It is the afternoon before Passover. The last crumbs of bread were set aflame in the morning. The walls and counters are scoured to a gleaming shine. The regular dishes have been hauled down to the cellar, and the special holiday utensils now sit proudly in the kitchen cupboards. Stacked in the corner are boxes of crisp matzahs ready to be consumed at the Seder.
At last it is possible to relax in anticipation of this evening's festive meal.
What is wrong with this picture?
If you were a Jew living in the early medieval era, the obvious answer would be: those boxes of prepared matzah.
According to the consensus of most authorities on Jewish law and custom at that time, it was strictly forbidden to make use of matzahs that had been baked earlier than the day preceding the Seder, the fourteenth of Nisan.
The prohibition against advance baking of matzah was expressed most uncompromisingly by the rabbis of Ashkenaz (Germany) in the tenth and eleventh centuries. For them, the ban extended even to matzah that was baked on the morning of the fourteenth of Nisan--and even if the leaven had already been completely removed from the household.
Initially, most authorities insisted that matzot that were baked too early were completely invalid; though a few were ready to permit them after the fact.
The Ashkenazic authorities proposed several theories to explain the origins of the prohibition. Some regarded it as an instance of the talmudic principle "a mitzvah is more beloved when it is performed at its proper time." The invocation of this principle is, however, decidedly awkward, since it is usually cited in order to encourage the early performance of a precept, not postponing it to the last minute.
A more significant objection to this explanation lies in the fact that the "mitzvah" of matzah is not the baking, but in the eating, This is readily demonstrated by the fact that there is no blessing prescribed for baking, though there is one recited before eating the matzah at the Seder: "Blessed are you...who has... commanded us to eat matzah."
Indeed, it is precisely on this point that the elders of medieval Ashkenaz appear to have had a distinctive understanding of the religious status of matzah-baking.
From the extensive discussions in the halakhic literature of the time, we learn that they did regard the baking of the matzahs as a commandment in its own right.
It is only if we accept this assumption that we can appreciate why they frequently invoked a ruling from the Talmud that forbids the eating of matzah before noon on the eve of Passover, treating it as analogous to the Passover sacrifice, which could only be offered up from the afternoon and onwards. In practical terms, this meant that the baking could not commence until about 1:30 p.m.
The celebrated French commentator Rashi treated the prohibition of earlier baking as Torah-based, and he refused to compromise even in those bothersome situations occasioned by Saturday-night Seders.
The solution to this puzzle may lie in a better understanding of the origins of early Ashkenazic religious customs, a phenomenon that is closely related to the question of the community's historical origins.
As has become increasingly evident to historians of rabbinic literature, the roots of many peculiar Ashkenazic customs can be traced to the Jerusalem Talmud and to other documents that preserve the religious norms of the ancient Jewish communities of the Holy Land.
This phenomenon is undoubtedly a reflection of the ethnic origins of German Jewry's founding fathers, many of whom had come to central Europe from Italy, whose Jewish community continued for many centuries to accept the authority the Israeli leadership. Much of the analytic hairsplitting that typifies rabbinic scholarship in medieval Germany and France can be credited to their attempts to create a harmony between their own time-honoured customs and the authority of the Babylonian Talmud, which had subsequently been accepted universally by mainstream Judaism.
Now, if we study what the Jerusalem Talmud has to say about our controversy, we will soon observe that it takes a very different approach to the preparation of objects for ritual use.
Thus, in contrast to the Babylonian norm, the rabbis of the Land of Israel prescribed special benedictions to be recited over the fashioning of tzitzit, t'fillin a sukkah or lulav, as well as other items that are used for the fulfilment of biblical precepts. The familiar Babylonian practice is to recite the benedictions only when the commandment is actually being performed (e.g., by wearing the tzitzit or t'fillin, sitting in the sukkah or taking hold of the lulav during the festival).
It would appear that this approach to the performance of mitzvot provides us with the key to understanding how the early Ashkenazic rabbis were moved to equate the time-limits for the Passover sacrifice with those of the baking of matzah. For them, the preparation of the matzah was as inseparable a part of the precept as the act of eating it at the Seder.
From the twelfth century and onwards, as the authority of the Babylonian Talmud became progressively more pronounced in the academies of France and Germany, we observe a very gradual erosion of the prohibitions against early baking of matzah.
The demographic growth of the Jewish populace also played a part in weakening the authority of the older practice. As families and communities became larger, the prospect of baking an ample stock of matzah in time for the Seder became very unlikely. Of course, this difficulty became more severe in years when the baking had to be done on Saturday night, leaving insufficient time to conduct the Seder, since the afikoman had to be consumed before midnight, and it was important that the children remain alert for the recitation of the Haggadah.
Baking on a festival also raised some thorny halakhic questions regarding the separation of the priestly portion of the dough (hallah), normally prohibited on holy days, and the cleaning and disposal of the equipment.
As a result, commentators began to speak of the last-minute baking, not as an indispensable requirement, but merely as a recommended practice; and they were more amenable to setting aside the old practice when Passover occurred directly after the Sabbath.
Some texts confined the restrictions to the three matzot that are obligatory at the Seder, and not (as in the earlier discussions) to all the matzot that are consumed during the holiday week. Eventually, some rabbis were emboldened to reject the prohibition outright, on the grounds that it was not found in the Babylonian Talmud.
The insistence on last-minute matzah-baking eventually came to be viewed as an act of extraordinary piety rather than an inflexible norm. The fifteenth-century Bohemian authority on liturgical custom Rabbi Jacob Moellin (Maharil) summarised that the sages were split on the matter between those who preferred that the baking take place just before the Seder (even on the second night!), and those who would rather have the matzahs ready in advance.
Although the permissive approach eventually prevailed among most European Jews, the ancient practice persisted tenaciously, especially in the Rhineland communities. As late as the seventeenth century, communities like Frankfort a/M continued to bake their matzah on the fourteenth of Nissan.
The study of Jewish customs, their reasons and origins, always provides for fascinating discussion of symbolism, values and halakhic reasoning.
But there is a unique value to studying these customs as historical artefacts. Because of their tenacious determination to continue the traditional practices of their ancestors, those early Ashkenazic Jews have succeeded in preserving valuable clues to obscure mysteries of the Jewish past.
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