I first learned how to make pickles as an apprentice in a pickle kitchen on a Jewish farm in Connecticut in 2008. Although my mother was skeptical that my pickle career would amount to anything, I’ve found that, by and large, when I tell people what I do, they’re excited! To me, this says a lot about where we are in our relationship to food as Americans, as Jews, and as humans.
My stint as an apprentice taught me to make pickles using a process called lacto-fermentation, which is a simple, ancient technique requiring little more than salt, bacteria that occur naturally on the skins of vegetables, and patience. When I learned how to transform vegetables into deliciously salty, sour, preserved foods, I became obsessed with this slow and magical process. Fermenting vegetables opened a door to learning how to make all sorts of the foods most of us buy in the store without a second thought, like yogurt and sourdough bread. Learning about sourdough led me to wonder about the connections between sourdough, hametz, and matzah.
All bread was once made from a sour dough, a bubbly fermented brew of flour and water. Before industrialization in the 19th century, all risen bread was the result of wild yeasts that live in the air being “hosted” in a hospitable environment of flour, water, and warmth. Families used to pass these “sourdough starters” from generation to generation– each starter unique and each radically a product of its environment. For even as families save their starters for generations, starters also change based on the unique “local yeasts” that live in the environment where they are housed. These yeasts add their unique characteristics to the microorganisms that populate each bubbly, live, starter.
Ever since I learned that families pass their starters from generation to generation, I have wondered why Jews are commanded, first in Parshat Bo, and throughout the Exodus story, to cleanse our homes of all hametz (risen bread) and se’or (sourdough starters) when we commemorate the Exodus each year. There are actually two commandments in Shemot 12:15. First, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵל- for seven days you will eat matzah. And second, בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם - But the first day you will put away se’or, your sourdough starter, from your homes. For me, these two commandments raise the question, why are we told not just to eat matzoh but also to rid our lives of se’or in this festival commemorating exodus? What’s the connection between yitziat mitzrayim, exodus from egypt, and leaven? How might better understanding sourdough be an important clue to understanding the mitzvah of matzah?
Usually we explain the connection between exodus and matzah with a quote that comes later in Shemot 12:39, כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ: כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם- for it was not leavened because they were thrust out of Egypt. But this explanation really only speaks to the first commandment to eat Matzoh on Pesach, as a form of experiential education that impels us to remember how it felt to be rushed, uncomfortable, and unprepared. This doesn’t, however, shed light on why we are not only told to eat matzoh but also specifically to live without se'or, leaven, for seven days.
Some commentators, mostly mystical ones, associated leaven with the yetzar harah, the evil inclination, and believed that we cleansed ourselves of hametz in order to purify and ready ourselves for the higher spiritual plane b’nai yisrael would be inhabiting after the exodus. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto said: “For a particular limited time Israel needs to abstain from leaven and be nourished by matzah, in order to reduce the strength of the yetzar hara and one’s inclination toward the physical, and increase identification with the spiritual, drawing closer to it.”
Matzoh also appears in Leviticus, the book which delineates the priestly offerings B’nai Yisrael was responsible for bringing during the temple period. Jacob Milgrom explains, in his study of Leviticus, that leaven was considered a dark, taboo element in the ancient world, “The roman high priest was forbidden to even touch leaven… [and though] these sources all stem from late antiquity… they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation, deterioration, and death and hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life.”
In these frameworks, we clear leaven from our homes because it contains some lower, earthly impulse. It connects us to darkness and death, thus equating fermentation with degradation. But having lived on a Jewish farm where we celebrated all things microbial from compost to kombucha, (yes, there is a fermentation process underlying each of these products), I’m left wondering if this way of relating to hametz and se’or can really speak to our current relationship with food. Fermentation gone wrong can be moldy and stinky, and nasty things can happen, but most of those who become fully initiated as fermenters see their repulsion transformed into wonder. It’s this wonder that has inspired me to search for an alternative way of understanding leaven.
The Netziv, a 19th century Lithuanian Rabbi, proposed that leaven represents human creative agency, and that in this framework, the pesach commandment to clear leaven from our homes reminds us of God’s absolute dominion. He said, “We refrain from human manipulation of our most basic commodity- bread. We proclaim that the very essence of our being comes directly and completely from God.” The Netziv felt that man’s discovery that sourdough could cause bread to rise was a breakthrough in food technology, an innovation in human capacity to manipulate the elements of nature, and that Matzoh was thus a sort of “break” from this manipulation. But we, as moderns, live mostly removed from our ability to grow, preserve, or create our own basic food. How can we relate to matzoh as this symbol of something pure and unadulterated by human technology when so much of what we need as moderns is to be more in touch with the process behind our food in order to feel closer to it and to God?
Our own alienation from the processes behind our food puts us at odds with these historical paradigms that equate holiness with purity and refinement. In today’s world there is an active and strongly influential subculture of farmers and food artisans who are encouraging a culture of drawing closer to God (whether they would label it so or not) through drawing closer to the earth. We’ve moved increasingly toward more whole, more complex foods. While in the past the process of purification and refinement was a form of honoring God (in that refinement was achieved through intensive, hand labors), in a world of factory farms and factory food refinement and purity draw us away from God, not closer.
Understanding this changing landscape of culture, history, and industry informs our relationship to matzoh. The best way to understand the mitzvah of matzah is not just to cleanse our homes of hametz once a year, but to really bring the se’or, the frothy culture, the ferment, the messy stuff of life, back into our homes. We should seek to repair our distance from the leaven in our daily lives as voraciously as we try to remove leaven from our lives each Pesach. Perhaps it is as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says, “It is impossible for [b’nai yisrael] to nourish themselves [without leaven] on a regular basis, for this is not reflective of men’s desired state in this world.” Whether this means starting a weekly sourdough challah baking practice or learning to ferment your own vegetables, bringing more of the world into our lives 358 days of the year is vital if we hope to meaningfully cleanse ourselves of it for the seven days of Pesach.