Torah’s Subtle Clues: 

The Significance of Bread, Matzah & Chametz

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim


When studying Passover (Exod. 12), we note its distinction from the other holidays: Passover was celebrated in Egypt. That is, commands existed even prior to the Torah. Today, we reenact those commands in the form of the shank bone, the matza, the bitter herbs, and other laws. Succos and Shavuos are commemorations of God’s kindness to us. Passover is as well, but it differs from the other holidays with our pre-Torah Passover observance in Egypt. Additionally, our adherence to God’s commands in Egypt contributed to the holiday’s structure: there is only one Succos holiday and one Shavuos. But there are two Passovers: the Passover of Egypt, and all subsequent Passovers. What may we learn from its distinction from the other two holidays? What differences exist between the Passover of Egypt, and our Passover?

Reading the Haggadah, we note a conflict in the identity of the matza. The Haggadah commences by describing the matza as “lachma anya”—poor man’s bread. The Jews were fed this bread during their Egyptian bondage. However, later on, the Haggadah, quoting the Talmud Pesachim 116b states that matza is commanded in memory of the dough which did not rise due to the Egyptians’ swift, panic-stricken oust of the Jews. (After the Death of Firstborns, the Egyptians panicked, “We are all dead!”) We are obligated by Torah law to recall God’s swift salvation by eating the matza. The Jews were driven out from the Egyptian city Raamses, and arrived at Succot. When the Jews arrived, they were able to bake that dough only into matza—not bread—for the hastened exodus retarded the leavening process. The matza serves as a barometer of the speed by which God freed the Jews. Was this matza part of God’s orchestrated events? Did God desire this barometer in the form of matza?

We should note at this point that the Jews in Egypt observed only one day of Passover (R. Yossi HaGalili, Jer. Talmud 14a). The Torah laws describing those Jews’ obligation also appear to exclude any restriction of eating leaven. Certainly on the morrow of the Egyptian Passover, the Jews were permitted to eat leaven. Rabbeinu Nissim comments that it was only due to the rush of the Egyptians that their loaves were retarded in their leavening process. Had the Egyptians not rushed them, the Jews would have created bread for there was no prohibition on bread at that point.

But for which reason are we “commanded” in matza? The Haggada text clearly states it is based on the dough which did not rise during the Exodus. Thus, matza demonstrates salvation, the focus of the Passover holiday, posing this serious problem: not only do later generations have the command of eating matza, but the Jews in Egypt were also commanded in eating the Lamb with matza, (and maror). Now, if while still in Egypt, when there was yet no “swift salvation”, why were those Jews commanded in this matza? How can Jews in Egypt, not yet redeemed, commemorate a Redemption, which did not yet happen?! It is true: the Jews ate matza while slaves. However, the Haggada says the “command” of eating matza was only due to the speedy salvation. This implies that the Jews in Egypt who also had the command of matza, were obligated for the same reason, which is incomprehensible.

The Torah spends much time discussing the dough, and oddly, also refers to it in the singular, “And the people lifted up (carried) HIS loaf from the kneading troughs before it had risen, rolled up in their garments, placed on their shoulders (Exod. 12:34).”  “And they baked THE loaf (Exod. 12:39)...”  Why this singular reference to numerous loaves? Why so much discussion about the loaf? And why did the Jews “roll up the loaf in their garments, placing on their shoulders”? This is significant, as God records this. 

Finally, Rashi praises the Jews for not taking any provisions when they left: “And they baked the loaf they took out of Egypt into cakes of matza, because it did not leaven, because they were driven from Egypt, and they could not tarry, and also provisions they did not make for themselves” (Exod. 12:39). Rashi says the fact they did not take provisions demonstrated their trust that God would provide. If so, why in the very same verse, did the Jews bake the dough? This implies the exact opposite of Rashi’s intent, that the Jews did in fact distrust God! It is startling that a contradiction to Rashi is derived from the very same verse.  In order to answer these questions, it is essential to gain some background.

