Leavened or Unleavened: A History

By David Kraemer

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Everyone knows that food is a serious part of the Passover Seder. But very few people take Seder food seriously. Though everyone who attends a Seder is aware that certain foods are central to the Seder ritual, and most — at least by the end of the Seder — will be aware of the conventional interpretations attached to the Seder’s “symbolic” foods, few people see the food symbols as more than “mere” symbols. That is to say, they fail to appreciate fully the potential expressive power of the foods. This is unfortunate, for the foods communicate far more than we might imagine.

Let us consider one example: Central to the foods of the Seder is bread — unleavened and, by negation, leavened. To make sense of the unleavened bread, we must understand bread. And there is a lot to say about bread.

Everyone knows the importance of bread to the human diet (at least from the Indian subcontinent westward). Bread is the “staff of life.” It is, and has historically been, the staple without peer. In fact, when the Torah says “Not by bread alone shall a person live” (Deuteronomy 8:3), it actually means that when it comes to food, a person can live by bread alone; the verse continues “for by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does a person live,” meaning that people need more than food. But as far as food is concerned, bread suffices.

Bread is not a simple food. To produce bread, one must harvest the wheat, separate the grain from the husk, crush the grain into flour, mix it with water and then bake it. If risen bread is desired, one must leaven the dough, either by mixing it with a piece of already leavened dough or leaving it exposed to yeast spores in the air for a period ranging from a single day to several, depending on the ambient conditions. This is a complicated process (I have oversimplified; for a detailed description of the steps for producing bread, see Mishnah Shabbat 7:2), one that must be learned. It does not come “naturally.”

To state the matter more pointedly, the production of bread is a cultural act, the wisdom for which must be transmitted culturally. To create “cultured” (leavened) bread, one must learn the culture of bread. For this reason (among others), in the ancient Mediterranean world, bread was a component — along with wine and, to a lesser degree, olive oil — of the “Mediterranean food triad,” the foods that, in combination, communicated the message, “I am a cultured citizen of this region.” If one did not eat these foods — if one’s diet was composed primarily of, say, meat and milk — then one would be viewed as a barbarian. Why do both bread and wine have special blessings in Judaism? Why are bread and wine central to the rituals of both Judaism and Christianity? Because these were the most significant foods of the culture in which both Judaism and Christianity grew. In this context, they could not be merely neutral.

Significantly, food historians are of the opinion that leavened bread originated in Egypt, probably less than a millennium before the pyramids were built. Egyptian culture was the first to produce leavened bread, and leavened bread was a symbol of Egyptian culture. This did not mean that unleavened bread disappeared from the Egyptian diet (when Jews — or others — said, “On all nights we eat leavened and unleavened bread,” they meant what they said), but leavened bread was preferred. The recognition that leavened bread first emerged in Egypt is essential for understanding the place of bread — leavened and unleavened — on Pesach, as is our understanding that leavened bread did not displace unleavened bread from the diet.

Let us start again, at the beginning: Leavened bread requires either time for the exposure of the dough, or a piece of already cultured bread to transmit its culture from one generation of bread to the next. The Torah explains the demand to eliminate leavening by reference to the first method (Exodus 12:34), but leavened bread inevitably carries reference to the second, more common method, as well. (The fact that the Torah “failed” to render this explicit does not mean it wasn’t so. That leavened bread was equated with culture was to be taken for granted in that context.) Moreover, it is notable that the Torah’s command is as much to eliminate the leavened substance as it is to eat the unleavened (see Exodus 12:15 and 18-19).

What does this command mean, given what we’ve said about the “significance” of bread in that culture? Well, the translation should now be quite simple. The Torah, by commanding the elimination of leavening, was demanding that Egyptian culture be left behind. The Torah’s view, as expressed in the bread we do and do not eat on Passover, is that Israelite culture should not be borrowed. It should not rely on the flawed and corrupt culture of the past. It should begin anew, freshly leavened by the “yeast” of Torah, revealed for the first time in Sinai.

David Kraemer is a professor and librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His new book, “Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages” (Routledge), will be available soon.


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