There’s a funny, or perhaps not funny, joke that says that the Torah (Devarim 16:3) refers to matzah as lehem oni – “bread of poverty” – because the price of matzah for Pesach leaves many of us impoverished.
There’s a lot of truth to this witty piece of Jewish humor, and like many jokes, it conveys a serious message. If nothing else, it reminds us of our obligation to assist those facing financial hardship for whom the Pesach expenses pose a great deal of difficulty.
Quite obviously, however, this is not what lehem oni really means. And so, the joke alerts us to the very real and serious question of how to understand this term. Why is matzahreferred to as the bread of poor people?
One interpretation is that the word onirefers not to a person’s state of impoverishment, but rather to the “poverty” of thematzah. The defining characteristic of matzahis its austerity. It consists of flour and water, and nothing else. It cannot be baked with any yeast or flavoring. Matzahis thus “poor bread,” consisting of only the barest ingredients.
Additionally, some explain that slave masters would feed matzahto their slaves because it takes a long time to digest. Unlike bread, which the body digests quickly, causing the person to feel hungry and weak shortly after eating, the matzahprovides an enduring feeling of satiation, which enables laborers to work efficiently without requiring frequent breaks for eating.
There is, however, also a deeper interpretation, one which touches upon the fundamental concept underlying the precious mitzvahof matzah, and underlying the celebration of Pesach generally.
Bread of Faith
We’ll begin with the surprising interpretation of “lehem oni” found in the Gemara, in Masechet Pesahim (115b-116a). The Gemara comments that this term indicates to us that we are to break the matzah into two pieces at the seder: “Just as a poor person is accustomed to a piece, here, too – with a piece.” Meaning, as the poor generally eat just small pieces of bread, we are to break the matzahinto two pieces. This refers, of course, to the requirement of yahatz, breaking the matzahat the seder before we begin speaking about the Exodus. We leave one piece on the table, and we hide the other piece away until the end of the meal, when it is eaten as the afikoman. This custom, the Gemara teaches, is alluded to in the term lechem oni, which suggests that we should eat the matzahin pieces, just as a poor person eats his food in small portions.
But this itself requires explanation. Why do we want to imitate this practice of the needy at the seder? How does this practice contribute to our celebration of the Exodus? In what way can two pieces of matzahenhance the experience of the seder?
Another mysterious feature of the matzah is a curious teaching of the Zohar, which refers to matzah with the Aramaic expression, “lahma dehemnuta – bread of faith.” Eating matzah, the Zohar tells us, is to have the effect of bolstering our faith in Gd. This special food is absorbed not only in our body, but also in our soul, recharging our “faith batteries,” giving us an extra charge of belief and trust in Gd.
While obviously the Zohar’s comment relates to deep, complex Kabbalistic concepts that lie well beyond our intellectual reach, we must still try to understand on at least a basic level what this means. In what way does matzah reinforce our faith in the Almighty? And how might the requirement to break the matzahinto two pieces play a role in achieving this objective?
The Treasure Behind the Affliction
In just a few short weeks after Pesach, soon after we resume our ordinary routine, we read in the Torah a section in the middle of the Book of Vayikra dealing with the subject of tzara’at– various types of afflictions that, in ancient times, would strike those who violated certain transgressions. One of the forms of tzara’atdiscussed by the Torah affects the walls of a person’s home. The consequences of this affliction were especially grave. If the kohendetermined that the discoloration on the wall indeed met the criteria of tzara’at, the entire house had to be dismantled.
In describing the process that needed to be followed when a suspicious discoloration appeared on the wall of a home, the Torah instructs that the homeowner must approach a kohen and report to him that an affliction was seen in his home (Vayikra 14:35). Curiously, the Torah commands the person to tell the kohen, “Kenega nir’ah li babayit – I saw the likeness of an affliction in the home.” Rather than state definitively that he saw an affliction, he must tell the kohen that he saw a mark that looks like an affliction.