The Egyptians originated bread. The Egyptian taskmasters ate their bread, as their Jewish slaves gaped enviously, breaking their teeth on dry matza, or “poor man’s bread”—a relative term: “poor” is in comparison to something richer. “Poor man’s bread” teaches that there was a “richer bread” in Egypt: soft bread, which the Egyptians enjoyed while feeding their Jewish slaves matza.

Let us now understand Rashi’s comment. He said the Jews were praiseworthy as they did not take food with them upon their exodus. Thereby, they displayed a trust in God’s ability to provide food. But we noted that in the very same verse where Rashi derives praise for the Jews, whom Rashi said took no food, it clearly states they in fact took the loaves! Rashi’s source seems internally contradictory. I would suggest that a new attitude prevailed among the Jews. 

The Significance of Bread

The Jews did not take that loaf from Egypt for the purpose of consumption. This is Rashi’s point. The Jews took the loaf because of what it represented: freedom. They were fed matza for the duration of their 210-year bondage. They were now free. They cherished this freedom and longed to express it. Baking bread instead of dry, poor man’s matza was this expression of freedom. They now wished to be like their previous taskmasters: “bread eaters.” A free people. Baking and eating bread was the very distinction between slave and master in Egypt. The Jews wished to shed their identity as slaves and display their freedom. Baking and eating bread would achieve this. To further prove that the Jews valued such identification with the Egyptians, Rashi comments that when the Jews despoiled the Egyptians at Moses’ command, “they valued the Egyptian clothing more than the silver and gold” (Exodus 12:35). 

The Jews’ attachment to bread is made clear in two glaring details: 

And the people lifted up (carried) his loaf from the kneading troughs before it had risen, rolled up in their garments, placed on their shoulders (Exod. 12:34).

The Torah records a strange act: the Jews carried this loaf in their garments, not in a bag or a sack. Additionally, they placed it on their shoulders. “The suit makes the man.” In other words, as clothing is man’s expression of his identity, the Jews placed in their clothes the dough intended to be come free man’s bread. They expressed this link between clothing (identity) and the dough. Furthermore, they carried it on their shoulders, as a badge of sorts. They did not pack the dough away. It was a prized entity they wished to display, forming part of their dress. 

Torah records these details as they are significant of the problem God was addressing. “Rolled up in their garments, placed on their shoulders” are intentionally recorded in the Torah to reveal the Jew’s value of bread as a medallion of freedom. 

Freedom is Not Inherently Good

However, the Jews had the wrong idea. Their newfound freedom was not intended by God to be unrestricted as they wished to express. They were freed, but for a new purpose: following God. Had they been allowed to indulge freedom unrestrained, expressed by eating leavened bread, this would corrupt God’s plan that they serve Him. Freedom and servitude to God are mutually exclusive. Therefore, God did not allow the dough to rise. They trusted God, they saw all the miracles. They needed no food for their journey, as God would provide. But they took the dough in hopes of making that “free man’s food”: leavened bread. The dough was not taken for subsistence, but to symbolize their freedom. They hoped upon reaching their destination, to bake bread, expressing their own idea of freedom. But the verse says the dough only became matza, not their intended leavened end-product. Matza was a mere result of a hurried exodus. Matza was so significant, that the Torah recorded this “event” of their failed bread making. They planned to bake bread, but it ended up matza. Torah teaches that matza was not the Jews’ plan. It points out through inference that they desired leavened bread. It also teaches that bread was not desired so much for subsistence, as they verse ends, “and provisions they made not for themselves” (Exod. 12:39). They did not prepare food, as they relied on God. This is Rashi’s point. The dough they took was not for provisions; it was to express unrestricted freedom. This unrestricted freedom is a direct contradiction to God’s plan that they serve Him.

The Jews were now excited at the prospect of complete freedom. God’s plan could not tolerate the Jews’ wish. God desired the Jews to go from Egyptian servitude, to another servitude: adherence to God. He did not wish the Jews’ to experience or express unrestricted freedom, as the Jews wished. To demonstrate this, God retarded the dough from leavening. The matza they baked at Succot was not an accident, but God’s purposeful plan, that any expression of unrestricted freedom be thwarted.

