The Jewish holiday of Passover, also known as the “Feast of Unleavened Bread,” begins at sundown March 27. The holiday commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. The Bible says the Jews left Egypt so quickly, they did not have time to let their bread rise.
To this day, Jews recall the event by eating a special flat unleavened bread called “matzo” at a ritual meal. A bakery in Brooklyn, New York is still making matzo by hand, according to ancient traditions.
Ten days before Passover, this storefront in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights Brooklyn may look quiet, even drab on the outside. But inside, it is a near-frantic hive of activity as cases of precious “shmura” (matzos) are baked and carefully packed.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds are sent out from this matzo bakery all over the world. “It’s actually a world venture kind of bakery. Even though it’s a small little place. It’s teeny-weenie. It’s so small that its amazing that this much comes out of it. It’s an amazing process,” Rabbi Beryl Epstein of the Lubavitch Hasidic Welcome Center, who toured the reporter around the bakery, said.
He tugs his long beard and motions at the matzos, which resemble off-white crunchy crackers about 30 centimeters across. “Matzo and the holiday of Passover signify freedom. Matzo is unleavened bread which you are commanded to eat on Passover to remember the haste at which the Jewish people ran out of Egypt 3,700 years ago. But it’s made under extremely stringent laws to make sure that there’s no leavening involved,” Beryl Epstein explained.
The Hebrew word “shmura” means “carefully guarded.” In this case, that means guarded against any possibility that the flour and water will be allowed to leaven and rise. Biblical law states that any Jew who eats leavening during the eight days of Passover will have his “soul cut off from his people.” According to talmudic law, water used for matzo must be well-water gathered at sunset and allowed to sit overnight, and the wheat for matzo flour must be completely dry when it is harvested. And the two must be kept separate until the very moment of preparation.
Inside the bakery proper, the flour and water are kept behind separate wooden partitions until workers get a verbal signal to mix them. As a man bolts from the mixing room with a fresh batch of dough, a nursery school teacher comments to her class. “He’s working very fast. He has to make sure that he mixes the flour and water very quickly so that they can make the matzo within how many minutes, Noah? Who remembers? Eighteen! The whole entire matzo should be ready within eighteen minutes. Good,” the teacher says.
“At this matzo bakery actually it takes about five minutes … It’s an unbelievable process,” Beryl Epstein explains.
The bowl is brought to a larger room where about 15 middle aged and older Jewish women in kerchiefs are standing in two rows holding rolling pins and waiting for a golf ball sized hunk of dough. Most of them came to America from the former Soviet Union, where making matzo was once a serious crime.
“These are the ladies rolling out the matzo… Dedicated souls rolling out the matzos for people all over the world. Once the matzo is done they say ‘Le shem matzo’ mitzvahs’ and someone comes and picks up the matzo,” Rabbi Beryl Epstein continued. “…’Le Shem matzo mitzvahs…’ …that the matzo is made with intention … that we are sending this matzo on its way that a Jewish person will fulfill the mitzvah [commandment] of eating matzo on Passover night.”
The flattened matzos are carried to another table, where a young man rolls a hand-held tool over them to create little incisions in their sides. This will prevent them from puffing up with air inside the oven.
Rabbi Epstein says that there is a spiritual as well as a practical dimension to this process and to all aspects of Passover. “The matzo, it is no accident that it is flat. Bread, on the other hand, is very puffy. So the puffiness of bread in a certain sense, signifies ego, haughtiness… How do you really attain godliness? Through humbleness,” the Rabbi said.
After the incisions are made, a skilled worker hangs the matzos on wooden poles about five meters long, about 10 matzos to a pole, and slides them into a wood-fired oven heated to almost 1400 degrees centigrade. After about 20 seconds, they are fully baked. Still, a quality checker with an oven mitt must be on hand, just to be sure.
The lessons of Passover are full of paradoxes. Rabbi Epstein explains that after the Israelites fled slavery in Egypt, they became everlasting servants to God. He quotes the Torah, the Jewish book of holy laws. “It says ‘… In every generation a person to look as if he himself came out of Egypt.’ What is that ‘coming out?’ I didn’t leave Egypt yesterday. It’s because my goal is to overcome any obstacles on my way to God. And that everyone can experience – not only every single year but every single day,” Rabbi Beryl Epstein says.
The Jewish Festival of Passover begins Wednesday night at sundown when matzo will be eaten at a special ritual meal called a “seder.” The holiday will continue for eight days.