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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Matza -- Bread of Affliction?

Matza is the bread we ate in haste during the exodus from Egypt, and thus represents freedom.  But it is also called  לֶחֶם עֹנִי, commonly translated as "bread of affliction."  What exactly does lehem oni mean, in the simplest reading (peshat)?  To what experience does it refer?

Here are some thoughts on matza and lehem oni:

In Exodus, the reason for eating matza is stated unambiguously: We left Egypt in haste and did not have time to bake leavned bread.

Ex. 12:34ff:

וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת-בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִֹמְלֹתָם עַל-שִׁכְמָם: . . .וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ וְגַם-צֵדָה לֹא-עָשֹוּ לָהֶם:


The term לֶחֶם עֹנִי appears only in the book of Deuteronomy (16:3), in Parshat Re'eh: 

לֹא-תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל-עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת-יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ:


Peshat-oriented translations and interpretations of לֶחֶם עֹנִי can be divided into two groups:

1. Plain (or "poor") matza, i.e., flour and water with no additional ingredients.  This interpretation can be best understood in contrast to the rabbinic Hebrew expression matza ashira -- matza containing eggs, juice, or other "rich" ingredients -- which most likely arose in deliberate contrast to the biblical lehem oni

2. "Bread of affliction" of the King James Version translation (following, apparently, both the Septuagint and the Vulgate).


The first interpretation refers to the physical makeup of matza, while the second is connected to an experience of suffering during some part of the bondage in Egypt and/or the exodus.


The Sifre cites both interpretations, and there is also a discussion in the Talmud (Pesahim 36b) that refers to this tannaitic dispute.  In the Sifre on Re’eh:

לחם עוני. פרט לחלוט ואשישה (i.e., one may not use boiled bread or bread made with dried fruit).  . . . רבי שמעון אומר למה נקרא לחם עוני? על שם עינוי שנתענו במצרים:

According to R. Shimon, lehem oni connotes inui or suffering, and refers to Israel’s experience in Egypt, rather the nature of the matza. 

Below are highlights of traditional exegesis on lehem oni:

  • Rashi opts for the second interpretation --  לחם עוני. לחם שמזכיר את העוני שנתענו במצרים; Ibn Ezra appears to agree.  Ramban considers both to be possible interpretations.  
  • Hizkuni links עוני with עני; i.e., a poor person who has access to nothing but meager ingredients and has no time for the leavening process.  
  • Seforno identifies the "affliction" in this verse with the pressure exerted on the Israelites by their Egyptian taskmasters to leave quickly.  Thus, the "bread of affliction" is so named because it was eaten in involuntary haste.  
  • Finally, Aharon Mirsky (Daat Mikra on Deuteronomy), points to the expression lehem lahatz (I Kings 22:27) as a parallel to lehem oni, i.e., meager bread eaten under oppressive circumstances (Note that this identification was already made by KJV, which renders both lehem oni and lehem lahatz as "bread of affliction."  Similarly, mayim lahatz of Is. 30:20 is "water of affliction" in KJV).


On a midrashic level, R. Shimon's view connecting oni with inui – aside from the obvious linguistic similarity – appears to be inspired by verses in the Torah which use inui in reference to the bondage in Egypt.  I.e.,:

Ex. 1:11-12

וַיָּשִֹימוּ עָלָיו שָֹרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת-פִּתֹם וְאֶת-רַעַמְסֵס: יב   וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ

Deut. 26:6 
וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה:


The fact that Torah repeatedly uses the phrase inui with respect to slavery in Egypt suggests that lehem oni is related to the experience of inui.  I believe the textual association of inui with the Egyptian bondage underlies R. Shimon's opinion, as well as KJV's "bread of affliction." 

To be clear, this interpretation does not imply that matza was slave-food imposed on the Israelites, or even that unleavened bread, as opposed to hametz, was commonly eaten during the bondage.  More simply, matza is the "bread of affliction” because its meagerness represents slavery.  Read this way, R. Shimon in the Sifre --  למה נקרא לחם עוני? על שם עינוי שנתענו במצרים -- states that matza is a symbol of the Egyptian affliction.  "Bread of affliction" is a metaphor rather than a literal evocation of bread eaten in slavery.

The notion of matza as slave-food, as noted by the Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, ch. 51), is found nowhere in the Torah or in rabbinic literature.  See, for example, Peshaim 115b, where three different midrashic interpretations are offered for lehem oni, none of which refer to matza in this sense:


 אמר שמואל: (דברים טז) לחם עני (כתיב) ־ לחם שעונין עליו דברים. תניא נמי הכי לחם עני ־ לחם שעונין עליו דברים הרבה. דבר אחר: לחם עני ־ עני כתיב, מה עני שדרכו בפרוסה ־אף כאן בפרוסה. דבר אחר: מה דרכו של עני ־ הוא מסיק ואשתו אופה, אף כאן נמי ־ הוא מסיק ואשתו אופה.


The idea of lehem oni as slave-food became popular, I think, because of the Ha Lahma Anya passage in the Haggada.  One might render the words, di akhalu avhatana be-ar'a de-mitzrayim, as “which our forefathers ate as slaves in Egypt,” i.e., we ate matza by mandate or by necessity.  But, read more simply, di akhalu refers to events mentioned explicitly in the Torah; either at “Pesach Mitzrayim,” when we ate matza and marror with the korban pesach, or to the period immediately following the exodus, when we ate matza out of haste.

In fact, a core group of medieval commentaries (e.g., Rashbam, Ritva, Shibole Haleket) on the Haggada state that lahma anya -- Aramaic for lehem oni -- refers to the meager bread that was baked in haste, or to the custom of breaking the matza into pieces.  No mention is made of matza as a staple of the Israelite diet in Egypt.

The oldest source, I believe, identifying lahma anya with slave-food is the Orhot Hayyim (R. Aharon ha-Kohen of Lunel, France c. 1300) on the Haggada.  He mentions a tale recorded by Yosef Ha-Ezovi regarding Abraham ibn Ezra's imprisonment in India. According to this account, as a prisoner Ibn Ezra was given unleavened bread, due to its tendency to linger in the digestive tract and the relatively small amount required to satiate.  So, Ha-Ezovi concludes, matza was the food given to the Israelites throughout the bondage of Egypt.  Ha-Ezovi's story is also cited by the Abudraham in his commentary on the Haggada, though the captive in Abudraham's version is named Ben Ezra, rather than Abraham ibn Ezra.

See also the fascinating treatment of this subject in Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, Lo Kakh Katuv Ba-Tanakh (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 2004), pp. 92ff.  The authors argue that the Torah's lone reference to lehem oni in Deuteronomy represents a tradition that associated Passover matza with the hunger and oppression of the bondage.  However, the lehem oni tradition was eventually almost completely repressed in favor of the more festive linkage of matza with the korban pesach and the haste of the exodus.


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