Passover and Matzos
From March 27 to April 4, 2021, Jewish women and men all over the world celebrate the Passover festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation from Egyptian slavery. The Hebrew word “Pessach” means “to skip or pass over” – death skipped or passed over the houses of the Israelites. During the tenth and last plague, when the firstborn male offspring of humans and animals died, the Jewish children, women and men were spared. And, of course, their animals too. When you flee, you don’t have time for complicated things – baking bread, for example, because it simply takes too long. This is how a special type of bread was created, the mazzot or mazzes or matzo, especially if you only had one thing in your hand. Matzo consists only of flour and water and takes a maximum of 18 minutes to prepare. In the Jewish Museum’s object database there are 67 objects on the subject of “mazzot,” 28 hits with the keyword “Mazza,” while the search term “mazzes” scores 13 hits.
Image (c) JMW
Only one of the objects presented here is exhibited at the museum; the others are kept in the archive or in a depot. On the first evening of the Passover festival, called the Seder, a number of symbolic foods are eaten – all of which have to do with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They have three compartments and are often intricately embroidered. The six foods can be seen on this, along with sights from the Holy Land. These six foods are: green herbs, bitter herbs, a hard-boiled egg, a lamb or chicken bone, a bowl of salted water and a mixture of grated apples with nuts, dates, figs or raisins. This brown mass is reminiscent of the clay that the Israelites in Egypt used to make bricks to build pyramids.
Image (c) JMW
A Seder centerpiece combines the six foods – in the bowls at the top – with the three pieces of matzo. Behind the cloth there are three “plate floors,” upon each of which you put a piece of matzo. But why three? The three pieces stand for three sections of the population: the high priests (“Kohanim” in Hebrew), who did the really important things in the temple in Jerusalem. The Levites were the “servants” who helped the priests, and the third group, the Israel, were the people, meaning all very ordinary other people.
During the Seder, the host breaks the middle matzo in two and hides one half, called the “afikoman.” The hidden half then reappears and is eaten before the third cup of wine. In order to keep the children happy and awake, it is their special job to find the hidden piece. Whatever succeeds best! Speaking of wine: four cups of wine must be drunk at the Seder. Four cups because there are four expressions in the Torah for deliverance from slavery. Four cups and four questions: the youngest child asks four questions about the background of the festival. Questions also help against fatigue! And as a slave you didn’t have the time or the right to ask questions. Things look different in freedom!
Image (c) JMW
Speaking of freedom: In March 1918, the First World War had not yet ended, and chaos, misery and hunger prevailed. Despite this, or perhaps precisely because of this, the Jewish Community in Vienna provided its members with unleavened bread. Leon Schäfler received five kilos of matzo with this card. Orthodox Jews do not eat normal leavened bread, rolls, cakes or pizza during the entire Passover week. The leaven is called “hametz” in Hebrew and everything “hametz” must disappear from the house or apartment before Passover – Passover cleaning is what it is called. Just like Easter cleaning. Or spring cleaning.
Chag Pessach sameach! (Happy Passover Festival!)
Cover image (c) JMW