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Matzah: The Bread of Questions

The approaching festival is commonly known as ‘Pesach,’ a name that stems from the Torah’s naming of the Pesach offering: “the sacrifice of the Pesach festival.” Yet, the name by which the Torah commonly refers to the festival is Chag Hamatzos, the Festival of Matzos.

This nomenclature demands further scrutiny. True, matzah is a fundamental mitzvah of Pesach festival, and recalls both the affliction of Egypt (it is called the ‘bread of affliction’) and the ultimate redemption. Yet, the Torah’s naming the festival for the Pesach food, rather than directly calling the festival after the redemption itself, is something that begs further investigation. What is the secret behind the Festival of Matzos?

Bread that Many Things are Answered Upon

In order to explore this topic, we first introduce a basic lesson of Chazal that touches on the essence of matzah. Based on the term lechem oni (bread of affliction), the Gemara (Pesachim 36a) teaches that the matzah of Pesach must be bread that many things are answered upon.

Several customary practices of Seder Night are based on this interpretation. The matzah is uncovered as we tell the haggadah, so that the tale of the redemption will be told “upon the matzah.” Similarly, the middle matzah is broken into two in advance of reading the haggadah, so that the reading should be over the split matzah to be used later for the mitzvah.[1]

What is the idea behind reciting the haggadah over the matzah? The mitzvos of reciting the haggadah and eating the matzah are two distinct obligations, and their connection in reading the haggadah upon the matzah is surprising.

Furthermore, it is worth noting the expression used by Chazal, which does not refer to “bread that many things are said upon,” but to “bread that many things are answered upon.” Why is the ‘answering’ or many things, rather than their ‘saying,’ important in this context?

The Part of Children at the Seder

The structure of question and answer is fundamental to the Pesach Seder. The proceedings begin in earnest with the famous question, commonly asked by the children at the table: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Later, as we explain the various items placed before us on the Seder table, we insert another question: “This matzah that we eat—what is it for?” The questions of the four sons, as found in the Torah, are likewise an integral part of the Seder. In short, the Pesach Haggadah is a session of questions and answers.

At the most basic level, the understanding of this structure is related to the pivotal role of children on Seder night. The importance of children at the Seder has catalysed the development of several halachic customs, whose purpose is to ensure that the children should stay awake.[2]

Although in the absence of children, one tells the tale of our redemption to one’s wife or to oneself, the preferred scenario, as the Torah prescribes, is of a father teaching his son: “You shall tell your son, on that day, saying: It is because of that which Hashem did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Shemos 13:8). The classic model is that the son asks, and the father responds.

Coming out of Egypt, the Children of Israel were imbued with the fundamental faith at the heart of our national definition. As the Ramban stresses, our faith in Hashem as the One G-d, and our belief in His constant direction of the world, is based upon the redemption from Egypt. This is the reason why so many Torah mitzvos recall the redemption.[3] Yet, the Torah states that those coming out of Egypt were limited to “six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children” (Shemos 12:37). Children were explicitly excluded from the count of those departing from Egypt.

The adults leaving Egypt were endowed with the great light of emunah, the revelation of faith that descended upon the people as they were born into national existence. From that time and on, it became the duty of the adults to impart that faith to their children after them, keeping the great faith of the nation of Israel alive in the next generation.

The same theme applies today. Each and every year, the adults among the nation—from twenty years and up—experience the same redemption. The fantastic light that shone upon us as we left Egypt returns annually on the first night of Pesach. Indeed, Chazal state that we are obligated on Seder night to see ourselves as if we actually left Egypt (Pesachim 116b). Upon leaving Egypt, it is our duty to pass on the faith we acquire to our offspring.

The son therefore asks the questions, receiving the answer from his father, who knows the answer by means of personal experience.

The Power of the Question

It would appear that a deeper theme lies within the questions of Seder Night—a theme applicable to adults as well as to children.

