The History of Matzo

Learn the history of matzo that makes the bread still relevant today...

| February/March 2002

  • Photography by Anybody Goes

The Hebrew word matza, or matzo, (both pronounced MAHT-suh)—the same name that appears in the Bible’s Book of Exodus (12:39)—describes the most ancient and humble of all breads. Flat, cracker-like, unleavened, it is substituted for yeast bread at the Jewish Passover Seder, the annual spring meal and service that recalls redemption from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The leader of the service, reading from a prayer book called the Haggadah, begins by holding aloft a piece of matzo, and proclaims, “This is the bread of poverty which our forbears ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry enter and eat; let all who are needy come to our Passover feast.”

One would think that on such an occasion, something more substantial than matzo would be offered to the celebrants (not to mention to the hungry and needy). But not only is matzo eaten at the Seder, it is the only bread consumed throughout the entire Passover week. Ordinary leavened bread—indeed, any product containing leavening—is forbidden as long as the holiday lasts.

What’s so special about matzo? More importantly, what relevance does this thin, flat bread have as food in the twenty-first century? For starters, a huge reservoir of Passover cookery centers on the use of matzo. In the form of matzo meal (coarse) and matzo cake meal (fine), it forms the backbone of a tremendous variety of baked goods and dishes from the distinctive Jewish cuisines of Europe, North Africa, the Arabic Middle East, Israel, and America. Passover cookery demands a light hand and a mastery of the subject that is passed on from generation to generation. It offers the rewards of all traditional cooking: a link with one’s ancestry and the joy of feeding body and spirit simultaneously.

“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.”
—Exodus 12:14
(New International Version)

Matzo grips my own imagination because it is bread, the staff of life, stripped of any pretensions whatsoever. An uncompromising mixture of only flour and water, it is kneaded, rolled out thin, and briefly baked at a very high temperature to assure that fermentation, or yeasty action, does not occur. In ancient times, matzos were often made in the shapes of flowers, animals, and doves, but the custom ended when the rabbis concluded that the time needed to make these fancy shapes might delay baking long enough to initiate the fermentation process. The recipes below are made in a regular oven set at 500°F. Matzo made under these circumstances isn’t considered kosher for Passover, but it’s fun to make anyway. To be certified as kosher, matzo must be baked at 600 to 800°F for no longer than three minutes.

In its ancient form, matzo was an unevenly round, thin cake, usually made with barley flour, the flour of the poor. It was very different in appearance from machine-made matzos—the 7- by 7-inch thin, perforated sheets that we find today on supermarket shelves in an assortment of flavors.

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