The Tisch: Freeze-Frame on Gebrokhts

Posted by Levi Cooper on March 29, 2013
Topics: Hasidut, Hasidic Lore Series, Pesach

Analyzing Rashaz and the halachic customs surrounding matza that has come in contact with water or has been crumbled.

Responsa form a fascinating literary genre in that they not only report law, they may also provide a window into history, or a freeze-frame of the evolution of law. A fine example of this is the responsum of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (Rashaz, ca. 1745- 1812) on the question of matza that comes in contact with water on Passover. This stringency is known in Hebrew as matza sheruya (soaked matza), or in Yiddish as gebrokhts (broken). The halachic issue at stake is the concern that flour – either unbaked pockets of it, or flour that was on the outside of baked matza – might come in contact with water and render the admixture forbidden hametz. Nowadays, it is common hassidic practice not to eat gebrokhts on Passover.

In his code of Jewish law, the Rashaz – following accepted practice – ruled that once matza had been baked, it was permissible to re-grind the matza into meal and cook it in water. Moreover, he was not concerned that kitchen hands would mistakenly cook flour instead of matza meal.

But this was not his only statement on the issue.

The Rashaz was asked about “the prohibition of cooking matza that had been crumbled.” He opened his responsum by stating that while gebrokhts was not forbidden, it was a stringency that could be legally justified and was worth adopting. The tone of his opening words indicates that we are dealing with a marginal stringency whose acceptance was not universal.

He then analyzed the sources, considered regnant matza preparation mores that resulted in flour residue on the matza, and explained the silence of earlier authorities on the matter. He then concluded at his starting point: The stringency should be adopted, but the masses who had not adopted it had sound legal grounding and should not be chastised for their conduct.

At the end of the responsum, he related to the implementation of the stringency on the last day of Passover, ruling that one who chose to be lenient on that day in consideration of the obligation to rejoice on festivals “had not lost.” Thus the Rashaz recognized a license to eat gebrokhts on the last day.

THE GEBROKHTS stringency appears in legal literature that is unconnected to hassidism, and hence should not be considered a hassidic innovation. However, another legal authority close to the Rashaz, Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek of Vitebsk (1768-1867 or 1868), writing to the Rashaz’s grandson, noted that “our masters in Mezritch” were careful not to eat matza products, presumably because of the issue of gebrokhts. Dating the development of the hassidic custom not to consume gebrokhts to the Maggid of Mezritch and his students is bolstered by a tale that Hayim Yosef Arieh Prager (ca. 1840-1912) recorded:

“On Passover [Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, 1730-1788] was so stringent about soaking [matza] such that one time it was difficult for his daughter-in-law – the wife of his son Reb Moshe [d. 1799] (and she was an important woman of Sephardi origins) – to chew the matzot, and she asked if it was possible for her to soften the matza, not with water, but by scrambling an egg on the matza to soften it over the fire.”

The tale continues with Rabbi Menahem Mendel’s response in the face of his daughter-inlaw’s request: “And he said to her that he permits her [to do it], just not in his house, rather at a neighbor’s home, and she should also eat the matza there. And he said that he cannot be lenient regarding a stringency of [the Maggid of Mezritch], because the Besht [Ba’al Shem Tov] did not practice this stringency, only the Maggid, of blessed memory.”

LET US fast-forward to the heirs of the Rashaz’s legacy, contemporary Lubavitch norms. The Lubavitch literature dealing with gebrokhts does not employ the equivocal language that appears in the Rashaz’s responsum. Lubavitch sources are explicit – both about the stringency and about the license on the last day of Passover. In his 1946 Haggada, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Ramash, 1902-1994) wrote:

“We are particularly careful about matza sheruya. And therefore the matzot on the table are covered, lest some water fall upon them. Before pouring water, or a liquid that has water in it, into a cup or dish – we check that there are no crumbs of matza in the vessel. For washing in the middle of the meal [mayim emtza’im] and at the end of the meal [mayim aharonim] he should not pass his [wet] hands over his lips. (And similarly all seven days of Passover. Whereas on the last day of Passover, we are meticulous [mehadrin] to soak [matza in water]).”

Moreover, the Ramash described the last-day license as a value or even as a religious ideal. He emphasized a variety of aspects, including displaying the acceptance of the Rashaz’s ruling; mimicking the conduct of previous generations; distinguishing between the biblically mandated seventh day of Passover and the rabbinic institution of an additional day; seeing the last day of Passover as a liminal time between matza and hametz, and reflecting the fact that we are spiritually beyond the matza requirement but still bound by the hametz strictures; and using the last day to continue the spiritual achievements of Passover after the end of the festival.

Thus the Rashaz’s responsum can be read as an interim stage in the acceptance of an existing stringency as normative hassidic or Lubavitch custom: The stringency is already recognized as ideal, but it has yet to be codified as obligatory; the last-day license is a possibility, but not a religious value.

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