How not to eat Matzah

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two Wrights make an airplane, two rights make a lawsuit, and sometimes – two rights make a wrong.  Let me explain. 

Not all chumrot (stringencies that go beyond the basic legal requirement) go well together, even if separately they are praiseworthy. 

My usual illustration of this has been that there is a chumra that one should fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah by putting a full olive-volume of matzah in one’s mouth simultaneously and swallowing (some suggest chewing first).  There are also chumrot as to how much matzah constitutes an olive-volume, depending on the size of olives and how finely one grinds the matzah to measure it.  Combining these chumras requires one to put a huge quantity of matzah in one’s mouth and try to swallow it in one shot, and not surprisingly, every year the newspapers report a number of emergency room visits by people who choked on the mitzvah.

This safety concern is heightened now that my friend Professor Chaim Saiman sent me a link to a Yeshiva World article that goes this combination one better.  The author, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, contends that each Jew should try to fulfill the mitzvah by putting two olive-volumes of matzah in their mouth and chewing.

Now Rabbi Hoffman’s article has a marvelously honest and revealing prologue in which he acknowledges that his proposal will seem alien to just about all lay Jews, no matter how meticulously observant, and that they would be correct in assuming that it was not practiced by their parents. 

“What?  I never heard of that!”

“I’m sorry, but I do not know anyone who eats matzah like that.  It can’t be true”.

“My parents would have told me if this was true.  I don’t care if you say it is in the Shulchan Aruch.  This is just not done.  It can’t be that tens of thousands of people are doing it wrong.”

Here is how he justifies it nonetheless: 

Let us remember that for centuries, Jews have tried to fulfill mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible.  Often what this means is to fulfill the mitzvah in a manner that is consistent with the views of as many of the rishonim as possible.  Some people who are not accustomed to this notion will find such dedication extreme.  Others, however, will realize that dedication to mitzvos and Torah observance is a manifestation of ahavas Hashem, the love we have toward G-d”.

Let us concede that sometimes “the most ideal manner possible” to fulfill a mitzvah is to engage in rishon-position-maximization (the parameters of when deserve full discussion, but that is not my purpose here).  Surely there are other values as well, though, both general and matzah-specific, and relating to both the letter and spirit of the law, such as hiddur mitzvah (making commandments aesthetically pleasing), simchat mitzvah (joy in fulfilling commandments), oneg yom tov (making the holiday pleasurable), akhilah b’teiavon (eating matzah with appetite), avoiding akhilah gasah (gross consumption), and last but not least, avoiding potentially fatal behaviors.

In other words, there are very good reasons to oppose Rabbi Hoffman’s outcomes even if one concedes the truth of his specific halakhic analysis of matzah.  Rabbi Hoffman simply dismisses popular practice (minhag) here on the ground that it strays from the Shulchan Arukh – he grants mimetic culture no power at all against books.  But perhaps here the mimetic tradition has the authority of near-fatal experience, as when Rabbi Zeira refused to again eat a Purim meal with Rabbah the year after Rabbah had violently killed him at such a meal (albeit resurrecting him through prayer the next day).

But what about the Shulchan Arukh itself?

I think there are three good reasons not to follow Rabbi Hoffman’s understanding here.

1)  Shulchan Arukh may have been using a much smaller olive-volume.  In other word, when he proposed his position, it was not even potentially dangerous.

2)  Shulchan Arukh was referring to soft pita-like matza rather than the hard crackers with which Ashkenazim make do.  Again, when he proposed his position, it was not dangerous.

Reasons one and two are valid separately but are also mutually reinforcing justifications for the contemporary public failure to heed the Shulchan Arukh on this matter.

3) Shulchan Arukh never said any such thing.

