ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

This Is Why Jews Don’t Eat Bread During Passover

It’s not the reason my Sunday school teacher taught

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

Jews all know the story our Hebrew school teacher told us as kids. The Pharaoh decides to let the Israelite slaves go, but they better run fast before he changes his mind (which, of course, he then does, leading to the climactic chariot chase). The Israelites get the message loud and clear. They start panic-packing, strapping whatever they can find onto their camels. In their haste, they can’t even wait for the bread to rise in the ovens. They pull out whatever they have and make a mad dash.

“And that’s why today we don’t eat grains during Passover,” concludes the Hebrew school teacher. “To remember that the Israelites were so desperate to get out of Egypt that they left with unleavened bread.”

It’s a gripping story. Easy to follow. Cinematic. It’s also a lie.

But before we get to the real story, let’s get the imagery right. I always pictured the Israelites abandoning loaves of golden brioche and artisan sourdough. But ancient Egyptian bread was so hard that even pharaohs suffered teeth abrasion.[1] Grains were roughly mortared into a tough sand, then hand-kneaded with water before being slapped onto a hot stone or against a cylinder wall of heated clay. No fancy yeast. No convection ovens. Let’s just say the resulting flat brick probably didn’t exude the nutty-sweet aroma of a French baguette. Ironically, it probably wasn’t that far from matzoh as we know it today.

Bread in ancient Egypt was much harder and denser than today. (Photo from Pixabay.)

Now that we’re picturing a more accurate (i.e. hard and indigestible) bread, let’s get back to the question. Why did the Israelites stop eating bread? Was it a problem of time management? Had they chipped one too many teeth on the crust?

It wouldn’t surprise me that the Israelites waited until the last minute to start packing (after all, the last time I was 40 minutes late to synagogue my family accused me of being excessively punctual, and showing up on time, Moses forbid, is always frowned upon in the community…). But the “we ran out of time” alibi doesn’t hold water, let alone flour and yeast. In the Book of Exodus, God gives clear instructions to the Jews that they must stop eating bread before their escape. Just to be extra clear about it, he sends out a Save-the-Date card with the specifications. “In the first month, from the 14th day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the 21st day of the month at evening” (Exodus 12:19).

A baker prepares Matzah. (Photo from Pixabay.)

So what’s the deal? The Israelites didn’t stop eating bread out of necessity. They did it when they were still in their houses in Egypt. Why?

The Chabad Theory

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

One orthodox sect of Judaism considers bread as a metonymy for humankind’s ego and self-aggrandizement. Therefore, abstaining from bread is an exercise in humility.

In simple terms, when we make bread we’re playing God, and that’s a big no-no in the Old Testament world. That’s some smite-worthy behavior.

I totally buy this argument. What is baking bread if not an act of God?

When we make bread, we harness the secrets of nature and generate something completely new that never existed before. We take microorganisms designed to destroy, to decompose, and intervene to reverse their course to create instead. That’s what makes bread so fantastically human. It’s what separates us from beasts. We don’t forage for it. We don’t seek it. We create it.

Bread is so empowering and divine that God has to explicitly remind us that there’s a difference between a deity and a baker. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of the Lord…” (8:3).

I can see how this would make an already super jealous Old Testament God feel threatened. After all, the He spends the whole Torah harping on like the singer of an 80s power ballad. He has to be the one and only. There can’t be anyone else. So it would make sense that this mega-jealous God decided to deprive the Israelites of their bread-making powers to remind them that they can’t live without Him.[2]

So that’s one possible answer: we don’t eat bread on Passover to remind ourselves that the Lord is more powerful than we are.

By the way, the etymology of the word lord comes from the Old English hlaford, meaning “keeper of bread.” So even the name is a reminder that the mixture of yeast and flour together is the stuff of gods.

Photo from cottonbro on Pexels.

The Pagan Theory

Speaking of gods, long before the advent of Judaism women honored Demeter, the goddess of grain and harvest. The celebration began with the sacrificial burning of phallus-shaped breads (because everything in ancient Greece was phallic) and then subsequently fasting from all grains. Millennia later, in ancient Rome, a springtime festival from April 12–19 honored Ceres (the Roman version of Demeter) by sacrificially burning bread on the holiday eve and then abstaining from cereals for eight days.[3] Sound familiar?

