The historian of science comes to the seder

I just read a tshuva written in 1859 by Rabbi Slomo Kluger of Brody, who opposed the use of matzah-making machines. Apparently, the first such machine was invented in France in 1838 by an Isaac Singer. A heated (375 degree) halachic debate ensued, as Rabbi Kluger’s teshuvah attests.

According to R. Kluger, there are at least four reasons why one should not eat machine-made matzah on Pesach:

1. It is impossible to clean all the little internal parts of the matzah machine, so one can never be certain that it is free of chametz.

2. Matzot were generally round until the nineteenth century, and it would be a great break with tradition to start eating square-shaped matzot. (“V’ata na’aseh ha-matzot m’rubaim??! Lachen nelech b’ikvot avoteinu.”)

3. Poor families relied on matzah baking for their livlihood, and it would be a form of theft (gezel) to put them out of work.

4. Matzah-baking requires kavanah, and a machine cannot possibly have kavanah.

Rabbi Brody fought bitterly against machine-made matzah, but apparently he was overruled. By the beginning of the twentieth century, almost everyone was eating square matzot out of the mass-produced boxes.

To this day, however, some chasidim continue to forbid the use of machines to make matzah, primarily because of reason #1 above. They claim that it is impossible to adequately clean the matzah machine, and one can never be 100% certain that there is no chametz inside.

But even the rabbis of the mishnah realized that it is impossible to be 100% certain that one is free of chametz. The second mishnah of the first perek of Psachim reads as follows:

“They need not fear that a weasel may have dragged [chametz] from one
room to another or from one place to another, for if so, [they must also fear]
from courtyard to courtyard and from town to town, and there would be no end to the matter.”

The rabbis are disussing whether a person who is cleaning the house for Pesach needs to worry that a weasal (hulda) might drag chametz from one part of the house to another, contaminating those areas that are already clean. (It’s like the scene in Sesame Street where the man sweeps the floor in muddy boots, and can’t figure out why the floor is still muddy after each successive re-sweeping.) They conclude that one need not worry about such a possibility, because if so, one could worry forever “and there would be no end to the matter.” At some point, one has to take on faith that the house is clean enough.

The house or the matzah machine, that is. Nonetheless, Rabbi Brody’s other objections to machine-made matzah hold some water (and flour) even in our own day. We do need to be concerned about the poor people in our midst — hence the custom of giving ma’ot chittim before Pesach. And we do need to have the proper kavanah when it comes to matzah — b’chol dor vador, etc. I’m comfortable saying that we don’t need to worry about breaking with the tradition of eating round matzot — but then again, I’ve always been rather square myself.

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