling-machines, which were usually steam-powered, additional fears were incited when moisture that was seen to condense in the machines due to the heat that they generated, creating lumps in the flour. That problem would later be eased somewhat by the introduction of electronic devices.

Furthermore, Rabbi Kluger noted that the time-honoured parameters established by the ancient rabbis, including the strict eighteen-minute limit for preparation of the dough, had all presupposed a manual process. Since we possess no equivalent traditions about how to deal with an automated bakery, it would be prudent to avoid the new methods.

And even if we could be convinced that the process can be engineered so as to overcome all our fears of inadvertent leavening, there remained some thorny problems that related to the religious status of matzah on Passover. After all, the matzah that is consumed at the seder is intended to fulfil a religious precept, and must be fashioned with the appropriate intention. We can hardly speak of a machine having any kind of intention.

Marshaling together his objections and those of similarly minded scholars, Rabbi Kluger published his prohibition in 1859 in a widely distributed pamphlet bearing the title "Moda'ah le-veit yisra'el," "a Declaration to the House of Israel." Within the year, a refutation was issued by one of the influential halakhic authorities of the day, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg. He titled his pamphlet "the Annulment of the Declaration."

In it, he argued that the rapid speed of the automated process actually made it preferable to the older methods. He was satisfied that the machinery was capable of being adequately cleaned and inspected.

There ensued a lengthy exchange of diatribes in the newspapers, in which the authors did not refrain from indulging in the most vitriolic of personal attacks.

All this squabbling seems to be utterly divorced from reality, ostensibly providing yet another instance of the rabbis' excessive concern with trivial technical details. However, careful reading of the literature reveals that there were some important economic and social issues at stake.

Nineteenth-century European society was witnessing widespread unemployment as vast numbers of agricultural and industrial workers were being replaced by efficient machines. These were the same circumstances that had incited the English Luddites to go on rampages of machine-smashing. The opponents of automated matzah production feared that this same scenario would now be played out in small Jewish communities, where temporary employment at the matzah bakery frequently provided an important source of supplementary income for poor Jews who needed the money to purchase holiday provisions.

The supporters of the mechanized process were also concerned for the fate of the poor. However they saw the matter from the opposite perspective, observing that mass production would help lower the burdensome cost of the holiday grocery basket.

But most of all, the battle over matzah-machines must be viewed in the context of the deep rifts that were splitting European Judaism at the time. Experience had taught the traditionalists to be wary of any departure from accepted practice, even where it did not involve any overt violation of Jewish law. The dreaded Reform movement had begun by questioning minor customs, and had ended up (so they felt) denying fundamental Jewish values!

This underlying suspicion was articulated by the rabbi of Gur in his correspondence with the rabbi of Radomsk in 1908:

...It is clear from the acts of those who are permissive that their real desire is to remove little by little something from each mitzvah with the intention of ultimately uprooting everything... Consequently we are obliged to stand firm in the breach, especially in this generation when, if we are lenient with regard to forbidden things, especially with regard to the prohibition of leaven on Passover, the heart of the Torah, it is against the heart of the Torah that they stretch their hands.
Seen in this light, it is quite surprising how unsuccessful the traditionalists were in spreading their opposition to machine-made matzahs. By the early twentieth century, virtually all Orthodox Jewish communities had embraced the permissive position.

Halakhic integrity is unquestionably an important matter, as is ideological struggle.

But who can resist for long the allure of a new technology?

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, April 9, 1998, pp. 12-13.

  • Bibliography:
    • Freehof, Solomon B. The Responsa Literature. 2nd joint ed., New York: KTAV, 1973.
    • Goodman, Phillip. The Passover Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1961.
    • Kitov, Eliyahu. The Book of Our Heritage: The Jewish Year and Its Days of Significance translated from the Hebrew Sefer ha-toda'ah. Revised ed., Translated by Nathan Bulman. Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1978.
    • Jacobs, Louis. A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law. The Littman Library of Jewish Civili-zation, ed. David Goldstein et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
    • Zevin, Shelomoh Yosef. The Festivals in Halachah : an analysis of the development of the festival laws = [ha-Mo'adim ba-halakah]. Translated by Uri Kaploun and Meir Holder. ArtScroll Judaica Classics, New York and Jerusalem: 1982.