Demeter/Ceres (Photo from Pixabay)

In short, a week-long abstention from grain was a popular and well-documented practice in polytheistic festivals. Thus the “pagan theory”: the abstention from grains during Passover could be a tradition carried over from the Greeks and Romans and conveniently adapted to the story of Exodus.

I totally buy this too. Though the more religious Chabad sect might not like the idea that the fast from grains has nothing to do with the story of the Israelites or even monotheism, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the absentation from grain always felt totally random. Seriously, what do flourless chocolate cakes and matzoh crackers have to do with the Israelites escaping Egypt?

In fact, does unleavened bread have to do with anything in the story of Exodus?

A Levite mother places her newborn son in a basket and floats him down the Nile, in hopes of saving his life from the evil Pharoah who wants to kill all newborn Israelite boys, and the Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby and raises him as her own in the Egyptian royal family. The boy grows up, kills an Egyptian overseer, runs away, finds a bush on fire that speaks, and then returns to Egypt to demand the release of the slaves. When the Pharaoh laughs in the boy’s face, God punishes the Egyptians with horrific things like a river of blood and the death of all firstborn sons, as well as weirdly annoying things like a bunch of frogs. Then the Pharaoh relents and tells the Israelites they’re free to go, then changes his mind two minutes later. He chases them down into the Red Sea, but then the Sea closes and drowns the Egyptian army. The Israelites party with a song and a tambourine, wander in the desert, make a golden calf, Moses breaks the Ten Commandments and goes up the mountain again to rewrite them…

Okay, actually the whole thing is pretty random. But still, unleavened bread doesn’t seem a particularly notable plot point. Which is why the “pagan theory” could be valid.

The Separation Theory

Yet before we call it a day, let’s examine one more possible answer. Let’s call this final one the “separation theory.”

Bread is a symbolic covenant. When we give a stranger bread, we are essentially welcoming that stranger into our home. When we share bread, we become companions: com-, from the Latin, meaning “with,” and panis, meaning “bread.” A companion is, by definition, a person with whom you break bread.

On the flip side, when we reject bread, we reject companionship. By the very nature of defining those with whom you would share your bread (your companions), you must also have those with whom you do not share your bread (your enemies). Just as breaking bread unites, not breaking bread divides.

And maybe that’s why the Israelites stopped eating bread. To create division. To tell the Egyptians, “We are not like you. This is not our home.”

In fact, in the book of Exodus, when the Big G orders the Israelites to abstain from grain, He warns them that “if anyone eats what is leavened…that person shall be cut off from Israel” (12:16). In other words, you’re either with us or you’re against us. Not eating bread is an effective way to separate those who belong in Egypt (the Egyptians) from those who do not (the Israelites).

Photo by Osama Elsayed on Unsplash

So which theory is correct?

Maybe God told the Jews to stop eating bread in order to remind them of their mortal limits. Maybe the first Jews wanted to repackage pagan traditions for monotheism. Or maybe the bread strike was organized to sever ties to the land of Egypt. Or maybe my Hebrew teacher was right and the whole mishigas serves as a lesson in the value of proper time management.

Whatever the answer, we keep asking the question. Because it’s the question itself that matters. It’s the question that challenges us to think about our daily ritual — our daily bread. Is our relationship with bread creative or destructive? Does it separate us or bring us together? And when we break our bread, with whom do we break it?

[1] Nicholson, Paul T., et al. “Brewing and Baking.” Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 537–577.

[2] Tauber, Yanki. “No Bread.” Chabad.org, Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, 21 Feb. 2012, www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1777637/jewish/No-Bread.htm.

[3] The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, writing around 77 AD, notes that some women ritually abstained from grain for a set time in the year, during which they would grind up chestnuts and make a sort of bread-like loaf, which sounds delicious. (Historia Naturalis, XV, 25)

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Elise Wanger Zell

Elise Wanger Zell

If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com