Parshat Bo תשעט

The Egyptians have suffered through seven of the ten plagues, and after three more they will send the Jewish people out of Egypt. The time has come to prepare the Jewish people for the holiday of Pesach. They will need to bring the Pascal lamb and bake מצות  – matzot, for the upcoming seder, the night of the 15th of Nissan. In the commandment to make the matzot, the Torah commands us (Exodus 12:17):

ספר שמות פרק יב

יז) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת

17) And you shall guard the matzot.

From what must the matzot be guarded? Rashi quoting the Talmud explains that it must be guarded from leavening and becoming חמץ – chometz. On Passover we are prohibited from eating anything that has leavened, with a penalty greater than that of eating pork or a cheese burger.

The Sages understand that the Torah is requiring special attention to be given during the process of making the matzot that they do not leaven. This is the source of the custom of the people involved in making and baking the matzot to say, as they do their jobs, “לשם מצת מצוה”  “I am making these matzot for the sake of the mitzvah to eat matzah on Pesach.” With this they are declaring, “I am to paying special attention to make sure that the dough doesn’t leaven in compliance with the rule of guarding the matzot.” Matzah that was not prepared  this way, is not suitable for use at the Pesach Seder, though it may be eaten the rest of Pesach.

This is where the notion of “shmura matzah” comes from. “Shmura” means guarded; hence, “shmura matzah” means “guarded matzah.” And from what are we protecting it? From becoming leavened.

Wait a minute! Doesn’t all matzah need guarding? So why do the stores sell shmura matzah along with non-shmura matzah for a fraction of the price? How are we allowed to eat non-shmura (guarded) matzah on Pesach?

The Code of Jewish law (Orach Chiam 453:4) states:

ד) החטים שעושים בהם מצת מצוה טוב לשמרן שלא יפלו עליהם מים משעת קצירה, ולפחות משעת טחינה. ובשעת הדחק מותר ליקח קמח מן השוק

4) The best wheat to use for Passover matzah is wheat that was guarded from contact with water from the time it was harvested, or at least from the time it was ground into flour. When such wheat is unavailable, one, in a pinch, may buy wheat in the marketplace.

Once water mixes with flour, the resulting dough will leaven in 18 minutes. When the wheat is attached to the ground, it does not become leavened. Some authorities, however, hold that once it is harvested (well before it is ground into flour), the wheat will leaven from contact with water. According to that view, it must be protected from any water.

All matzah baked for Pesach is of course guarded from leavening. But from when? The matzah labeled “shmura” is made from wheat that was guarded from the time it was harvested and was watched at all times to make sure that no water ever touched it. “Ordinary” matzah that is not “shmura” is guarded from becoming חמץ –chometz from when it was ground into flour, not from the time of harvest. It is nevertheless “shmura” as required by the Torah.

Shmura matzah brings to mind the image of a round, bumpy, often slightly charred, toasted cracker, about 12” in diameter. These matzahs are each hand made. Why? Because there are authorities who say that the 18 minutes it takes for dough to leaven applies only when no human hand has touched the dough. But, once the heat of a human hand has touched the dough, it will leaven immediately.  Even according to this opinion, as long as the dough is being kneaded, it will never leaven, even after the 18 – minute time period. Therefore, from the moment the flour and water are mixed to make a dough, the dough is constantly worked until the finished matzah enters the oven and is baked. All of this goes into the requirement of guarding the matzot from leavening.

The conventional square, machine-made matzot, are also guarded from leavening, though automatically through the machine that is kneading the dough and cutting it into perfectly square pieces and baking them. You can also find square shmura matzah made by machine.

Based on a play on words, the Sages derive an interesting lesson from the commandment to guard the matzot from leavening. The word מַצּוֹת – matzot has the exact letters as the word mitzvot – – ,מִצְוֹתthe 613 commandments in the Torah. Only the difference in vowels under the letters changes the reading of the word from one to the other. So instead of reading the verse with the vowels – matzot, they read it mitzvot, resulting in a commandment to “guard the mitzvot.”

רבי יאשיה אומר: אל תהי קורא את המצות אלא את המצוות, כדרך שאין מחמיצין את המצות כך אין מחמיצין את המצוות אלא אם באה לידך עשה אותה מיד

Rabbi Yoshiah said, “Don’t read it matzot rather read it mitzvot. Just as we don’t allow the matzot to become leavened, so too we don’t allow the mitzvot to become leavened. Rather, if the opportunity comes to do a mitzvah, do it immediately.”