The work Kedushat Tziyon offers a brilliant explanation for why the Torah requires the homeowner to speak with equivocation when approaching the kohen.
The Midrash states that the phenomenon of tzara’at infections on people’s homes was actually a great gift for Beneh Yisrael. As they prepared to wage war to conquer the Land of Israel, the Canaanites living in the land realized that their homes would likely be overtaken. In their hatred for Beneh Yisrael, some Canaanites hid their treasures deep inside the walls of the houses so that the people who would take possession of their homes would never benefit from their wealth. In His love for His people, Gd would afflict the homes with tzara’atso they would have to be dismantled. Over the course of the dismantling, the homeowner would discover the secret treasures hidden inside the walls.
The Midrash here teaches us one of the most important fundamental axioms of religious life, namely, there are great treasures hidden beneath every calamity. We can only imagine the exasperation felt by a person who worked hard for many years to save enough money to purchase a large, comfortable home, and soon after he finally moved in with his family, a discoloration appeared on the wall that necessitated taking the home apart. He looks on while the demolition crew takes apart the house, his heart swelling with anguish as he watches the pain and anxiety on his children’s faces, and as he wonders where his family is going to live. Just then, he sees a shiny box. He goes over to it, opens it up, and sees a trove of gold and diamonds. There are enough riches in that box for him to purchase a larger and more luxurious home, and to comfortably support his family for several years. What appeared as a grave personal tragedy turned out to be the greatest blessing he could ever wish for.
This is the vital message conveyed by the phenomenon of tzara’at habayit. We only see the surface, often without realizing that there is so much more lying beneath the surface. We see a nega, an affliction, entirely unaware of the hidden treasures behind it. Our vision is very limited; we see only a very small part of the story, and this is why we perceive events as “afflictions” when in truth, they are great blessings.
One of the basic principles of Jewish faith is that everything Gd does is, by definition, good. Of course, it generally does not seem that way. We see so many “afflictions” all around us. We see good people enduring all kinds of hardships. We see so many wonderful men and women unable to find a suitable marriage partner. We see so many honest, hard-working people who have trouble supporting their families. We see wonderful people suffering from illness, and loving, devoted parents having problems with their children. We have so many questions, because we only see the surface of the “wall.” We need to believe that beneath each and every “nega,” there is a priceless treasure. It might take years to see the treasure, and we might not see the treasure at all until the times of Mashiah. But we must believe that there is a treasure lurking behind every “affliction” that we see or experience.
This is why the homeowner is told to tell the kohen that he saw “kenega” – something resembling an affliction. He is to recognize that the misfortune that has befallen him only appears as an affliction, but is, in truth, a great blessing.
We Are All Poor
The Gemara teaches us in Masechet Nedarim (41a), “En ani ela bede’ah” – true “poverty” is a deficiency in knowledge. “Wealth” and “destitution” are measured most accurately not by one’s financial status, but rather by the amount he knows and understands. A person who lives in deprivation can be still be “rich” if he has knowledge, whereas a prominent tycoon can be “impoverished” if he is ignorant.
In a certain sense, then, all human beings are, by definition, “poor.” The very fact that we are human necessitates that we know only an infinitesimal fraction of what goes on. We know only what we see and observe, and have no idea of everything that goes on beneath the surface. And so we are sorely “deprived,” denied access to the vast amounts of information regarding Gd’s governance of the world.
Recognizing our “poverty” should not cause us depression. Quite to the contrary, it should bring us a great deal of comfort and reassurance. Once we realize we are “poor,” that we see very little, we can rest assured that every “affliction” that we experience is, in truth, a priceless “treasure.”
Just imagine how much happier and calmer we would all be if we lived life with this perspective. Imagine that every time we confronted a problem or hardship, big or small, we knew with absolute confidence that we had just struck gold, that this “nega” is actually a source of great fortune. Just as a child who gets hurt finds comfort and solace when he is embraced by his mother, we can find comfort and solace whenever we experience any sort of pain by feeling the loving embrace of our Father, who loves each of us far more than any parent loves his or her child. And we feel this embrace through emunah, faith, by trusting that there is always so much more than meets the eye, that somewhere beneath every “affliction” lies a priceless treasure.
