By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The prices range from some $13 per pound to upwards of $28 per pound. The not insignificant range in price for handmade matzah invites the question: Why is hand shemurah matzah so expensive? Is there price gouging involved here?
This year, in Brooklyn, there is talk of organizing a boycott to keep the prices down. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 231:21,27) discusses the right of a beis din to ensure that price gouging does not happen for staple food items that are necessary for a Jewish community. Might this apply here?
Before a boycott is called, it would be instructive to understand what the factors are that contribute to the cost of matzah production. There are matzah bakers that are highly successful financially. Others have lost their shirts. A third group barely eke by. What are the underlying issues?
Believe it or not, as with most businesses, the main factors are managerial and fiscal accounting skills. Aside from renting the actual property where the baking will be conducted, there is a huge labor cost involved. The owner has to make sure that he has qualified and experienced managers and workers who can focus on very strict standards while still producing a high volume of matzah. The owner has to keep the managers happy in terms of their salaries as well as the quality of their workers.
The costs are not just that of salary. Because most of the workers come from Israel, there is the cost of the airline tickets as well as housing them for the duration of their stay in the United States. There is also the cost of kosher supervision and that of the rav who sets up the production system.
Because the production aspects of matzah are so complex, the owner has very little time to focus on other aspects of building up his business. Generally speaking, there are two types of baking that occur at matzah bakeries–that of the general shift and the baking that is done by groups that come in, called chaburos.
The latter idea is an important notion in halachah. Getting matzos for Pesach is not just a hechsher mitzvah–a preparation for a mitzvah. It actually involves a mitzvah in and of itself–that of “u’shmartem es ha’matzos”–guarding the matzos. This is indicated in the language of the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 460:2). Although it can be done through an appointed messenger or shaliach, just buying the matzos off the supermarket shelves is not the best way to fulfill this mitzvah. There is a workaround for the off-the-shelf purchaser. If time is spent examining whether there are folds or bubbles in the matzah that would render the matzah unfit, then one does fulfill the special mitzvah of guarding the matzos.
There are two types of matzos: matzos mitzvah and regular matzah that is to be eaten during the other days of Pesach. Matzos mitzvah are those matzos that are to be used on the nights of the Seder in fulfillment of the mitzvah, “In the evening you shall eat matzos . . .”
Matzos mitzvah can technically be baked from wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. However, it is ideal, a mitzvah min ha’muvchar, to bake them from only wheat (Rama 453:1 and M.B. 453:1).
The pasuk states, “U’shmartem es ha’matzos” (Sh’mos 12:17)–which literally means “and you shall guard the matzos.” Our sages extrapolated from this pasuk that these matzos require a special supervision that they not become subject to chametz. It is not enough to just assume that nothing happened to them. Rather, ideally, the wheat from which a person wishes to make matzos mitzvah must be guarded to ensure that there is no concern of their becoming chametz. Having been guarded in this way makes the matzos “shemurah.”
Guarding The Matzah:
A Three-Way Debate
There is a three-way debate among the poskim as to when it should be guarded. Should it be guarded from the time of the harvesting of the wheat, of the grinding of the wheat, or of the kneading of the matzah dough? Ideally, we rule that the guarding for the matzah that we use during the Seder should be done from the time the wheat is harvested, but at least from the time that it is ground. If one is hard-pressed, then one may rely upon the more lenient view of guarding from the time that the matzah is being kneaded (see Shulchan Aruch 453:4).
According to the letter of the law, the matzah that is eaten during non-Seder nights does not need to be watched. However, Israel is a holy nation, and they have taken upon themselves the custom that even these other matzos should be watched (see Be’er Heitev 453:8 and M.B. 453:25).
Those that are especially careful in the mitzvah make sure to eat only matzah that was guarded from the time of harvest for the entire duration of Pesach. This was the custom of the Vilna Gaon (see Biur Halachah 453 “Tov l’shomram”).
Why do we seem to adopt every stringency when it comes to matzah? The Malbim explains that the Jewish nation was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of three things: we did not change our names, we did not change our language, and we did not change our clothing. If you will note, none of these things were halachic requirements at the time. They were chumros, stringencies. This is why we are careful to observe so many stringencies in regard to matzah–because it was only in the merit of stringencies that we merited to be redeemed in the first place.
What Is Chametz?
One last thought. We all know that metaphysically, chametz represents the yetzer ha’ra–the evil inclination. What is the actual science behind chametz?
The world is filled with microorganisms called yeasts that surround us. They are found everywhere–on the ground, on plants and trees, on human beings, and even in the very air that we breathe.
These airborne yeasts enter everywhere. They even enter into matzah dough, and feed upon the starches that are in the flour. The yeasts produce carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide expands the gluten proteins in the flour. This is how dough eventually becomes chametz.
The gluten protein is a composite of two other chemicals, gliadin and glutenin. These gluten proteins are elastic. When the yeast breaks down the starches into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the dough begins to expand and to rise. The elements that help in the expansion of the gluten proteins are warmth, water, and time. This is why we make sure that we avoid excess kinetic energy (that could produce heat) in our bags of flour, and why we keep production under 18 minutes, and why we make sure that the flour does not get prematurely wet.
Another factor that is not so well known is atmospheric pressure. The higher the elevation, the lower the surrounding pressure and the more the carbon dioxide will expand. It seems, however, that this is a halachic issue that has not yet been fully explored with poskim. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.