By contrast with other creatures, people—humankind—are a combination of the earthly and the Divine. Although man’s body was formed from the earth, his soul was given him by the breath of Hashem (see commentary of Ramban to Bereishis 1:26). By virtue of his composite essence, man possesses a unique power: the ability to rise beyond his own person.

A simple example of this power is the process by which an infant learns how to walk. Though initially unable to take a single step, the infant will, by intricate mental processes of trial and error, learn to master the art of walking in a matter of months. Balancing, compensating, absorbing impact, and a myriad intricate details that comprise the act walking, all become second nature to the quick learner.

In learning how to walk, the infant is reaching beyond himself. By means of subtly questioning his surroundings and noting the responses, the child is transforming himself from crawler to walker.

Such is the power of the question. By asking questions, we seek to rise beyond that which we already are; by searching for answers, we transcend our current level, proceeding to a point that is presently beyond us. This ability is unique to humankind. Other forms of life, even the highest order of mammals, must be born walkers. They cannot ‘reach beyond themselves.’ They cannot question.

The Power of the Question

The idea whereby the deepest power of humankind is latent in the question is elegantly hinted at in the word Adam (man). The word mah, which is the most basic form of asking a question, is numerically equivalent to the title Adam (45). The question is the essence of man; his ability to rise beyond his own self is his defining virtue.

By contrast with the potential latent in humankind, an animal is termed beheimah, a word that splits into the words bah mah. Unlike man, the spirit of an animal is no more elevated than its physical self (see Ramban, loc. cit.). What it has is what it is (bah mah); it is unable to rise beyond itself.

In the same sense, the wisdom that a human being is able to acquire is termed chochmah. Chazal split this word into two: koach mah. Wisdom, the crown of man’s dominion over the world, is thus the power of the question. The virtue of wisdom is thus far deeper than a head full of knowledge. It is rather the potential to transcend, to integrate knowledge in a manner that enables a person to rise beyond that which he was formerly.

Applying the idea to the wisdom of Torah, we are not surprised to find that the Talmud is based entirely on a structure of questions and answers—a style unfound in any regular text. The reason for this is that Torah is far more than a body of intellectual knowledge. If the wisdom of Torah is true, then it must change our very being, raising us beyond our previous level. In order for the wisdom of Torah to truly permeate our being, we must approach it with the power of the question.

The Question of Yetzias Mitzrayim

The very process of yetzias mitzrayim, our redemption from Egypt that raised the Jewish People to a new level of national being, began with a question.

At the foundational revelation of the burning bush, Moshe Rabbeinu asked of Hashem: “If they should ask me, ‘What (mah) is His Name,’ what (mah) shall I tell them?” The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 3:5) reveals the depth of the questions (the hypothetical question of the people, and the concrete question of Moshe): Moshe asked Hashem to reveal His great Name.

Indeed, the entire process of the redemption from Egypt was a process of revelation—the revelation of the great Name of Hashem: “And Egypt shall know that I am Hashem, as I raise My hand against Egypt, and I shall take the Children of Israel from among them.” All the miracles and wonders of Egypt, which were directed towards revealing the great Name, came as a reaction to the questions of Moshe and the nation.

The generation that was redeemed from Egypt was prepared by the exile, purified by the “iron furnace” (Devarim 4:20), until they were ready to ask the question of questions—to ask for the revelation of the Name. The first, however, to raise the question, albeit in a primordial form, was Avraham Avinu. His question, his search for the Divine truth behind the scenes, caused the world to conclude the two thousand years of tohu, and to enter the new era-two thousand years of Torah (Avodah Zarah 9a).

Avraham converted world history into a question (tohu, tehiyah): Where and who is the Director? The answer, whose revelation began with Avraham and the Patriarchs, was completed at the redemption from Egypt.

