In the Bible, the week-long holiday of Passover is usually called the festival of unleavened bread (matzot). During those seven days (eight, outside of Israel) Jews refrain from leavened bread and divest themselves of it. Clear as this obligation may be, the basis of these laws is presented differently in different passages. In Exodus 12, when the Israelites are still in Egypt, God tells Moses that the Jews are to eat the paschal lamb with matza and bitter herbs. No further explanation is offered, which might lead one to infer that the bread is no different from other cereal offerings that accompany animal sacrifices. Later in the chapter, when the Israelites leave Egypt, we read that they ate matzot because their exodus was urgent and they lacked the time to bake leavened bread. When the holiday is again discussed in Deuteronomy 16, matza is described as “bread of poverty” (or “bread of affliction”), and the command not to use leavened bread and to eat matza is rooted in the hasty departure from Egypt. So, one passage links matza to the paschal sacrifice, another in Exodus implies that it commemorates the inability of the people to prepare anything else, while Deuteronomy seems to see matza as representative of the poverty or affliction from which the slaves suffered and which they gratefully escaped.
Does matza then reenact the achievement of freedom or the severity of oppression that liberation overcame? The thirteenth-century Nachmanides, one of the greatest figures of medieval Judaism in Spain, said that matza articulates both the redemption and the suffering. Eating matza recalls the rapidity of the liberation, and it also recalls the hastily baked bread of the poor. The Passover Haggadah therefore refers to the matza as “the poor bread which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Likewise, Jewish law teaches that “rich bread,” kneaded with eggs or fruit juice, does not qualify as matza. Centuries later, the prophet’s description of the exodus from Babylon states pointedly, “You will not leave in haste” (Isa. 52:12). One could go further than Nachmanides and suggest that the Jews leaving Egypt with such alacrity bespoke not only confident eagerness for freedom but also ambivalent anxiety, lest Pharaoh change his mind yet again and revoke his manumission.
R. Judah Loew, the late-sixteenth-century rabbi of Prague, known by the acronym Maharal, disagreed sharply with Nachmanides. He rejected the idea that matza can represent two conflicting themes, namely, liberation and enslavement. He places liberation from slavery in the foreground of the Exodus 12 story about the urgent departure from Egypt that necessitated partaking of unleavened bread. For that reason, the reference to haste in Deuteronomy must also be interpreted in terms of freedom.
This dispute—the riches of redemption or the poverty of suffering—raises intriguing questions. Can the same ritual object represent ideas that we experience as conflicting? To what extent can the traditional Jewish liturgical system articulate opposed feelings?
Leaving that issue aside, Maharal is faced with an immediate exegetical problem in Deuteronomy 16, which is alluded to in the Passover Haggadah: Does not the phrase “bread of poverty” point to oppression? This phrase strongly supports Nachmanides’s view that the unleavened bread symbolizes slavery. Maharal’s answer is that “bread of poverty” is not a negative image. To the contrary, matza is the simplest kind of bread. Quickly prepared, it is dough and water and nothing else. In Maharal’s opinion, nothing is more emblematic of freedom than a simple food of this sort, the very opposite of luxury and superfluity, which so easily weighs us down with the cares of this world.
Praise for the frugal life is common in religious thought. The Mishna enumerates forty-eight ways in which the Torah is acquired. Prominent among them is the readiness to limit idle socialization, sleep, and mundane pursuits. I am fully aware that most of the people I teach and interact with enjoy affluence on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Many of us are vaguely conscious that our standard of living is correlated to the prevalence of religious mediocrity among us, though few preachers and fewer lay people seem troubled by the dissonance between what we know and how we live.
All the same, when I taught a course on Maharal last spring, I was in for a surprise. His claim that matza, precisely as the food of simplicity, is the quintessential bread of freedom provoked vigorous resistance among my students. In their minds, freedom is predicated on not being bound by material constraints. Necessity is the great enemy of doing as one pleases. It is not hard to recognize that the life of a poor but saintly person is morally more authentic and religiously richer than that of those who enjoy greater material resources. Yet doesn’t poverty enslave one to exigency and dearth? How can a life held hostage to need possibly be freer than one that has the option of material comfort?
I demurred. Maharal is not focusing on the desperation of penury—matza, for all its lack of culinary sophistication, is physically nourishing. What he stresses is that life conducted with simplicity is unencumbered by preoccupation with material acquisition and consumption. In that sense, it enables and expresses a freedom not available to those possessed by their wealth and possessions.
The first-century b.c.e. sage Hillel used to say that increased property brings increased worries. Kris Kristofferson penned a memorable line in one of his songs: “Freedom’s just another name for nothin’ left to lose.” Destitution is not freedom, but the poetic exaggeration rings true. Two millennia after Hillel made his wise observation, we recognize how much time and effort is squandered in our compulsive submission to our imagined need for the latest paraphernalia. Most of us, not infrequently, wish we were less encumbered, because our possessions make us less free instead of more so.
Can this awareness help us move toward the kind of unencumbered existence that Maharal associates with the liberation of Exodus? Earlier I noted that most of us do not adopt the ethos of self-denial required for the acquisition of Torah; it is honored mostly in the breach. Maharal’s conception of matza as simplicity, by contrast, seems to arouse genuine opposition. Need this be so? I wonder if the idea of the unencumbered life has more appeal in our day than does self-denial. Perhaps it can more effectively motivate people who remain otherwise unmoved by the demanding ethos of Torah acquisition.
Self-denial is justified and even attractive in the name of some great good. But we happily perform the sacrifice only when that good is properly understood. If one lacks the appreciation and ardor to acquire Torah, then the difficulties of the path will seem irksome and sacrifices unnecessary. By contrast, the desire to live unfettered is natural. It does not require clear ideas about what makes life worthy. We have a sense that being encumbered with superfluous possessions and imagined benefits often adds more complications than pleasures. When these complications and burdens are held in contrast to a simpler, less encumbered life, we begin to question our priorities.
This point about a natural human desire to be free from the heavy baggage of possessions is not alien to the Bible. It can be read back into the narrative of Exodus. Committed Jews tend to regard the giving of the Torah at Sinai as the culmination of the Exodus. God tells Moses, during their first encounter: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.” According to the influential commentary of Rashi, this refers to the law-giving on Sinai.
The careful reader will notice that this knowledge is not explicitly relayed to the people themselves. The slaves first receive the promise of liberation, which they can immediately grasp as a transforming gift. Only after they emerge from bondage, several months later, are they confronted with the challenge and the glory of devoting their lives to the fulfillment of God’s will for them. That same opportunity awaits those who have cleared their plates of worldly cares, as it were, and are able to turn to Torah learning as a more precious possession.
The story of Passover is not only about God redeeming our ancestors from Egyptian slavery. He redeemed their descendants along with them. The challenge of spiritual and moral liberation confronts us today no less than then. The simplicity of the unleavened bread can be a starting point, a powerful reminder that what we need is often far less than what we want. It is a recognition that frees us to enter into what God gives.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.