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Making Matzah the Old-Fashioned Way

 

Passover begins this year Wednesday evening, April 16 and that night Jews all over the world will be commemorating liberation from slavery in Egypt with a festive seder meal.

The most significant observances associated with Passover are the removal of chametz (leavened products) and the eating of matzah. Though traditionally Jews are forbidden from eating chametz during all of Passover, the specific commandment to eat matzah applies only to the night of the seder.

Many Jews have the custom to eat shmura matzah at the Passover sederShmura comes from the Hebrew root which means "to guard" and denotes the fact that the entire process of making the matzah is carefully supervised from the moment the grain is harvested until the finished matzahs are packaged. Hand-made shmura matzah is big and round, resembling the matzah the children of Israel made when they were freed from bondage in Egypt.

This year, as it has for the last 20 years, Dr. Ari Greenspan's seder will feature shmura matzah that he made with his own hands.

Greenspan, a 40-year-old dentist who lives in Efrat with his wife and three daughters, has been making matzah since he was 19. It all started on a routine visit to the home of one of his teachers. "I was training to be a sofer (ritual scribe). I noticed that my teacher had a matzah oven in the wall of his house and I was hooked." Greenspan went straight home and built his first matzah oven out of an old barbeque.

From these primitive beginnings the ovens grew more sophisticated. When Greenspan made aliyah in 1989 one of the first things he did was to buy a traditional oven from an Arab resident of Hebron. Over the years he refined his technique, and six years ago he built a beautiful brick oven in his home. Each year he hosts hundreds of people of all backgrounds who are interested in experiencing traditional matzah making.

Greenspan is the son of an Orthodox rabbi who served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, and he grew up on Army bases throughout the United States. A self-described "halachik (pertaining to Jewish law) adventurer," Greenspan is well known for creative forays into obscure reaches of Jewish tradition. He was instrumental in bringing back to current use the Biblical color tekhelet (sea blue), and recently hosted a meal featuring exotic kosher foods such as water buffalo and locusts. In his spare time he also serves as a mohel (someone who performs circumcisions) and a shochet (ritual slaughterer).

"I like things that offer a hands-on challenge. I like to do something that's never been done before and requires original research, something that engages my head, my hands and my heart." As is the case with the matzah bakery, most of his adventuring involves an educational element as well.
 
His favorite time to make matzah is Erev Passover (the afternoon before the seder).  There is a little-known belief that the matzot mitzvot (matzahs eaten at the seder) should be baked on the day of the seder. Every year, a few hour before the seder, about 60 of his friends and family gather at his home to bake matzah for the seder.

"It is a very sweet experience. Our friends come and we sing and daven (pray) as we bake."

The process of making shmura matzah is fast-paced and labor-intensive.    

1. Wheat is harvested from a carefully selected field. From the moment the wheat is harvested until it is ground and brought to a special shmura matza bakery, it is carefully guarded to ensure it does not come into contact with any moisture.

2. Fresh spring water, specially drawn from a well, is added to flour in a large mixing bowl. The dough is thoroughly kneaded, until every last bit of flour is absorbed into the mixture.

The instant the water is added to the flour a clock goes on. According to the Talmud the leavening process begins after water and flour have been in contact for 18 minutes, thus the entire process of making matzah, from the moment the water is added to the flour until the matzah is taken out of the oven, must be completed in 18 minutes.

3. As soon as the dough is the perfect texture, it is divided into equal portions and distributed to workers who roll it into thin circles. Both the rolling pins and the workers' hands must be thoroughly cleaned and inspected in between each 18-minute round of baking.
 
4. The flat dough circles are perforated with a special roller that makes holes all over the dough. The tiny holes prevent air bubbles from getting trapped inside the matzahs, which could cause them to puff up.

5. With only a few minutes left to go, the dough is hung over long, smooth poles and brought to a special brick oven that is used only for baking matzah.

6. The person who works at the oven -- called the "zetser" -- quickly lays the matzahs on the oven floor by turning the pole with a twist of the wrist. This job requires extreme skill, as it takes only about 30 seconds for the matzahs to bake in the 900 Fahrenheit heat of the oven floor.

7. The freshly baked matzahs are gently removed from the oven using a long-handled paddle, similar to those used in pizza shops, and laid on a table to cool.  Care is taken so as to ensure that they do not break, as only whole matzahs can be used at the seder.