At first blush, this commandment seems very strange. What aspect of the mitzvot requires guarding? And what would we have to guard them from? Could they possibly become invalid by “leavening?”

There is a deep and brilliant connection between guarding the matzah from leavening, and guarding the mitzvot.

Once the flour and water have become a dough, what causes it to leaven? The passage of time. Just leave a dough sitting there for long enough (18 minutes), and it will leaven and become forbidden on Passover.

This same factor – the passage of time – is what we must guard against when it comes to doing a mitzvah. Once the thought to do a mitzvah occurs to us, or once the opportunity presents itself, we must not allow time to compromise our actions. We must seize the mitzvah and execute it immediately because, if we delay and allow time to enter, we may lose it. This is because the evil inclination– the יצר הרע  – is constantly trying to get us to derail our mitzvot performance, and the more time that we give him to throw in a monkey wrench and distract us from our goal, the greater the chances that he will succeed.

This is why the sages tell us (Talmud Pesachim 4b): זריזין מקדימין למצות  – The zealous do mitzvot as early as possible. They want to prevent anything from getting in the way and preventing them from doing it. This concept is learned from our forefather Avraham who, when it came to complying with Hashem’s command, it says, “And Avraham arose early in the morning.” He did it as soon as he could, first thing in the morning.

This concept is also very beautifully expressed in the Mishna in Chapters of the Fathers (5:20):

כ) יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם

Yehuda ben Taima says: One should be as bold as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as swift as a deer, and as powerful as a lion to do the will of his Father in heaven.

The reason Rabbi Yehuda ben Taima gave us so many motivating metaphors is because human nature pushes in the opposite direction. A person is naturally lazy and wants to exert as little energy as possible. It takes a lot of effort to break inertia and get moving. Man is always looking for easier ways to do the same chores with less effort. And especially when it comes to doing a mitzvah, there is very little incentive to get it done. It takes a great amount of intellectual and spiritual motivation to move someone to do a mitzvah. This is why time is of the essence. Once a person has decided to do the mitzvah, he must execute it as soon as possible so that nothing can get in the way.

How many times has it happened that you thought about calling, or writing, someone just to make him feel good; yet, before you know it, the opportunity was lost in a myriad of other “important” things that just happened to come up at the same time?

Here is a homework assignment. The next time you have the thought to do a mitzvah, notice how many distractions will suddenly pop up, how many other really unimportant things become critical, and how you find yourself explaining how you still have plenty of time to do what you started out to do. You will notice how the smallest, most inconsequential thing, suddenly seems more important than the mitzvah. As you are walking to where you need to go, for example, something that you wanted to do, catches your eye. “I’ll just take care of this, and then I’ll do the mitzvah,” we think. Little do we know that by the time we are done with that particular item, we will have forgotten about the mitzvah, or, because things did not go as smoothly as we expected them to, and they never do, now it is too late.

You will be shocked to see the great efforts that the יצר הרע  – the evil inclination – goes to, to take you off your game, and how much, really herculean, effort it takes to “keep your eye on the ball” and to stay focused on your current goal of doing that mitzvah.

The Talmud in Tractate Berachot 17a compares the יצר הרע  – the evil inclination – to the leaven in the dough. Rabbi Alexandri says:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/א

ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם

After he finished praying, Rabi Alexandrei said, “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that our true desire is to do Your will, but what is standing in our way? The leaven in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and the society we live in (the evil influence from outside of us). Please save us from them so that we may do Your will with all our hearts.”

The leaven in the dough represents a person’s evil inclination, an external force trying to get the person not to do what he is obligated to do. “Relax, take it easy, you have plenty of time!” Thus, we can understand how the idea of alacrity associated with making matzot is very appropriate and applicable to all mitzvot.

Human nature is to disdain work and to want to sit and do nothing. A person is naturally lazy, and, if left to his druthers, will accomplish nothing in life.

