A timeless hands-on tradition

Throughout Jerusalem, hundreds of havurot gather to prepare hand-made matzot.

guarded matzah 248.88 (photo credit: Joshua Pltoke)
guarded matzah 248.88
(photo credit: Joshua Pltoke)
In a makeshift bakery in Jerusalem's Beit Yisrael neighborhood, a group of 30 men are preparing for Pessah. But they aren't cleaning the rooms or cooking festive meals. They are toiling at another form of preparation just as vital. They are baking hand-made matzot: placing soft discs of dough into a wood-burning oven one by one and then removing crisp, golden-brown matzot thoroughly baked to perfection. The group is one of hundreds or possibly thousands of matza-baking havurot - friends who gather for a religious purpose - that form before Pessah. Matza-baking havurot are common in all religious communities but are most prominent in the haredi world, where the large majority of people prefer hand-made shmura (guarded) matzot over shmura matzot made by machines in factories. Using hand-made matza during the Seder is common practice; some communities eat only hand-made matzot during the entire week of Pessah as well. Havurot or similar matza-baking operations take numerous forms. The most common involves gathering a group of people and reserving time in a matza bakery. The group members do the baking themselves or assist the professional bakers on duty, standing watch at the various work stations to ensure that the dough is never left unattended and that no moisture goes unchecked. Some groups take it much further, acquiring all the equipment necessary and setting up their own private bakeries wherever space permits. While there are groups that bake matzot for commercial purposes, in most cases the profit motive is turned on its head - people pay more, sometimes twice as much, for the privilege of baking their own matza. For Moshe David, who organizes a havura for his community in Jerusalem, the effort and the expense are a small price to pay for matzot that adhere to the highest halachic standards. "If something is dear to you, you'll do anything to ensure it is the best it possibly can be," says David. "If it matters to you, you'll do it to the highest standard. You won't take any chances." David's havura does its baking early, about two and a half months before Pessah. His 20-man group books a time slot in a bakery and produces about 50 kilograms of matza, enough for each group member to use for his Seder and some for the rest of the holiday as well. But making shmura matza, he says, begins long before anyone is ready to enter the bakery. "We oversee the process from the grinding of the wheat until it gets into the oven, even until it gets into the boxes," he says. "We make sure everything is done properly." Others start even earlier - harvesting their own wheat for the following year only two months after Pessah is finished. "Preparations begin 10 months earlier," says a member of a havura. "We cut the wheat by hand. We don't rely on combines because they can't watch the wheat; only a person can. Then we leave it in a carefully guarded storage area until we are ready to grind it." That small havura has been functioning for the past 12 years. Over that time, the group has acquired all the necessary equipment, including a gas oven for the matzot. It also hires a number of professional workers to handle the various tasks, raising the prices of their matzot even higher. At the other end of the spectrum are hassidic havurot that meet only after midday on Pessah eve. These groups create a festive atmosphere around the baking process, singing Hallel while working hard to ensure that every detail is covered, since the time of their baking only begins after the prohibition for leaven has started. The painstaking baking process begins when flour and water are mixed in heavy bowls, and then separated into small clumps of dough. The sections are then divided into matza-size clumps and rolled thin into the familiar round shape. At that point, another member of the team goes over the dough with a special utensil to add small holes. A third group then puts the dough on a round wooden disk and gently places it into the oven. Within 20 seconds, the steaming matza is taken out to cool and eventually placed in a box for storage. If it remains in the oven much longer, it will burn; if it comes out too early, tiny spots may go uncooked, leaving the matza unusable for Pessah. The entire process - from the time the water hits the flour until the dough enters the oven - must be completed within 18 minutes. The 18-minute rule means that no traces of old dough can be left on any of the equipment used for preparing new matzot because those traces, no matter how small, may have gone longer than 18 minutes without being cooked. Making sure that this obligation is strictly enforced requires great vigilance on the part of the bakers. Every work station has at least one person assigned to watch the process carefully and inspect the equipment to ensure that it is clean. The rule also means that even before the cooking begins, all the flour must be guarded at all times to prevent its coming into contact with any moisture. Many havurot focus on making sure the matzot are watched during the entire process and helping the workers clean and inspect all the equipment. Shlomo Friedman, a Hornisteipel Hassid, organizes the havura for his community at the large matza bakery at Komemiyut. Havura members assist in all facets of the process but are particularly involved watching over the dough. "We don't want the dough to sit unwatched for even one second," he says, noting that his havura brings about 20 people to the bakery to help the workers at a prearranged time. "When the people roll the dough out and put holes in it, there is a chance that it could stand unwatched, so we put people there," he explains. "We don't get a discount on the matzot, but we get to participate so that our matzot are the most mehudar - embellished." That extra level of sensitivity to all the restrictions surrounding the baking process also makes havura matzot popular with the general public. Jerusalem resident Yitzhak Snyder, who arranges learning opportunities for people in the Arnona area, says he is willing to pay more for matzot baked by a havura. "You are getting more for your money," he says. "They are putting more into the matzot." He also explains why many religious people get so concerned about their matza. "Throughout the year, we are totally involved with hametz - leavened bread. Then comes Pessah, and not only are we prohibited from eating hametz, but we are told it is a very severe prohibition," he says. "So suddenly, we have to be careful about something we didn't have to be careful about before. As a result, we become extremely careful about it." Along with providing high-grade matzot for a large segment of the religious public, the hand-baked matza industry also generates demand for workers to carry out much of the labor. Most of the jobs are filled by people in kollel, who earn a significant portion of their annual income during the two-month matza-baking season, or by other people in the religious world. According to Reb Chaim, a member of a long-running matza-baking operation that hires seasonal workers to man the various work stations, many of the laborers are part of a class of religious journeymen workers who move from job to job according to the season. "Many of the larger bakeries start making matzot around Hanukka in order to fill all their orders in Israel and abroad," he says. "So from Hanukka to Pessah, the workers are baking matza. Then they might move to the etrog industry or any of the four species people need for Succot, and then other jobs that usually involve a holy purpose." Matza-baking, he says, is particularly hard work that isn't suited for everyone. "It takes a lot of strength to mix flour and water for eight hours a day, day after day," he points out. "All the jobs are difficult. The skills can be acquired relatively quickly, but finding someone who can do them well for a long period is not easy." The highest paid professionals, Reb Chaim says, are the people entrusted with placing the matzot in the ovens and taking them out. "They know how to judge the matzot, if they should be in longer or shorter," he explains "It only stays in the oven for 10-20 seconds, so there is virtually no room for error." Other groups that operate with little room for error are the hassidim that gather for their Pessah eve havura, which takes place after the restrictions on leaven have set it. Jerusalem resident and Alexander Hassid Herschel Broncher has been making the trip to Bnei Brak to bake matzot with his rebbe every year since moving to Israel 15 years ago. The group arrives after shortly after midday and sets up a makeshift bakery near the rebbe's residence. All the hassidim are dressed in their best Shabbat clothes and set to work while joyously singing Hallel. "This is a common hassidic practice," he says. "There is a lot of importance attached to the matzot at the Seder. The highest level is the matza that was made on erev Pessah specifically for the Seder." The extra effort that goes into making the matzot by hand adds immeasurably to the Seder experience, he explains. "Everyone has a religious obligation to eat matza at the Seder. So what makes one person's experience different from another person's? It's what people do beforehand to prepare that makes the difference at the Seder. The essence of the Seder is the matza. Whatever the person can do beforehand to improve the matza is the hidur - enhancement - of the mitzva." The sweat and toil that go into preparing the matzot, he says, gives them their great power. "It is something that people make themselves," he says. "It is a food of spiritual healing."