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Satmar Matzah as New York Times Front Page News

The NY Times must be learning Daf Yomi. Just when we all started learning about the laws of chametz and matzah, the Times runs a front page above the fold story on Satmar A (as opposed to Satmar Z) protocols for matzah baking. It seems that Satmar A, and maybe others I really don’t know, are not satisfied with the “shmura m’shaas ketzira” and add an extra layer of stringency. They are careful to use wheat that did not even become wet while it was growing. They grow wheat on a far flung farm in Arizona where there is no rain for months while the wheat grows.

Why do they do this?

Halacha requires that we use “Shmurah Matzah” at the Seder (and some authorities say all Pesach). Shmura Matzah is not synonymous with round, dark matzah. Matzah can be Shmurah and any shape. Shmurah means that the ingredients for the Matzah were watched to ensure that the grains did not become leaven by coming in contact with water and not being baked within 18 minutes. There are three opinions in halacha as to when the ingredients for matzah must be “watched” in order to qualify for “Shmurah Matzah.” The most “watched” that halacha requires in that the wheat be watched from the time of harvesting. That is why most Matzah says “Shmurah m’shaas ketzira” – watched from the time of reaping.

There are no opinions in halacha that require that the grains not come in contact with water before they are reaped. None that I could find at least.

So what’s going on here?

The NY Times tells us exactly what is going on here. Here is what Professor Samuel Heilman has to say:

“…the competition between the two Satmar groups — each led by one of two brothers — was about one-upmanship.

“One is always looking to be more authoritative than the other,” Professor Heilman said, “and one of the ways they’re making this happen is over matzo — our matzo is more kosher than yours, we’re more scrupulous and careful over matzo baking than you are.”

One-upmanship in halacha. Nailed it. When so many of us are mitzvah observant, we need to do things to signal to others that we are different. We are better. That signal is the extra level of stringency that is completely unnecessary. For more on this social phenomenon check this out: Judaism as a First Language

But I think there is something more happening here. While it is true that there may be nothing wrong with being extra stringent, this kind of stringency borders on silliness. The concern that created the requirement to use Shmurah Matzah is that the wheat will actually become chametz. If water comes in contact with flour while it is in storage the wheat can become chametz. That’s science. But it is literally impossible for grains that are still growing to become Chametz. Impossible. In much the same way that it is impossible for cooked matzah to become chametz if it comes in contact with liquid. Yet, there are thousands of Jews who don’t eat gebrukst because of that very concern.

Adding stringencies like gebrukst and growing wheat where there is no rain only makes sense in one context. If Judaism is a magical, mystical, mystery and our rational minds are useless to understand the laws of Judaism then it does not matter that there is no possibility of becoming chametz. All that matters is that water and wheat do not come in contact ever. Even if the prohibition is against chametz and not all wheat and water become chametz it does not matter. But if Judaism is a religion with Divine instructions that are supposed to be understood as rationally as possible and the rules tell us what our concerns are supposed to be, there is not place for non-sensical stringencies.

When it comes to chametz, we are given specific instructions as to what the prohibition entails. The law requires us to be careful not to let the wheat and water ferment and begin to rise. It’s based on science. Anything that could help prevent that from happening is a reasonable stringency. But once we get into the kind of stringencies that will not prevent a violation of a prohibition, it is hard to see their value unless we say something magical is happening and that wheat and water may never touch. The thing is, that’s not what the Torah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and responsa tell us. To them, it has nothing to do with science. It has everything to do mysticism.

Now I think I can understand why the NY Times found this so interesting. Growing wheat in Arizona so it doesn’t rain on the wheat? It’s irrational. It is religion without reason. It’s exotic, archaic, and mystical. It’s not the Judaism that so many of us practice. It’s a Judaism that almost purposely does not make rational sense and is purely mystical. That’s front page news.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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