When you want to “cut to the chase,” you strip away everything extraneous and get straight to the heart of the matter. Pirkei Avot is a prime example of this, a collection of our greatest sages’ opening lines – the epitome of their life philosophy. Similarly, if you want to get to the “essence” of the Haggadah, you need to take a very close look at the opening line.
The Haggadah opens with the declaration הא לחמא עניא, which is based on a pasuk (Devarim 16,3) where matzos are referred to as לֶחֶם עֹנִי. The common translation ofלֶחֶם עֹנִי is “poor man’s bread,” a direction taken by many of the commentators, such as Rashi, implying that we eat matzos to remind us of the poverty of our slavery in Egypt.
Let us begin with the facts. We were poor slaves in Egypt – fact! We ate matzos when we left Egypt – fact! We eat matzos to remind us of our poverty of slavery in Egypt – fact????
The million dollar question is “What kind of bread did we eat when we were poor slaves in Egypt? Was it matzos?” The categorical answer is no, it was not. While we were still slaves in Egypt, we ate the regular bread that everyone ate in Egypt, fermented, chametz bread.
The game changer only happened on Rosh Chodesh Nissan before the Exodus, when HKB”H commanded us (Shemot 12, 8) for the first time to prepare matzos to eat with the Korban Pesach fourteen days later. According to the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 11a) our slavery in Egypt already ended on Rosh Hashana six months before the Exodus. When we were commanded to eat matzos – we were no longer slaves!
Nor were we poor. Already during the Plague of Darkness we went around the Egyptians’ homes making an inventory of all the jewelry hidden in the drawers, under the floorboards. Each person left Egypt with 90 Libyan donkeys, laden to the hilt with riches (Gemara, Bechorot 5b).
So, to say that “this bread” הא לחמא – pointing to the matzos – is the poor man’s bread our forefathers ate in Egypt, is simply factually incorrect! If the primary purpose is to reflect the “poor man’s bread” that we actually ate as slaves in Egypt, it would be chametz bread, not matzos!
Chazal pick up on this inconsistency in the Gemara (Pesachim 115b) and offer a different meaning for the word “Shmuel says, לֶחֶם עֹנִי does not mean “poor man’s” bread (from the root עני meaning poor), but the bread on which we “answer many questions” (from the root עונה meaning answer),” alluding to the fact that most of the Pesach Seder is in Q&A format. The Gemara continues – “And if you want to say that it does mean “poor,” then the reference is to the fact that it is a “small piece” (פרוסה) of matzo (compared to a large loaf of bread), reminiscent of poverty.” The latter qualification does not explain why davka a small piece of matzo – it could just as well be a “small piece” of chicken, or vegetable.
The concept of equating “matzo” with “poverty” is factually problematic, as can be seen above, but despite that, this “misconception” has filtered down, even to the realm of the halacha, for example – the reason we do not add salt when mixing matzo dough. According to the Shulchan Aruch it is because “some have the opinion” (יש אומרים) that it hastens the “chimutz” process by heating up the dough. (This has been proven to be chemically incorrect, in fact salt in the dough does the opposite, it retards the chimutz process.) In response to this, the Mefarshim qualify that salt is omitted from matzo dough – because matzo is “poor man’s bread” and should be devoid of taste. Even though neither are factually true, as shown above, the halacha for Ashkenazim is to bake matzo without salt and we stringently follow this ruling, even though it may appear illogical – because these are the words of our sages and we do not veer from them left or right. (On the other hand, many Sefardi communities, like the Yemenites, do bake matzo with salt.)
I would like to bring an additional perspective to the concept of לֶחֶם עֹנִי from my sefer (מאיר פנים, פרק טו). The word עֹנִי has an additional meaning that we learn from Torat HaSod. The gematria of the word עֹנִי (when written in “full” format עין נון יוד) is נראה, meaning “visible.” I believe that this is the “essence” of matzo, it is bread in which nothing is hidden. It is totally “visible” – flour and water, mixed and baked immediately. Chametz is likened by Chazal to the יצר הרע which is something surreptitious, “invisible” to the naked eye. Matzo therefore, is bread that is devoid of יצר הרע.
What the Haggadah is telling us, already from the opening line, is why we really celebrate Pesach. The fact that we commemorate our Exodus from Egypt is central to Pesach, but it is not the essence. Pesach, stripped down to its “essence” is – celebrating the Creation of the World. Avraham celebrated Pesach (Breishit 18, 6), Yitzchak and Yaakov celebrated Pesach (Breishit 27,9) – long before the exile in Egypt, because they instinctively knew by Ruach HaKodesh what this time of the year signified. The Mefarshim tell us that the Ten Plagues and the Exodus from Egypt were in fact a “reenactment” of the Creation of the world (שפת אמת, פרשת בא, תרל”א).
Pesach is a restoration of the world to its state after the Creation, before the sin of Adam HaRishon, when there was no יצר הרע. What better visual aid could there be than pointing to the matzo – “See, everything is visible, there is nothing hidden here, noיצר הרע in this bread! This is how it was when the world was created.”
If you view matzo from that perspective, it is not “poor man’s bread” at all. It is the bread we left Egypt with, laden with every possible form of material wealth. It is also bread symbolizing the most elevated level of spirituality. That makes it – rich man’s bread!
Pesach Trivia Question: Which Mincha offering in the Mikdash most resembles the matzo we eat on Pesach?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Which two periods of time was the Kohen on “vacation” and would not answer questions regarding nega’im? During Chol Hamo’ed and also (for a chattan and kallah) during the week of Sheva Brachot – so as not to spoil the simcha.