We can therefore understand the special place of questions and answers at Seder Night. On the night of Pesach we must ask questions, for each year, upon the onset of the Pesach festival, the great light of yetzias mitzrayim returns to shine upon the world. Just as the original redemption, this light must shine as a reaction to the question of Israel.

Matzah: Bread of Questions

The Gemara teaches that Israel alone is worthy of the title Adam: “You are called Adam, and the nations of the world are not called Adam” (Yevamos 61a). The nations are able to acquire worldly wisdom, but only the people of Israel can synchronize themselves with the Divine wisdom latent at the heart of the creation. The pinnacle of the human capacity for self-elevation is reserved for the nation Israel alone.

Latent in this capacity is a return to the original stature of Adam Ha-Rishon. His initial greatness, a stature described by Chazal as stretching “from one end of the world to the other” (Chagigah 12a), was infinitely greater than his post-sin being. The nations of the world, unable to escape the confines of worldly existence, continue to live an existence of post-sin dimensions.

Yet, out of Egypt was born a new concept of Adam, a human model that would once again unite the worldly with that which lies beyond. The ladder that Yaakov saw in his prophetic dream, a bridge connecting heaven and earth, was embodied in his own self, and in the nation that bears his name.

The renewed human greatness that emerged from Egypt is the secret behind the matzah of Pesach. In his forbidden consumption of the etz hadaas, the first of men allowed a power of evil to enter into himself. According to one opinion mentioned by Chazal (Berachos 40a), the fruit was wheat. The evil latent within wheat is the end product-risen bread.

Chazal (Berachos 18a) dub the Evil Inclination ‘the yeast in the dough.’ Inflated, at it were, of its own accord, the risen dough implies an over-accentuated sensation of the self. Feeling his own self-importance, man leaves no room for the elevation of the Divine. In the words of the Gemara (Sotah 5b), Hashem states of the haughty that “he and I cannot occupy the same world.” One who places himself at the center of creation has no need for anything but himself. He has no question to ask; he knows all the answers already.

On Seder Night, as we leave Mitzrayim, there can be no chametz. By means of consuming matzah, bread that cannot rise, we mend the basic sin of Adam, returning to the initial purity with which humankind came to the world. If the inflated form of chametz represents those who have no questions, the leanness of matzah implies those who have questions. On the Seder Night we are defined by the question.

Splitting the Matzah: Question and Answer

The mah on our lips over the course of Seder Night is the same mah, spoken by Moshe Rabbeinu, which opened the process of yetzias mitzrayim.

The children at the Seder Night receive their answers from their parents. Behind the scenes, however, even the fathers receive the answers. Reading the Haggadah, they experience the redemption as if they were truly there.

On the table throughout is the matzah. Our ability to ask mah, our potential to draw the answer of Seder Night from its Divine source, is latent in the flat bread of Pesach. By virtue of its essential nature, matzah is thus “bread that many things are answered on.” The great questions of Seder Night are answered specifically upon the matzah.

This perhaps this is the reason why we break the matzah before the Haggadah is read. The numerical value of the word matzah is three times the value of the word mah. Splitting the matzah into unequal halves—we will assume them to be pieces of one and two thirds—we retain the smaller piece for the Haggadah. This is the single mah that Yetzias Mitzrayim opened with, the question asked by Moshe and by the nation.

The remaining two thirds are hidden for the answer: twice mah (adam), representing the revelation of a new nation, a new stature of humankind that embraces both the physical world and the elevation of the Divine.


The light of the redemption is ready to shine upon us. All we need to do is to ask the question, to search for the answer.

Wishing all our readers a joyous and inspiring Pesach.


[1] The precise manner in which these customs are performed is the subject of disputes among authorities; yet, the principle is common to opinions.

[2] For instance, the first dipping of the karpas, pouring the second cup of wine, the snatching of the afikoman, and so on (see Chayei Adam, Kelal 130).

[3] E.g. Shabbos, festivals, tefillin, tzitzis, the prohibition of ribis.

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