Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
When the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) stood, the korban pesach (paschal lamb) was the focus of the seder. It was eaten with matzot and maror (bitter herbs), as the Torah prescribes. Nowadays, when the Beit HaMikdash has been destroyed on account of our sins and there is no korban pesach, it is no longer possible to fulfill the mitzvah completely. The question arises whether there is still a mitzvah to eat matzah and maror. The halakhah has been decided in accordance with Rava, who ruled that nowadays eating matzah is a Torah requirement (de’oraita), while eating maror is a rabbinic requirement (derabbanan). The rationale behind Rava’s ruling is that the Torah obligation of maror is only when it accompanies the korban pesach. Therefore, the moment there is no korban pesach, there is also no obligation to eat maror. In contrast, the Torah obligation of matzah is dual-faceted. True, it was eaten together with the korban pesach. However, there is also an independent obligation to eat matzah, which is derived from the verse, “In the evening you shall eat matzot” (Exodus 12:18). This second obligation remains in force even when there is no korban pesach.
The halakhah has been decided in accordance with Rava, who ruled that nowadays eating matzah is a Torah requirement (de’oraita), while eating maror is a rabbinic requirement (derabbanan). The rationale behind Rava’s ruling is that the Torah obligation of maror is only when it accompanies the korban pesach. Therefore, the moment there is no korban pesach, there is also no obligation to eat maror. In contrast, the Torah obligation of matzah is dual-faceted. True, it was eaten together with the korban pesach. However, there is also an independent obligation to eat matzah, which is derived from the verse, “In the evening you shall eat matzot” (Exodus 12:18). This second obligation remains in force even when there is no korban pesach.
When do we eat matzah on seder night?
At the seder, in accordance with the generations-old custom of the Jewish nation, there are two primary times when we eat matzah: at the beginning of the meal (“motzi matzah”), and again at the end of the meal (“afikoman”). The Rishonim (medieval rabbinic authorities) speculate quite a bit about which of these times is the one that fulfills the mitzvah to eat matzah. However, it seems to me that there is a much more pressing question that needs to be answered before we even get to that one: why do we eat matzah twice? If we fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah at the beginning of the meal, let’s leave it at that. If we are required to eat matzah at the end of the meal, as was done with the korban pesach, let’s leave it at that. Why do we eat matzah twice?
There are many ways to answer this question. I will suggest two possibilities here.
The first answer
On seder night, in the course of telling the story of our progression to freedom, we embody that freedom in our behavior. Seder night is not a night when we busy ourselves only with retelling history. Rather, we relive history. We eat maror, which symbolizes servitude; we eat the pesach, through which we were saved from Egypt; and we eat the matzah, which symbolizes the hurriedness of our freedom.
Working within this framework, the question arises: what is the significance of the rest of our food – the chicken soup with matzah balls and the other delicacies which are part of our seder experience? One could claim that the answer is none, that this gastronomical side is just an aspect of the family get-together, and as such is important, but plays no part in our religious consciousness.
In my opinion, this statement is incorrect. Beginning in Mishnaic times, we find the custom of “two cooked dishes” on the seder plate, in addition to the matzah, maror, and charoset. Over the course of time, seder foods acquired symbolic significance. We do not eat roasted foods, so we will not confuse them with the roasted korban pesach. We eat eggs to symbolize our mourning for the churban (destruction of the Temple). In the works of the Geonim and Rishonim, there are many other symbolic seder foods. We eat on the most beautiful dishes we own, in order to show that we are royalty. There are many additional proofs that it is not chance that the meal is at the center of the seder. Its presence there is quite intentional.
In order to preserve the centrality of the meal as intimately connected with the idea of redemption, we surround our meal with the most symbolic food of the evening – the matzah. We both open and close the meal with matzah. Our whole meal accompanies the matzah, and consequently it becomes a redemptive meal and not simply a family gathering.
The second answer
As I said above, matzah serves a dual purpose. It accompanies the korban pesach, as it does many other korbanot. It is also the food of freedom on seder night. Even today, when we no longer have the korban pesach, we wish to preserve this dual character.
On the one hand, we eat the matzah as a remembrance of eating it together with the korban pesach; this is the same reason we eat the maror, and therefore we eat them at the same time (the beginning of the meal). Similarly, we eat the matzah with the maror as a sandwich (korekh), the same way that Hillel did with the korban pesach.
On the other hand, matzah is a substitute for the korban pesach. Even when we don’t have the symbolic food par excellence of the redemption, the korban pesach, we still have a substitute – matzah. This matzah is eaten at the same time in the evening when we would have eaten the korban pesach – on a full stomach as the last course. “After the korban pesach has been eaten, we must not eat anything” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:8). So too, at this point in the evening we eat the matzah as a replacement for the korban pesach, and do not eat anything after it.
According to both these answers, eating matzah on seder night plays a pivotal role. It does not merely “fill the belly,” but awakens memories through the experience of eating it. May it be God’s will that we succeed in finding the spiritual within the physical on this evening, and throughout our lives. Chag Same’ach.