The Talmud (Pesachim 6a) explains that it’s proper to ask and teach about the laws of Passover 30 days before the holiday begins. And so, with Purim in our rear-view mirror and Passover rapidly approaching, let me devote this column to one of Passover’s laws/customs (say I glibly, sitting comfortably at my computer discussing laws, while my wife is busy creating menus, developing shopping lists, and planning for the house turnover, among a myriad of other pre-holiday tasks).
Traditional Jewish law is clear. As set forth in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Leavened and Unleavened Bread, 6:12), “the Sages forbade a person from eating matzah on Pesach eve in order for there to be a distinction between partaking of it simply as a food and eating it on the evening at the seder as a mitzvah.” Aruch HaShulchan (Even HaEzer, 471:3), in codifying this rule, includes the reason behind it, as explained in Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) (Pesachim 10:1): “Rebbi Levi said, he who eats matzah on Passover Eve is like one who sleeps with his betrothed in his father-in-law’s house.” That is, you would spoil your taste for the matzah that you are about to eat at the seder if you jump the gun and partake of some before the permissible and appropriate time. (Interestingly, Maimonides does not mention this reasoning.)
(There’s a well-known apocryphal quip about this reasoning. I know it’s apocryphal because it’s been attributed to several well-known Jewish thinkers and writers — Chaim Nachman Bialik and Ahad Ha’am among others — one of whom supposedly said, “I’ve tried both and did not find them to be similar.”)
But this prohibition (about matzah, not one’s betrothed) is not so simple, because observant Jews frequently are not satisfied to merely comply with the law, and often add minhag (custom) to it. Thus, while the law proscribes matzah only on the 14th of Nissan (Passover eve), this law has morphed into a custom, for some, not to eat matzah from the first of Nissan (the Jewish month in which Passover falls). Others use Purim as the matzah cut-off date, and still others stop on the first of Adar (the Jewish month before Nissan). While my custom had been to follow only the strict letter of the law, my wife’s custom is to stop once Adar begins. And since she takes the laboring oar on Pesach preparations, I’ve followed her lead in this area.
Until this year. We’re a handmade shemurah matzah family; that is, the matzah we eat on Pesach is almost exclusively the artisanal, round matzot whose ingredients are guarded against leavening from the time the wheat is harvested. These special matzot, more expensive than regular machine-made ones, are baked especially for Pesach, and many people use them only at the seder. We eat them throughout the entire holiday (except for Pesach pizza, which the house chefs say is best with Yehuda machine-made matzah), not because we’re especially punctilious about halachic observance or enjoy spending lots of money. Rather, we just happen to like shemurah matzah’s taste and texture and thus make this a holiday splurge.
But as with many foods, we have very personal, and strong, likes and dislikes about shemurah matzah. Our favorite had always been the eponymous shemurah matzah made by the Shatzer family. When my father was alive, he loved to treat all his children to pounds upon pounds of Shatzer matzah. Since the matzah our shul sells is Shatzer, after my father died, we were able to continue the tradition by ordering those same pounds from it — or maybe a few less since we were paying.
Sadly, many good things come to an end. A few weeks ago, we were stunned to learn that Shatzer was not baking matzah this year. Was it going out of business? Was there a death or rift in the family? Economic problems? Who knows? The Shatzers are close-lipped, but one thing was clear — their matzah ovens are cold and their familiar brown cardboard boxes empty.
What to do? We didn’t really consider switching to machine-made matzah; Pesach simply would not be the same. And while we considered buying the shemurah matzah brand now sold by my shul, there were two problems. First, it is much more expensive, even considering inflation (though my shul is not to blame since it didn’t set the price). Second, there was no way for us to taste it to see if we would like it before being obligated to put in our order. (I first expressed this idea to Sharon as buying a pig in a poke, but she promptly, and properly, noted I should find a more appropriate formulation.)
And then the 21st century came to the rescue. Not that long ago, there were very few outlets that sold shemurah matzah — shuls and yeshivot, local kosher stores, Chabad, or maybe we could take a trip to Brooklyn to buy directly from a matzah bakery. But good retailers know a market when they see one, and in recent years stores in the Teaneck area, from Costco to ShopRite to Stop & Shop, have been stocking numerous brands of shemurah matzah at relatively decent prices.
And that’s how we solved the “will we like it?” conundrum. Following in the footsteps of Coke and Pepsi, we created our own Kaplan shemurah matzah challenge. Buying a pound of four different brands, my wife, two daughters, and I tasted each. (No, we didn’t clean our palates between bites with four cups of wine or eat more than a keza’it — an olive-size morsel — of each.) Two quickly fell out of the running; one was too thin, the other too soggy. Our votes on the other two were split, so we purchased several additional pounds of each to enjoy over the holiday.
What does all this have to do with when to stop eating matzah? Well, our shemurah matzah challenge took place after the first of Adar, so for the first time in many years I ate matzah in violation of Sharon’s custom. As did she.
We’ll most probably go back to our former custom next year. But for this year it was just fine. While many of us often develop and follow certain patterns as we grow older, they don’t have to take on the character of obligation, in the sense that observant Jews are obligated to observe halacha and law-abiding citizens obligated to follow, well, the law. Sometimes it can be fun, even exhilarating, to break out of our patterns and follow a different path, design a new model, or massage a custom. We may, of course, eventually return to the tried and true. Or possibly not.
But sometimes it’s perfectly fine to enjoy an illicit taste of matzah in Adar.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.