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Rabbi Apple’s Passover musings

Was matzah something new?
Matzah existed before the exodus.

Since the Egyptians are said to have pioneered the leavening process in baking bread, unleavened bread must previously have been the norm.

Even when leavened bread became available, it was probably limited to the aristocracy and the wealthy. It was too expensive for the ordinary person, who had to continue eating something like matzah (though the matzah they made was thicker and softer than ours).

This may be why the Haggadah calls matzah “lechem oni”, the bread of affliction or poor man’s bread “which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt”.

It is said that by the time of Moses, there were as many as 40 types of bread in Egypt, and some or all would have been flavoured and eaten with onions.

When the waters of the Nile were too low, the economy was in jeopardy and people threw bread into the river as an offering, since divinity was attributed to the waters. Maybe this is the origin of the phrase, “Cast your bread upon the waters” (Kohelet 11:1).

Originally bread (as well as matzah) was baked at home. It was only about three centuries ago that professional matzah bakeries began and the matzah became hard and crisp, though some non-Ashkenazic communities still prefer soft matzah.

When the Israelites left Egypt they looked forward to eating rich men’s bread as a mark of freedom, but they were in such a hurry that there was no time for the dough to rise and they had to make do with unleavened bread once again.

The symbolism of chametz
The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is very strict. The Torah insists, No chametz shall be seen or found in your border (Ex. 13:7).
The symbolism of the chametz law has a message for everybody.Chametz represents the sin of pride: as matzah is made from grain that is capable of becoming chametz, so every human being is capable of getting a puffed-up ego, behaving arrogantly, showing off and becoming impossible to live with.
Chametz represents the need to keep one’s self-pride under control.
Chametz also stands for the evil inclination in a person (the “yetzer ha-ra”), the internal ferment that has the power of bursting up and leading the person to commit a transgression.

The Jewish sages say that even the evil inclination can be good for a person; they mean that one’s ambitions and energies are a blessing because they lead to heroic achievements, but only if they are subjected to the “yetzer ha-tov,” the good inclination, directed wisely and controlled well.

What is the question?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that that our generation knows the answers but has forgotten the questions.
With regard to Pesach we know that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, God redeemed them and took them out across the Red Sea to become a free nation, and we celebrate these events by observing seder night and reading the Haggadah.
That’s the answer, but what is the question?

The question seems to be “Mah Nishtanah.” But there are at least two problems with this phrase.
Problem 1:
What do we mean by “mah”? Is it “What?” – i.e. “What is different about this night?” – a question. Or is it “How!” – i.e. “How different this night is!” – an exclamation.
If it’s a question, the four statements that follow are answers and not questions. In other words, “What is different…? The fact that we eat matzah, etc.” That means that there aren’t four questions but only one.
On the other hand, if “mah” is an exclamation, the four statements in Mah Nishtanah are illustrative explanations, and therefore there are no questions at all and nobody is asking anything.
Problem 2:
What do we mean by “nishtanah”?
Most translators render it in the present tense, “Why is this night different?” or “How different this night is!”
But “nishtanah” is actually not present but past tense from the root “shin-nun-heh,” to change or differ. The translation therefore ought to be, “In what way did this night become different?” or ” “How different this night became!”
In that case the topic of discussion is not what we thought it was, the seder procedure.
What we are called upon to do is not to talk about the content of the seder but the history of the Haggadah.

The serious side of Chad Gadya
Don’t be taken in by “Chad Gadya.”

It’s not as ancient as people imagine, even though it is in Aramaic. It has no real connection with Pesach, even though it concludes the Seder ceremonial. It is philosophical, even though it looks and sounds like mere fun. It is messianic, even though it seems quite mundane.

The song begins with a kid, which was bought for two zuzim. The kid was eaten by the cat; the cat was eaten by the dog; the dog was beaten by the stick; the stick was burnt by the fire… and so on until in the end God Almighty appears and brings the chain effect to an end by destroying the Angel of Death and asserting His sovereign power.
The first Haggadah to include it seems to have been as recent as 1590, though the idea goes back to the Mishnah (Avot 2:7), where Hillel sees a skull floating on the water and says, “Because you drowned others, you yourself have been drowned – and they who drowned you will finally be drowned themselves.”
The Vilna Ga’on applied the song to Jewish history, identifying each of the characters with a person or age in Jewish history until in the end nothing remains but God. Emil Fackenheim pointed out that history —as poetically described in “Adon Olam” —began with God’s sole presence and will end with God once more reigning alone.
What Chad Gadya has to do with Pesach is questionable, though some see in it a hint of the paschal lamb.
There are those who simply say that it is a nursery rhyme, written to keep the children awake and alert but adopted by adults to end the long seder procedure with a triumphant crescendo.
The truth probably is that the poet who composed the song was no comedian but a subtle philosopher. We don’t know his name. His theme was cause and effect. His maxim was that nothing just happens randomly.
There may even be a hint of Darwinian Survival of the Fittest — with a devastating commencement and a decisive conclusion that totally contrasts with Darwin.
Chad Gadya starts with the purchase of a little goat. By implication the song asks where everything began. Its answer: “Father”, i.e. God. Nothing occurred or erupted by mere chance. There was an act of creation. God brought the world and its inhabitants into being. He gave man free will.
He said, “Man, I have given you a world. I have endowed you with the energy and ability to make something of the world and yourself. What now happens is up to you. If you are wise, you will follow my recipe of moral principle. If not, you will be responsible for your results. I will not dictate to you or force you. I will not intervene. But I will be there and when I am ready I will assert My control.”
If we want a connection with Pesach, it must be that this is the festival that shows how low man can sink and how high he can rise. The despair and gloom of Egyptian slavery is everyman’s depth of darkness. The Hebrew yearning for freedom is everyman’s saving grace. Man can be pulled towards either pole.
Pesach proves that breaking free and bringing the Messiah is possible. The Angel of Death can and will be vanquished and the Holy One, blessed be He, will have the last laugh and rule forever.

Rabbi Raymond Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia for 32 years. He also held public roles, particularly in chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and was the recipient of several national and civic honors. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at


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