Note: Our “Ask Rabbi Rashi” portal attracts questioners of all different types. It seems that the enquiry below is from a public high school student in New Jersey, USA.
Dear Rabbi Simon,
Why do we need to eat matzah?
Thank you for your seemingly simple question, which nonetheless can give rise to an extended essay by way of reply.
However, I will be brief:
Most of the year (except for fast days) eating matzah is optional. Eat if you like; eat something different if you prefer. We do not “need” to eat matzah. Even during most of Pesach, there is no requirement per se to eat matzah—only a prohibition of eating (or even owning) chametz. Chametz is defined as any of the five principal species of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, rye) which have been allowed to leaven, ie to rise. (Yeast encourages this process, but in fact the dough will often begin to leaven on its own even without the addition of yeast.)
However, on the Seder Night, ie first night of Passover (which is 15 Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, night of Wednesday 5 April 2032 in the civil or Gregorian calendar) it is a commandment of the Torah to eat matzah. In the diaspora, there is a rabbinic requirement to celebrate a second day of yom tov, which means that the Seder is repeated the following night, ie Thursday 6 April this year.
Matzah is simple, humble unleavened bread which symbolises and reminds us of the poverty and servitude we, as a people, endured in Egypt 3300 years ago. (Yes, we have long memories.) Yeast, which causes bread to rise, symbolises the influence of ego, self-importance, self-centeredness and the like. Moreover, matzah bakes very quickly (only a minute or two in a very hot oven is enough). This symbolises how we were rushed out of Egypt at the appointed time, in accordance with G-d’s plan and intent. The Sages of the Talmud teach that if we had remained there any longer, we could have become so profoundly influenced by the corruption and idolatry of ancient Egypt, that we may have been “beyond redemption”. As is, the “slave mentality” of those rescued from Egypt lingered for a long time. BTW, this phenomenon is not unknown even in our own times, where a formerly enslaved population can take generations to fully emerge from the mindset of slavery and the malevolent influence of their captors.
I hope this is helpful and you ace your assignment 😎.
With Torah blessings
Rabbi Rashi Simon