One Act: Two Goals

Matza does not only recall God’s swift salvation, but it also represents Egyptian servitude. In the precise activity that the Jews wished to express unrestricted freedom (baking bread), God stepped in with one action serving two major objectives. Causing a swift ousting of the Jews, God did not allow the dough to rise. God did not allow the Jews to enjoy leavened bread, which would embody unrestricted freedom. But even more amazing is that with one action of a speedy redemption, God not only restricted the dough’s process, but God became the Jews’ savior. He replaced the Jews’ intended, unrestricted freedom with the correct purpose of their salvation: to be indebted to God. The one act—God’s swift Exodus—prevented the wrong idea of freedom from being realized, and also instilled in the Jews the right idea: they were now indebted to God, their Savior. They were not left to unrestricted freedom, but were now bound to God by His new act of kindness. An astonishing point.


We return to the command to eat matza in Egypt. Obviously, this command could not commemorate an event, which did not yet happen. God commanded them to eat the matza for what it did represent: servitude. While in Egypt, why did God wish the Jews to be mindful of servitude? Here I feel we arrive at another basic theme of the Passover holiday: contrast between servitude and freedom. In Pesachim 116a, the Talmud records a mishna, which states that our transmission of the Haggadah must commence with our degradation, and conclude with praise. We therefore discuss our servitude or our ancestor’s idolatrous practices, and conclude with our salvation and praise for God. We do this, as such a contrast engenders a true appreciation for God’s salvation. Perhaps also the two Passover holidays—in Egypt and today—embody this concept of our salvation. A central goal of Passover is to arrive at an appreciation for God’s redemption. A contrast between our Egyptian Passover and today’s Passover best engender such appreciation. It compares our previous bondage to our current freedom. Perhaps for this reason we are also commanded to view ourselves as if we left Egypt.

So, in Egypt, we ate matza representing Egyptian servitude. Today we eat it as the Haggadah says, to recall the swift salvation, which retarded the leavening process, creating matza. We end up with a comparison between Passover of Egypt, and today’s Passover: servitude versus salvation. The emergence of the Jewish people was on Passover. We have two Passovers, displaying the concept of a transition, a before and an after.

An interesting and subtle point is that God mimicked the matza of servitude. He orchestrated the salvation around matza. Why? Perhaps as matza in its original form in Egypt embodied servitude, God wished that servitude be the continued theme of Passover. He therefore centered the salvation on the dough, which eventuated in matza; thereby teaching that we are to be slaves to God: “You are my slaves” (Lev. 25:55). Torah clearly views man’s relationship to God as a servant.

With this understanding of the significance of leavened bread, we understand why the Torah refers to all the Jews’ loaves in the singular. The Jews shared one common desire: to express their freedom by eating what their oppressors ate. However, contrary to human feelings, “unrestricted freedom” is an evil…odd as it sounds. God’s plan in creating man was to direct us all in understanding and delighting in the truth of God, His role as the exclusive Creator, the One who manages man’s affairs, and Who is omnipotent (Ramban, Exod. 13:16). God had a purpose in creating man, and it is not to be free and live as we wish. Our purpose is to engage the one faculty granted to us and no other creation: our intellect. And the primary use of the intellect is forfeited when we do not recognize God, as the Egyptians displayed. Therefore, God freed us so we may enter a new servitude according: serving Him. But this service of God should not be viewed as a negative, as in serving man. Serving God is achieved by studying Him, His Torah and creation: a truly happy and beautiful life. We could equate the enjoyment and benefit in serving God to serving a human master who gives us gold if we simply look for it.  So too is the service of God. If we merely learn and seek new ideas, He will open new vaults of wisdom. We are so fortunate.

Finally, what is the significance of chametz, leaven? Once leavened bread took on the role of freedom with no connection to God, leaven thereby took on a character that opposes the very salvation, demonstrated by the matza. This explains that leaven was not mentioned in connection with the instructions pertaining to the original Egyptian Paschal lamb. The Jews had not yet displayed any attachment to bread. Only subsequent to the first Passover celebration do we see the Jews’ problematic tie to leavened bread. Therefore, only afterwards is there any prohibition on bread.