Here is the language of the Shulchan Arukh OC 475:1

יטול ידיו ויברך על נטילת ידים,

ויקח המצות כסדר שהניחם,

הפרוסה בין שתי השלימות,

ויאחזם בידו ויברך המוציא ועל אכילת מצה,

ואחר כך יבצע מהשלימה העליונה ומהפרוסה,

משתיהן ביחד,

ויטבלם במלח,

ויאכלם בהסיבה ביחד, כזית מכל אחד,

ואם אינו יכול לאכול כשני זיתים ביחד, יאכל של המוציא תחלה ואחר כך של אכילת מצה,

He must wash his hands and make the blessing “regarding washing the hands”,

then he picks up the matzot in the same order that he left them,

the broken one between the two whole ones,

and he grasps them in his hand and blesses hamotzi and “regarding the eating of matzah”,

and afterward he cuts a piece from the upper whole one and from the broken one, from the two of them together, and dips them in salt,

and he must eat them reclining, together, an olive-volume from each one. 

But if he cannot eat two olive-sizes together, he eats the one from hamotzi first and afterward al akhilat matzah.

Rabbi Hoffman, following some acharonim, understands this as follows:

If one reads the Shulchan Aruch carefully, the indication is that both kezeisim should also actually be swallowed together. However, both the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah (475:9) write that it is only necessary to have them in the mouth together, chew them, and separate them in the mouth, but it is not necessary to swallow them together—one after the other will suffice.

If it is not possible to put two kezeisim of matzah in the mouth simultaneously, then one should take a kezayis from the whole matzah for the berachah of HaMotzi and, after chewing it, swallow it in its entirety. Afterward, he should take a kezayis from the broken piece, chew it well, and swallow that one in its entirety.

I contend, however, that a careful reading of Shulchan Arukh reveals no trace ever of an obligation to put any olive-volume of anything in the mouth at one time.  Rather, to “eat an olive-volume” of something always means to chew it deliberately, bite by bite, so long as one finishes it bikhdei akhilat pras, in the time an ordinary person eats 3-4 egg-volumes (this measurement has of course been downsized by its own chumras, although it may be that the chumra of necessity cancel each other out mathematically, i.e. the time must increase if the volume does).  To eat two olive-volumes together is to eat them both within that time-period, and Shulchan Arukh reasonably notes that many people will not be able to do this (let alone swallow them simultaneously).  He therefore allows them to be eaten in consecutive time periods, so long as an akhilat pras period does not elapse in which he is not eating matzah.  (Even Mishnah Berurah concedes that this is sufficient bediavad – I simply contend that there is no evidence that it is not lekhatchilah, and Shulchan Arukh’s language offers no basis for a lekhatchilah/bediavad distinction of this sort.)  The requirement that pieces of both matzot be in the mouth together immediately after the blessings refers to an initial bite of indeterminate quantity. 

The broader point is that practical texts are best read in light of lived experience, and reading them without any physical or cultural context leads to error, and ruling in accordance with such readings can lead to dangerous error. 

Now to be fair, the position that the mitzvah of matzah requires swallowing the whole olive-volume simultaneously is cited by Darkei Mosheh from Terumat haDeshen 139 (Darkei Mosheh seems to claim that Beit Yosef also cited this position from Tosafot, but I have not been able to find a relevant reference.)  Terumat HaDeshen in turn cites as his precedent Mordekhai to Pesachim 116a.

However, here too I suggest humbly that an error has crept in.  Terumat haDeshen notes that Mordekhai understands the Hillel sandwich as involving an olive-volume each of matzah, maror, and charoset.  Mordekhai then asks:  How can the throat hold all this?  He responds that it can once the food has been chewed up.  Terumat haDeshen reasonably concludes that Mordekhai must require the entire sandwich to be swallowed at once, and presumes that the same applies to the independent mitzvot of matzah and maror.

My contention, however, is that Mordekhai was responding specifically to the language that Hillel was “korkhan bevat echat v’okhlan”, wrapping them at one time and eating them.  The language at one time suggested to him that Hillel ate his sandwich in this fashion, but Mordekhai had no intention of suggesting that this should be required of the other mitzvot.  Indeed, it is possible that Mordekhai understood the gemara to mean that Hillel’s capacity to eat that much at one time was unusual.  As the Talmud there points out, Hillel’s sandwich was not obligatory even when the Temple was standing.

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