Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat ha- Gadol 5768/ April 19, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Yemenite Matzah

 

Dr.   Aharon Gimani

 

Department of Jewish History

 

Combined Program in Jewish Studies

 

 

Throughout its existence in the Diaspora, the Yemenite Jewish community baked thin soft matzahs on the eve of the Passover holiday for use at the Seder, during the festival, and for everyday eating.   An emissary on behalf of the Kol Yisrael Haverim organization (Alliance Israelite Universelle), Yom Tov Tzemah, visited Yemen in 1910 and described them:

What a vast differences between these matzahs and the coarse, heavy, indigestible and tasteless matzah that is made in Turkey.   These matzahs are baked in Yemen twice a day, taking such care that there is no fear of their being hametz. [1]

Below we present two examples of 19th-century rabbis from the Land of Israel who spent time in Yemen during the Passover festival, where they met two other rabbis, a father and his son, and expressed their opinions regarding the matzah eaten by the Jews of Yemen, one of them voicing criticism, the other admiration.

David Nahmias

The Shadar (Sheluhei de- rabbanan, emissaries sent from the Land of Israel to the Diaspora to raise funds for the settlements in Palestine) Rabbi David Nahmias was sent to Yemen by the Jewish community of Safed.   During Passover of 1819 he was hosted in Sanaa by Rabbi Joseph Kara, president of the Rabbinical Court.   When the matzah was served, he refused to eat, expressing the view that it was hametz because the surface of the matzah was covered with fine swellings and this, in his opinion, was what Rema had in mind when he cited Maharil, [2] saying:   “A matzah which is puffed up in the center is forbidden.”  This prompted Rabbi Shalom Mansura, one of the religious leaders of Sanaa who met Rabbi Nahmias, to discuss the question of the type of matzah eaten by the Jews of Yemen.  Rabbi Mansura’s comment was written into the margin of a Shulhan Arukh with the Pri Hadash commentary.  Here we cite some of what he said:

I would not have had to write this, were it not for a certain incident that happened.   Namely, in the year 132 (for documents, i.e. 5579 or 1819) Rabbi David Nahmias, an emissary from the Holy City, appeared in our holy community and was put up in the home of the notable dayyan and holy man of G-d, my rabbi and teacher Rabbi Joseph Karah, z”l.   When they were setting the table, Rabbi David Nahmias made fun of us and cast doubt on our kashruth, saying that (Heaven forfend) we were eating hametz on Passover, since there were bubbles on the surface of the loaf, and this he said was the puffed up matzah of which Maharil wrote.  Hence he did not want to eat.

In other words, Rabbi David Nahmias refused to eat the Yemenite Jews’ matzah because he thought the matzah which they made fell into the category of matzah which is puffed in the center, and such matzah is forbidden.  Rabbi Nahmias erred in not understanding that Rema’s reference to “ matzah which is puffed in the middle” pertained to thick matzah, since when it is thick it might not be baked through thoroughly.  With Yemenite matzah, however, the law of matzah which is puffed in the middle does not apply since the Yemenite Jews bake extremely thin matzahs, and the bubbly surface on the matzahs which they served were not an indication of it being “matzah which is puffed in the middle.”   Regarding this Rabbi Mansura wrote:

In my humble opinion it seems to me that these words apply to their matzahs, which are one tefah thick … but according to our custom, there is no reason for apprehension, since if you take ten of the matzahs that we bake and pile them one on the other, the stack will still not be one tefah thick.

Rabbi Mansura criticized the way matzah was baked in the Land of Israel, in contrast to the way it was made in Yemen:

You should see our beautiful cool water, and such fast kneading, that even in your land it is not equaled.  It is also baked speedily, in one minute.  Not so in your land, for we have heard complaints that you bake an extremely thick loaf, without hearing the flames of the furnace, and that it remains stuck to the walls of the oven for a long time; hence one suspects that it is way too far away from the fire for it to be baked in the blink of an eye, as our bread is made.

Moreover, to refute the words of the aforementioned Rabbi David (meaning Rabbi David Nahmias), who boasted of the practice in his land and criticized the matzah-baking custom of Sanaa, it is written in the work of Rabbi Pri Hadash, par. 459, 2, that the practice in the holy city of Jerusalem is not proper, for their dough ferments, and there is no one who properly understands this (see the above reference to the Pri Hadash).

