This is why Jews don’t eat bread on Passover


The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks, 1998

We all know the story our Hebrew school teacher told us as kids. The Pharaoh decides to let the Israelite slaves go, but they better run fast before he changes his mind (which, of course, he then does, leading to the climactic chariot chase). The Israelites get the message loud and clear. They start panic packing, strapping whatever they can find onto their camels. In their haste, they can’t even wait for the bread to rise in the ovens. They pull out whatever they have and make a mad dash.


And that’s why today we don’t eat grains during Passover, concludes the Hebrew school teacher. To remember that the Israelites were so desperate to get out of Egypt that they left with unleavened bread.


It’s a gripping story. Easy to follow. Cinematic. It’s also a lie.


But before we get to the real story, let’s get the imagery right. I always pictured the Israelites abandoning golden brioche and well-crusted sourdough in their convection ovens. But ancient Egyptian bread was so hard that even pharaohs suffered teeth abrasion.[1] Bakers kneaded mortared grains into a tough sand, then slapped the mixture onto a hot stone or against a wall of a clay oven. Not exactly the nutty, vaguely sweet aroma of a French baguette.

Bread in ancient Egypt was harder & denser than today. (2010–1998 B.C., excavated from Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahari, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Now that we’re picturing a more accurate bread, let’s get back to the question. Why did the Israelites stop eating bread? Was it a problem of time management? Had they chipped one too many teeth on the crust?


It wouldn’t surprise me that the Israelites waited until the last minute to start packing (after all, we accuse those only 20 minutes late to synagogue as being excessively punctual). But the “we ran out of time” alibi doesn’t hold water. In the Book of Exodus, God tells the Jews to stop eating bread before their escape. He even sends out a “Save the Date” card. “In the first month, from the 14th day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the 21st day of the month at evening” (Exodus 12:19).


A baker prepares traditional matzah

So what’s the deal? The Israelites didn’t stop eating bread out of necessity. They did it when they were still in their houses in Egypt. Why?


The Chabad Theory

One orthodox sect of Judaism considers bread as a metonymy for humankind’s ego and self-aggrandizement. While I’m as far from Hassidic as a Jew can be, I totally buy this argument. What is baking bread if not an act of hubris? To bake bread is to force microorganisms to reverse their course, to construct instead of destroy. Bread is the act of harnessing the secrets of nature in order to generate something of pure human intervention. Bread differentiates us from beasts. We don’t forage for bread. We don’t seek it. We create it.


When we bake bread, we imitate God. So it makes sense that God, wanting to take the Israelites down a notch, decided to take away their breadmaking powers, or that Israelites, wanting to submit to the higher power of their Lord, abstained from bread.[2] After all, as God reminds humans later, in Deuteronomy, “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3). Or, in layman’s terms, don’t get cocky. You can nourish your bodies with bread, but only the Lord can nourish the soul.


So that’s one possible answer: we don’t eat bread on Passover to remind ourselves that the Lord is more powerful than we are. Which is pretty ironic given that the etymology of the word lord comes from the Old English hlaford, meaning “keeper of bread.”

The Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks, 1998

The Pagan Theory

Long before the advent of Judaism, women honored Demeter, the goddess of grain and harvest. The celebration began with the sacrificial burning of phallus-shaped breads (because everything in ancient Greece was phallic) and then subsequently fasting from all grains. Millenia later, in ancient Rome, a springtime festival from April 12–19 honored Ceres (the Roman version of Demeter) by sacrificially burning bread on the holiday eve and then abstaining from cereals for eight days.[3] Sound familiar?

Ceres, Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In short, a week-long abstention from grain was a popular and well-documented practice in polytheistic festivals. Thus the “pagan theory”: the abstention from grains during Passover could be a tradition carried over from the Greek and Romans and conveniently adapted to the story of Exodus. I totally buy this too. Though the more religious Chabad sect might not like the idea that the fast from grains has nothing to do with the story of the Israelites or even monotheism, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the absentation from grain always felt totally random. Seriously, what do flourless chocolate cakes and matzah crackers sandwiches have to do with the Israelites escaping Egypt?


In fact, what does unleavened bread have to do with anything in the story of Exodus? Here’s the story of a Levite mother who places her newborn son in a basket and floats him down the Nile, in hopes of saving his life from the evil Pharoah who wants to kill all newborn Israelite boys. The Pharoah’s daughter finds the baby and raises him as her own in the Egyptian royal family. The boy grows up, kills an Egyptian overseer, runs away, finds a bush on fire that speaks, and then returns to Egypt to demand the release of the slaves. When the Pharoah laughs in the boy’s face, God punishes the Egyptians with horrific things like a river of blood and the death of all firstborn sons, as well as weirdly annoying things like a bunch of frogs. The Pharoah relents and tells the Israelites they’re free to go, then changes his mind two minutes later. He chases them down into the Red Sea, but then the Sea closes and drowns the Egyptian army. The Israelites party with a song and a tambourine, then wander in the desert, then make a golden calf, then Moses breaks the Ten Commandments and goes up the mountain again to rewrite them…okay, actually the whole thing is pretty random. But still, unleaved bread doesn’t seem a particularly notable plot point. Which is why the “pagan theory” seems valid.


The Separation Theory

Yet before we call it a day, let’s examine one more possible answer. Let’s call this final one the “separation theory.”


Bread is a symbolic covenant. When we give a stranger bread, we are essentially welcoming that stranger into our home. When we share bread, we become companions: com-, from the Latin, meaning “with,” and panis, meaning “bread.” A companion is, by definition, a person with whom you break bread.


On the flip side, when we reject bread, we reject companionship. By the very nature of defining those with whom you would share your bread, your companions, you must also have those with whom you do not share your bread, your enemies. Just as bread unites, bread divides.

And maybe that’s why the Israelites stopped eating bread. To create division. To tell the Egyptians, “We are not like you. This is not our home.”


In fact, in the book of Exodus, when God orders the Israelites to abstain from grain, he warns them that “if anyone eats what is leavened…that person shall be cut off from Israel” (12:16). In other words, you’re either with us or you’re against us. Not eating bread is an effective way to separate those who belong in Egypt (the Egyptians) from those who do not (the Israelites).


The Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks, 1998

So which theory is correct?

Who knows. Maybe God told the Jews to stop eating bread in order to remind them of their mortal limits. Maybe the first Jews wanted to repackage pagan traditions for monotheism. Or maybe the bread strike was organized to sever ties to the land of Egypt. Who knows? Maybe my Hebrew teacher was right and the whole mishigas was all due to a lack of time management.

Whatever the answer, what matters is that we keep asking the question. Because it’s the question that challenges us to think about our daily ritual — our daily bread. Is our relationship with bread creative or destructive? Does it separate us or bring us together? And when we break our bread, with whom do we break it?

***

[1] Nicholson, Paul T., et al. “Brewing and Baking.” Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 537–577.

[2] Tauber, Yanki. “No Bread.” Chabad.org, Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, 21 Feb. 2012, www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1777637/jewish/No-Bread.htm.

[3] The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, writing around 77 AD, notes that some women ritually abstained from grain for a set time in the year, during which they would grind up chestnuts and make a sort of bread-like loaf, which sounds delicious. (Historia Naturalis, XV, 25)

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