This is the deep meaning of the Gemara’s comment, “Darko shel ani bifrusah – Apoor person is accustomed to a piece.” A poor person – meaning, every human being, who, by definition, sees a very small portion of what is actually happening – recognizes that he has only a “piece,” a small part of the story. He does not worry during difficult times, or break down in periods of sorrow, because he understands that he has only a small piece of information, that underlying even the most trying situation is, in truth, great blessing, because everything Gd does is, by definition, good.
And this is the meaning of yahatz– breaking the matzahinto pieces. We keep the smaller piece on the table and hide the larger piece to remind ourselves that we are “poor,” we see only one small piece of the puzzle. The majority, most of Gd’s intentions, are hidden away from our view.
This is why matzahis called “the bread of poverty.” Its purpose is to remind us of our inherent state of poverty, of deficiency in knowledge. The term “lehem oni” goes hand-in-hand with the Zohar’s description of matzah as “bread of faith.” The broken matzah reminds us that there so much we don’t see, that Gd is always working to help us, even when it seems as though we suffer. Recognizing we are “poor” in knowledge helps us recognize that we are “rich” in every other sense, that we always have everything we could ever need, because Gd is always looking out for us and everything He does is, necessarily, for the best.
Learning EmunahFrom Children
With this is mind, we can also understand the profound reason underlying the widespread custom that the children bring the afikoman from its hiding place after the meal. On one level, of course, this is part of the effort to involve the children at the seder, to keep their interest piqued, as they are the focal point of the seder, which is all about teaching the story and lessons of the Exodus to the next generation. Additionally, however, this custom closely relates to the symbolic message of the hidden piece of matzah.
The children bring us the afikoman because they are the ones from whom we can learn about emunah. Children innately recognize their dependence on their parents, and trust their parents to care for them. A child does not worry about his finances; he knows that his parents will provide for him. When a child is sick, he goes to his parents for care and comfort. When a child feels threatened, he goes to his parents for protection and support. Children realize they are vulnerable and incapable of taking care of themselves, and so they turn to and rely upon their parents for all their needs.
On Pesach night, which revolves around this theme of emunah, we look to our young children for guidance and inspiration. We adults are often plagued by negativity, cynicism and depression, borne out of the rigors of life and the day-to-day grind. The ongoing pressure to care for ourselves and our families can easily lead us to a kind of frustration and bitterness that children, who trust in their parents’ care, do not experience. At the seder, as we teach our children about the Exodus, we learn from them about emunah. We remind ourselves that we are also children, that we also have a Father upon whom to rely. We remind ourselves that we can feel as secure and happy as young children, because we are no different from them. We, too, are “poor” – inherently limited and incapable of independently caring for ourselves, but are lovingly cared for by an unconditionally devoted Father. The children bring us the afikoman to remind us that like them, we know very little, as the vast majority of information is hidden from our view, and so we must place our trust entirely in Gd’s hands.
I’ve been in the “Rabbi business” for a long time, over the course of which I’ve been privileged to meet and work with many different kinds of people. Please believe me when I tell you that I have never, but never, met somebody with a perfectly smooth life, who has no problems or hardships to deal with. One of the worst mistakes we make when problems arise is assume that we are unique, that we are being singled out for hardship, that others have it easy. Trust me, they don’t. Everyone walks around with a burden of problems on his back. But this burden is so much easier to bear with emunah. With emunah, we bear this burden like a billionaire carrying a large suitcase of gold. We understand that every “affliction” is really a treasure, and this makes the burden so much easier to carry through life.
As we sit down to the seder this year, and every year, let us reflect on this message of the “bread of poverty,” so we can receive a boost of emunah that will make our lives so much happier, so much more serene, and so much more rewarding.