Rabbi Mansura wrote extensively about the care that the Jews of Yemen take in baking their matzah, and proved that Rabbi Nahmias was mistaken in his understanding of the law concerning matzah which was puffed up. [3]

Jacob Sapir

Forty years after the visit by Rabbi Nahmias, another Shadar, the traveler Rabbi Jacob Sapir, spent some time in Yemen in 1859, In his book, Even Sapir, he wrote that during his stay in Sanaa he asked Rabbi Yihye Kara, son of the above-mentioned Rabbi Joseph, about the kashruth of the Yemenites’ matzah.  Here is his report of the discussion that took place between them: [4]

I asked him about the matzah and the Seder.  “Do not be concerned,” he said to me, “eat a hot matzah with us, baked daily according to the custom of our ancestors.   Do not worry about the kashruth, since they are not stale and thirty days old by Passover.   Rabbis from Jerusalem have preceded you in seeing that our women are swift and very quick in making kosher matzah.  Daily we eat a hot, fresh matzah, and the pleasure of the holiday is in none other than hot matzah.   I asked, “Is it right to trust women in a matter that involves much trouble and concerns the prohibition of leaven?   For it says, You shall safeguard the commandments.”  “Let us be,” he answered, “and be not concerned about the custom of our ancestors.   For we are very meticulous and careful and observe the commandments; so do not be so self-righteous.”   Then he gave me three soft, fresh matzahs that he had made in his own home for the Seder, and said to me:  “This is shmura matzah, made of the old crop, and you can make the blessing, ‘to eat matzah’ over them.   For this year, most of the matzah has not been made with supervision from the moment the grain was harvested (because there has been severe famine in the country, and whatever wheat was available was used), and we observe the halakhah that one does not recite the benediction, ‘to eat matzah,’ over matzah that has not been watched over” (which for me was a new teaching).   Since I had long known the man as a wise and devout person, learned in Torah, I trusted his words and said fine, we shall speak on the holiday.  I accepted the matzah and went off.

Elsewhere in his book Rabbi Sapir noted the custom of the Jews of Yemen to make the blessing of eating matzah only over matzah that had been supervised from the moment of harvesting the grain.   He wrote that he had seen an extensive discussion of this subject in Rabbi Yihye Salah’s book, noting that the custom of the Jews of Yemen follows Maimonides’ opinion. [5]   On the eve of the Seder, Rabbi Sapir was a guest in the home of Joseph Tiri (apparently there was a scribal error in the name of the host, which should have been Tairi).  He admired the version of the Haggadah which they used and the way it was read, as well as his personal reception by the hosting family.   Regarding their version of the kiddush, he noted:  “In their kiddush they recite a lovely, long liturgical poem, and anyone who sees it will attest that it is an ancient formulation, reflecting the elegant language of the members of the Great Assembly.” [6]   This was a reference to the liturgical poem that begins with the words, “Terumah hivdilanu mi-kol am,” which is also found in the prayer book of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon.  Regarding the matzah, he wrote:  “I also enjoyed eating the matzah hot, soft and fresh, all through the festival.” [7]

To conclude, I would like to present a touching remark by Rabbi Jacob Sapir, who came from the Land of Israel, about his feelings on the Seder eve which he spent in Sanaa in the Diaspora, and on the sense of closeness he felt to his hosts:

In all my adventures and pleasures I wept constantly (a reference to Lam. 2:18), and tears burst forth like a torrent on my cheeks and beard.  This was the first Passover that I spent away from home, not at my own table, with my beloved children around me.  Slumber did not rest on my eyelids, nor sleep come to my eyes.  I read the Song of Songs, my eyes welling with tears, pouring out my heart over it.  The members of the household looked at me, and seeing me they cried too.   I restrained myself, not giving my heart all the tears it craved.  It is time for laughter, I said, and to converse on the precepts of the Lord, rejoicing the heart (ref. to Ps. 19:9).  Also the brothers of my host, his friends and neighbors gathered around me, asked about our customs and interests, to take my mind off my troubles, and we sat up until past midnight. (loc. sit.)

Our parents had the good fortune to move to the land of Israel, where they and we, descendents of the rabbis of Yemen, live happily.  May it be the Lord’s will that we live to see the fulfillment of Redemption and rejoice in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and restoration of the Lord’s worship, partaking of the sacrifices and Pascal offerings, speedily in our day, Amen.

                                                                                                                                         

 



[1]Masa Yom Tov Tzemah le-Teiman,” translated into Hebrew by A. Almaliah, in Y. Yishaiah and Y Tzadok, eds., Shvut Teiman, Tel Aviv 1948, p. 310.

[2] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, par. 461.8.

[3] For a further discussion of this subject, see:  A. Gimani, “The Shadar Rabbi David Nahmias and the Matzot in Yemen,” Pe’amim 64 (1998), pp. 39-53.

[4] Even Sapir, 1866, pp. 88b-89a.

[5] Ibid., p. 101b; see also responsa Pe’ulat Tzaddik by R. Yihye Salah, Part ii, responsum 138.

[6] Ibid.,   p. 89a.

[7] Ibid., p. 89b.