Ask the Rabbi: How much matza must one eat?

As with many other minutiae of Jewish law, these details, were only provided through the Oral Law and rabbinic sources.

Matza 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Matza 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The Torah mandates many activities and prohibits many more, yet never describes these actions with a quantifiable definition. We are told to eat from the Paschal sacrifice or that certain objects become purified after immersing them in a ritual bath (mikve); yet we are never told how much to eat or how much water a bath must hold to become a mikve. As with many other minutiae of Jewish law, these details, known as shiurim (measurements), were only provided through the Oral Law and rabbinic sources.
While shiurim are relevant year-round, they become particularly pertinent at the Passover Seder because of the multiples times in which matza is consumed along with maror (bitter herbs) and the four cups of wine.
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As Prof. Yitzhak Gilat has documented, the Sages held various perspectives regarding the necessity of shiurim. In a number of different realms of law, including Shabbat and ritual impurity, Rabbi Eliezer argued that even the most minimal amounts are significant in Jewish law. Most authorities, however, asserted that various quantities of volume or length, measured by the size of foods (like eggs or figs) or body parts (like thumbs or handbreadths), must be met before being considered under biblical law. For example, with regard to many commandments involving food, consumption was not considered “eating” unless one ate the equivalent of the size of an olive (kezayit) within a specified period of time. While some Sages contended that these measurements were created by the rabbis, others categorized them as halachot le-Moshe mi-Sinai, ancient traditions transmitted down from Moses through the generations.
Shiurim become relevant to us at this time of year because halachically, a shiur of matza must be eaten – within a specific time frame – three different times during the Seder in order to fulfill the mitzva. The mitzva requires a shiur of matza to be eaten when the Hamotzi blessing is said; with the maror as part of the “Hillel sandwich” and as the afikoman at the end of the Seder. In addition, two shiurim of bitter herbs (one at the maror course and one in the Hillel sandwich) must be eaten.
A system of measurements based on body parts and foods is problematic because the dimensions are inexact, a problem compounded by size variations of various foods in different eras and regions. At the same time, it has the advantage of being available throughout the eras. Based on manuscripts published in the 20th century, we know that a few geonim (early medieval authorities) concluded that one simply follows one’s own estimate of the volume of the local food. Yet historically many measurements were based on a ratio to the size of certain foods, with the gold standard set around the readily-available egg.
Unfortunately, various talmudic passages offer conflicting indications regarding the ratio of an egg to an olive. Some asserted that this confusion hinges on whether we include the egg shell or not, while others contended that the Talmudic passages simply conflict. In any case, Maimonides implied that an olive is less than one-third the size of an egg, with other Sephardi scholars depicting it as even smaller. Many Ashkenazi figures, however, concluded that an olive is roughly equivalent to the size of half of an egg. As Rabbi Natan Slifkin has emphasized, this surprisingly large (and seemingly errant) ratio was made by Northern European scholars who confessed that they have no exposure to olives. While acknowledging this incongruity, many scholars adopted this stringent ratio, perhaps in light of the ambiguous position taken by Rabbi Yosef Karo.
A SECOND source of confusion stemmed from talmudic ratios between measurements of length and volume. Using a water displacement test, Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (18th century, Prague) noted that the Talmudic ratio between eggs and thumbs was inaccurate. This discrepancy had already been noted by medieval scholars but was historically accepted with relative equanimity.
Yet based on the theological notion of “the decline of the generations,” Landau concluded that contemporary eggs are half the size of those from early eras and in consonance with the Ashkenazi ratio between eggs and olives, thereby concluding that the legal measurement of an “olive” is actually equivalent to the size of a contemporary egg! This has been estimated as approximately 47.5 cubic centimeters, which is roughly equivalent to three quarters of a standard machine-made matza.
Many eminent scholars, including Rabbis Yisrael Kagan and Avraham Karelitz accepted this position, even as they themselves expressed reservations with its logic or drew conflicting conclusions in other writings.
Other figures, including Rabbi Yehiel Epstein, entirely rejected this position, with Rabbi Haim Na’eh measuring an olive as 27 cc., roughly equivalent to half of a matza.
Especially for those who find consuming so much matza difficult, particularly within a period of two to four minutes (kedei achilat pras), others recommend following the Maimonidean ratio of an olive (17 to 19 cc.), which is slightly less than one-third of a matza. Rabbi Haim of Volozhin offered the most lenient position in the modern era. He asserted, in the spirit of the geonic responsa cited above, that fundamentally one only needs to consume a small piece of matza (approximately 6 cc.), since at the end of the day, an olive is an olive.
The writer, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel. [email protected]