“לֶחֶם עֹנִי –Lechem Oni: The Bread of Affliction
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Two primary scriptural verses provide reasons for eating matzah, unleavened bread, on Passover night at the seder.
The first source in the Torah is found in parashat Bo (Exodus 12:33-34) which states, וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל הָעָם לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן הָאָרֶץ, כִּי אָמְרוּ כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים. וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ, מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם . Egypt imposed itself strongly upon the [Israelite] people to hasten, to send them out of the land, for they said, “We are all dying!” The people picked up their dough before it could become leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their garments upon their shoulders.
In this citation, scripture emphasizes that Jews eat matzah on the night of the seder to commemorate the initial stages of redemption in Egypt, underscoring that the Israelite slaves were being forced and rushed out of Egypt.
A second source for eating matzah is found in parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 16:3, לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי, כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ . You shall not eat leavened bread with it [the Pascal lamb], for a seven day period, you shall eat it with the bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste–so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
Rashi explains the phrase, לֶחֶם עֹנִי –“Lechem Oni”–bread of affliction, to mean bread that brings to mind the affliction which the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Eating this unflavored mixture of water and flour, serves to remind contemporary Jews of the suffering that their forefathers endured in Egypt.
The Sforno explains that because the hectic pace of the Jewish slave’s life did not allow time for the dough to rise, matzah was the peoples’ food during their years of slavery.
Rabbi Amiram Domovitz, a teacher at Michlelet Herzog, in Israel expands on the concept of Lechem Oni–the bread of affliction. He notes that in Exodus 12:15, before the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah already commands: שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ , matzah must be eaten for seven days. Supporting the position of the Sforno, this was even before the peoples’ dough at the time of the exodus did not have the time to rise.
Rabbi Domowitz points out that Maror (the bitter herb) represents enslavement and persecution, whereas the Pascal sacrifice represents redemption. Matzoh, however, has a dual purpose–at times it represents enslavement, on other occasions it represents redemption.
The Talmud, in Pesachim 36a, points out that the word עֹנִי —Oni in Hebrew is written oni, without a vav, but is read עוֹנִי (from the Hebrew verb to speak). Shmuel says that this implies that it is bread about which many have words to speak. This of course, refers to retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, singing the Hallel psalms and songs, and reciting the final blessings over the matzah.
Another interpretation of Lechem Oni, based on the root of the Hebrew word עָנִי –“poor,” is cited in Talmud Pesachim 116a. There, the Talmud states that just as it is the custom for a poor person to eat just a little piece of matzah, so should it be our custom to eat a little piece of matzah. The poor person who collects charity will not be given a full matzah to eat, just some broken pieces. Similarly, an impoverished slave will receive only the leftovers from his master’s food. In addition, when a poor person does have a full matzah he will break what he has in half to save some for a second meal, since he doesn’t know where his next meal will come from. Therefore, we have the deeply-entrenched custom early in the seder of breaking the middle matzah in half.
Another interpretation that is mentioned in the Talmud, Pesachim 116a, is that Lechem Oni recalls the practice of the husband of a poor family to light the fire of the oven, and instruct his wife to quickly bake the bread. Similarly on Passover, the matzah must be baked quickly so that it doesn’t ferment and become chametz.
As noted above, the term Lechem Oni has many interpretations and implications. Several of these reasons are even woven into the rituals of the Passover Seder and included in the Haggadah. Breaking the middle matzah, removing the matzah from the table, covering and uncovering the matzah, are all related to the varied meanings of Lechem Oni.
The many reasons that are enumerated for having matzah on Passover and calling it Lechem Oni, should remain at the forefront of our consciousness when we ourselves celebrate at our seders.
For a more meaningful Passover seder, we who live in significant comfort and abundance today, should recall the haste with which our ancestors, the Israelites, were forced to leave Egypt. We should remember the troubles that the impoverished slaves endured when they made and baked their bread, and the challenges that poor people experience when they are forced to collect charity.
This is the true meaning of what we declare in the Haggadah, בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם , In every generation, every person must see himself as if he personally went out of Egypt.
Have a wonderful Pesach.
May you be blessed.
Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 10th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 11th and 12th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 16th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 17th and 18th.
Chag Kasher V’samayach.
Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.