King Solomon also spoke about the consequences of laziness in both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs (24:30-34)

ל) עַל שְׂדֵה אִישׁ עָצֵל עָבַרְתִּי וְעַל כֶּרֶם אָדָם חֲסַר לֵב

לא) וְהִנֵּה עָלָה כֻלּוֹ קִמְּשׁוֹנִים כָּסּוּ פָנָיו חֲרֻלִּים וְגֶדֶר אֲבָנָיו נֶהֱרָסָה

לב) וָאֶחֱזֶה אָנֹכִי אָשִׁית לִבִּי רָאִיתִי לָקַחְתִּי מוּסָר

לג) מְעַט שֵׁנוֹת מְעַט תְּנוּמוֹת מְעַט חִבֻּק יָדַיִם לִשְׁכָּב

לד) וּבָא מִתְהַלֵּךְ רֵישֶׁךָ וּמַחְסֹרֶיךָ כְּאִישׁ מָגֵן

30) I went by the field of a lazy man, and by the vineyard of a man without understanding, 31) And behold, it was all overgrown with thorns, and nettles had covered it over, and its stone wall was broken down. 32) Then I saw and considered it well, I looked upon it and received instruction. 33) A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep, 34) And your poverty will come like a marauder, and your lack, like an armed man.

In Ecclesiastes he says (10:18):

יח) בַּעֲצַלְתַּיִם יִמַּךְ הַמְּקָרֶה וּבְשִׁפְלוּת יָדַיִם יִדְלֹף הַבָּיִת

18) Because of laziness the roof caves in, and because of idleness of the hands, the roof leaks.

King Solomon chose examples where a little prevention is all that was needed to avoid the problem, but because the owner of the vineyard or home neglected to address the problem early on, over time it turned into a disaster.

Once again, time, is the culprit. This is the lesson of the matzot. Just allowing time to enter the picture can be disastrous. It can change an otherwise perfectly good matzah into chometz, which, if eaten on Pesach, is a great sin.


The following story from The Maggid Speaks illustrates the point:

A young man, attending secondary school in Russia, was drafted into the army. Shortly afterwards, World War I broke out. Every day he shot and killed and hid in his foxhole trying to avoid being killed. For hours and hours the shooting would continue, then there would be a cease-fire. At that point both sides would emerge to remove the fallen soldiers from the field. After a short reprieve the shooting would begin again. He was exhausted and spent, but he noticed something interesting. In the foxholes next to him were young religious Jews. During the cease-fire they would take out a Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and pray with great intensity. When they finished he could see that they were comforted. Their faces were relaxed and they approached the next round with confidence in G-d.

The young soldier didn’t have that comfort and he needed it very much. His parents were not religious at all, although his grandmother used to light candles every Friday night. Every time he thought about it, he became angry that his father had not taught him anything about Judaism. This thought gnawed at him every time he saw those young Jews reciting their Tehillim so fervently. Finally, one day when he was in the foxhole after a particularly hard round of fighting, he cried out, “G-d, You know that it’s not my fault that I don’t know how to approach You. My father didn’t teach me anything, and it’s not my fault that I don’t know how to be a good Jew. I am facing the enemy, trying to stay alive. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. I don’t want to kill anyone. If a bullet hits my hand so that I can no longer shoot, it will be a sign from You, G-d, that You are indeed here, even on this battlefield.”

He finished his prayer. It was quiet. A few minutes later the sound of a single shot shattered the silence. The bullet hit his finger!

His gun fell from his hand and he lost consciousness from the excruciating pain. He was in a military hospital for days and he promised himself that as soon as the war was over he would go home, and find someone to teach him as much as possible about Judaism. He was never sent back to the front.

Finally, the war ended. He came home and had to make a decision. Should he learn about his religion? But what would he do for a living? If he went back to school for three months, he would get his diploma in agriculture and be assured of a livelihood. He decided to get his diploma and then go to a Shul or yeshivah to learn about Judaism.

He went back to school, and in three months he finished. Then he began to study Torah. His head was clear and logic dictated that he study with intensity, but now after three months of his original resolve, his heart was not in it any more. He thought he could continue learning, but it just didn’t go. Had he started three months earlier, maybe he would be a different person today. The first Yom Kippur after the war, he went to shul, but as he held the Machzor he became frustrated with his inability to read Hebrew. The next Yom Kippur he didn’t go to shul any more.

Had he started learning about Judaism right after coming out of the army, while the fire of inspiration was within him, perhaps today he would be a different person.

Now we know that the tactic of the evil inclination is to distract us from our goal so that we lose interest. Thus, when we next have the opportunity to do a mitzvah, we can not only defeat him but indeed can be successful. How? By remembering the lesson of the matzah, to do the mitzvah without delay.

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