Passover Pesach

The Poor Bread

From The Passover Haggadah:

This is the poor bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who are oppressed shall come and eat, anyone who is in need shall come and partake of our Passover. Today we live in a world imperfect; next year may we live in a world redeemed.  Today we are enslaved, next year may all be free.

This reading from our Haggadah remains one of my favorite pieces of Jewish liturgy.  At the outset of our Seder, we focus in on the Matzah as a teaching tool, as a mnemonic of history, as an invitation to all who are hungry, and as a reminder of the deepest lessons of our liberation.  We transform an unleavened slice of bread into a symbol of our commitment to end all oppression, to bring the freedom we enjoy to all the people of our world.

But why is it called “the poor bread”?  Our CCAR Haggadah of my youth translated this difficulty away, rendering the Aramaic HaLachma Anyia as, “This is the poor bread, the bread of affliction”.  Surely our Exodus narrative speaks of our oppression in Egypt, of harsh labor in mortar and brick, of genocidal edicts enacted by Pharaoh.  Despite all that affliction, we also learn from Torah that our ancestors ate pretty well in Egypt: while in the wilderness, the Israelites bemoan the fish and fruit and foods they savored during servitude.  If we eat Matzah to remember the haste with which we departed Egypt, why do we call it “the Poor Bread”?

Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague, asked these precise questions in his 16th Century commentary on the Haggadah, called “Gevurot HaShem/The Power of The Name”.  Loew starts off by likening the Matzah to poverty: just as unleavened bread is stooped lower than its peers and cannot stand tall, so too does poverty force people to lower their heads, preventing them from standing tall and proud.  He hints that just as Matzah is missing in some ways the quintessential element of bread, namely leaven, so too are those forced into poverty deprived of the essence of a robust existence.  That is quite a lesson to chew over for seven days!

The Maharal, however, isn’t satisfied with that explanation.  Amazing, just as our Haggadah equates “the poor bread” with “the bread of affliction”, so too does the Maharal expand the interpretation of Lechem Oni.  He imagines a situation in which the Egyptians, in order to oppress the Israelites even more painfully, forcefully fed them Matzah so that it might be stuck in their stomachs.  The Maharal knew what many of us experience: the difficulty of digesting Matzah!  He actually describes our weeklong intestinal discomfort as inflicting upon ourselves the same punishment Pharaoh meted out to our ancestors.  On this interpretation, our festival of unleavened bread is an extended hunger banquet meant to connect us physically to the sensation of those oppressed and deprived.

In the end, however, the great sage of Prague rejects both of these interpretations he himself created!  He ultimately explains that our matzah is “poor bread” because it is the opposite of “rich bread”, namely beautiful leavened bread covered with cream and jam.  The Matzah, to the Maharal, stands as a stark reminder that while those who are poor do indeed eat, it is in marked contrast to the festive table arrayed before us.  That is his last word on the matter of Matzah.

However, the last word shouldn’t be taken as the final answer.  Rabbis actually do know how to answer a question directly; when the Maharal shares two answers only to reject them, he still hopes to deepen our learning.  I believe he shares all these interpretation of Ha Lachma Anyia because—historically accurate or not—he believes the lessons of all are important.

Together, these takes on the Poor Bread teach us to be sensitive to the experience of poverty.  Those oppressed by want are often forced to walk in humiliation, not in pride.  Those deprived, even by force, of healthy and nutritious foods, spend their lives in real physical discomfort.  Those whose needs are greatest cannot perhaps even imagine the luxuries of family and ritual and food we enjoy every night, and especially on the most different nights of Passover.

Our passage ends with the hope, “Today we are oppressed; next year may all be free”.  Just as do so many other elements of our Seder experience, the Matzah—a la Maharal—is meant to put us in deep connection to that oppression so that we can rise from our Seder tables with an even deeper commitment to work for a world where all are free of the chains, sufferings, and deprivations of poverty.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation and is on the CCAR Board of Trustees. Rabbi Limmer also is a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication,
The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic.