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Baking The Passover Matzah

Preparing for Passover can be a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of work. The most interesting part is the baking of the Matzoh.

In the Hasidic group in which I mingle, we bake our own Matzoh. This is not unusual among the Orthodox. One reason that we bake the matzos ourselves is because it is always better to have personal involvement in a mitzvah. The Torah commands us to eat matzos on the two nights of Passover, and everything done in preparation for that is part of the mitzvah. The participation in a mitzvah both ennobles the person, and raises the level of the observance of the mitzvah itself.

About thirty or so people form an association, and rent out the bakery for four hours. There's a job for everyone, and each association is planned exactly to fill the needed jobs. In the better associations, each participant gets about four to five pounds of matzoh per person.

It is necessary to understand that in addition to the Mitzvah of eating matzoh on the two nights of Passover, the Torah also forbids us to eat (or even have in our possession) chometz, leaven, or anything that has come into contact with leaven. So, everything we use for Passover must be free of leaven and bread. Of course, the very matzoh we eat must be made with the utmost care not to rise and become chometz. When we bake matzos, that is our primary concern.

If unbaked flour and water remain together for a period of 18 minutes, they automatically begin to leaven and rise. There are ways to slow down the process, and there are factors that can speed up the process. Therefore, we take great care not to allow the process of leavening to speed up.

All utensils used for the creation and baking of matzoh must be utterly clean, and most especially free of any taint of flour, water, or dough.

First, paper is laid out over the tables where workers will be rolling the dough. Each worker receives a clean rolling pin. Meanwhile, a kneading bowl is prepared. The person in charge of that job washes the kneading bowl, then checks it to make sure there is no visible speck of dough in it. Even one speck of leavened dough can leaven an entire bowl of unleavened dough.

He dries it, checking again, this time to make sure it is dry. He places the bowl on the pedestal, the kneader calls for flour, and the flour is poured, in exact measurement. This flour has been guarded from liquid since the wheat was harvested.

Water is carefully poured into this flour. The water is water from a well, left overnight to cool to room temperature. The water is poured carefully so as not to raise flour dust that might float around and attach itself to an unwanted place, perhaps later coming into contact with water and creating leaven where and when we don't want it.

The kneader begins to mix the flour and dough.

A good kneader takes about 30 seconds to prepare a batch of dough. (The best kneaders can do it in 20 seconds.) The batch is rushed to the main table, where it is divided and dealt out to the rollers, who roll their pieces into matzohs.

Meanwhile, another bowl is brought to the kneader, and the process starts again, even while the rollers are still rolling out the first dough.

The flat pieces of dough, which has been rolled into matzoh shapes, are next perforated so there can be no air bubbles trapped inside to puff up the matzoh. Next they are placed in the oven, where, due to the extreme heat, they are fully baked about 2O seconds later.

The oven is a specially constructed brick or stone oven, used only for the baking of matzoh. It has been stoked and heated all night, to attain a heat that can almost instantly bake anything. (When I visited a reconstructed colonial town a few years ago, I found I knew more about how to use the ancient stone oven than the tour guide did. I have personal experience with one; she did not.)

This whole process, from the placing of water to the removal of a finished matzoh from the oven, takes about 3 minutes.

Leavening, under optimum conditions, takes about 18 minutes, so conditions are kept as preventive as possible. Every 18 minutes all utensils are changed, and all hands are washed. The rolling pins are exchanged for clean ones, usually cleaned by sanding with sandpaper.

After the matzos are taken out of the oven, they are checked through for possible problems, like trapped air bubbles, or folds of dough in which there might be unbaked flour. Of course, we take off "challah," which the Torah commands us to remove from everything we bake and give to a kohen (Jewish priest of the Levite Tribe) who is ritually prepared. Unfortunately, it is impossible to have that ritual state today (see my article about rebuilding the Holy Temple), so we have to burn those small pieces of matzoh that have been separated and removed from the batch.

Afterwards, the matzos are weighed, and carefully wrapped (or boxed, when this is requested), and stored in a side room until they are divided among the workers.

Throughout the work, the mood is generally jovial, without our losing sight of the importance of the work. Often one of the guys will spontaneously break into song, and we'll all join him in one of those rollicking, delightfully syncopated tunes that Hassidim are famous for.

Interestingly enough, one of the hardest positions to fill is the position of cleaning the kneading bowls -- not because no one wants to do it, but because not everyone can be trusted to do it properly. Anyone with a half hour of practice can roll out dough, but you can't train an eye to be efficient, or a person to be reliable and scrupulous. The same goes for the guys who clean the rolling pins.

Sometimes, what seems to be most menial of tasks is also the most responsible.

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