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In Exodus 12, verses 1-13, God describes the details of Pesach Mitzrayim - the Passover service to be observed in Egypt on the fatal night of the plague of the first-born. This is followed in verses 14-20 with the commandment to observe Passover for all generations: "And this day shall be unto you for a zikaron (memorial), and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD, throughout your generations …" (v. 14). In this verse Pesach is referred to as a zikaron, a remembrance, a memorial – or better yet, a mnemonic device.
Interestingly, however, the term zikaron is almost always used in the Bible to describe an object, not a holiday. In addition, this reference to Passover as a zikaron is immediately followed (in v. 15-20) by repeated mention of an obligation to eat matzah paralleled by a corresponding prohibition to eat, or even possess, hametz. Thus, there is obviously an intimate connection between Passover serving as a zikaron and the centrality of matzah. Surprisingly, the other central laws of Pesach, such as eating the pascal lamb, or the telling over of the story of our redemption, are not mentioned until verses 25-27 – far away from the mention of zikaron. Thus the Torah is telling us that it is the matzah alone that can transform the feast of Passover into a zikaron – a memory device.
This centrality of matzah in our national memory is further emphasized in two ways. (1) Generally, when we are commanded in a positive commandment, the inverse does not become prohibited. For example, when we are commanded to don tefillin, we are not commanded to not put anything else in their place. Or, when we are commanded to blow the shofar we are not told to refrain from the playing of string instruments. But by Passover we are commanded to eat matzah and prohibited from eating or possessing hametz. (2) The prohibition for eating hametz is karet – being "cut off" - a particularly stringent divine punishment and highly unusual in the laws of the festivals.
Indeed, matzah, which is essentially hastily baked bread, encapsulates the two main themes of Pesach. Firstly, it conveys the poverty of the servitude in Egypt, as we say in the opening verses of the seder - "Ha lahma anya”- This is the bread of our affliction. However, as we close the Maggid section of the Haggadah, we emphasize that matzah also symbolizes the haste of the exodus – "This matzah commemorates our hectic rush to freedom, such that the dough had no time to rise."
The Torah understood well that for a commemoration to have true meaning and relevance, it must recreate an experience. For a memory to last it has to be personal - and not simply another fact that one knows about a people. Thus, with all the centrality of recounting the story of Pesach - without matzah, it would remain just a story about what happened to others. It is specifically the "Show and Tell" element of the seder which makes our history come alive. And, it is precisely for this reason that the halakha insists that the tale of yetsiat mitsrayyim cannot be told without the presence of matzah. It is matzah which transforms the Haggadah into a personal tale which can be relived.
This article is based in part on "Matzah, Memory and Introspection" by Rabbi Francis Nataf, available online at http://tinyurl.com/6exac82. Rabbi Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Emeritus Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University; Aryeh.Frimer@biu.ac.il.