Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tzav 5770/ Shabbat ha-Gadol/ March 27, 2010

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,



Why Three Matzot?


Dr. Yosef Klein 


School of Education


There are several traditions regarding the number of matzahs one should have on the Seder plate on the eve of Passover.   Rav Papa says: [1]   “Everyone acknowledges that on Passover one puts a partial piece with a whole one, and breaks bread.”   The reason for taking a partial piece of matzah and not two whole ones is explained by the phrase from the Bible, lehem oni or “bread of distress.” [2]   Since oni is spelled without the letter vav, this word is taken to symbolize imperfection. [3]   Or Zarua [4] notes:  “The Talmud does not indicate that three matzahs are required for fulfillment of the commandment; quite the contrary, the Jerusalem Talmud proves that we need only two.”

Two or Three?

The Jewish communities of Babylonia and Israel had different traditions. [5]   In Babylonia, on Sabbaths and Festivals it was customary to break bread over two whole loaves, and in the land of Israel, one on the eve of the Sabbath and the other on the Sabbath day.   When Passover fell on the Sabbath, in Babylonia they placed a partial matzah between two whole matzahs, and in the land of Israel, a whole piece.   If Passover fell on a weekday, both the Jews of Babylonia and the Jews of the land of Israel set out a whole matzah and a partial matzah.  Maimonides [6] and Rif [7] ruled that on Passover one should set out a whole matzah and a partial matzah, and this was also the practice of the Vilna gaon. [8]   Tur and the Shulhan Arukh [9] said one should set out three matzahs and did not distinguish between Passover falling on a Sabbath or on a weekday.  The custom of three matzahs is explained by Rosh, [10] noting that on Passover one should break bread over two whole matzahs, just as on other festive days, and that one should not depart from this custom.   Therefore the custom of having a partial matzah must be observed using a third matzah.

Loaves of Thanksgiving?

The custom of using three whole matzahs at the Seder calls for elucidation, given the possibility of making do with two whole ones and a partial one, as was done by the Jews of Babylonia when Passover began on the Sabbath.  Some believe that the three matzahs symbolize loaves of thanksgiving (lehem todah), comprised of three kinds of matzah and offered by a person upon being freed from imprisonment, [11] as explained in Sefer ha-Manhig (Hilkhot Pesah, par. 69):

Therefore one places three matzahs on the table, for the three sorts of unleavened bread that accompanied the thanksgiving offering (cakes with oil, wafers, and cakes of choice flour; Lev. 7:12), but the fourth type of bread that would come with the thanksgiving offering was leavened (v. 13), and therefore is not used on Passover.

This explanation raises a difficulty in view of the fact that the thanksgiving loaves consisted of four types, and removing one of the types makes the thanksgiving defective.   On the contrary, the fact that leaven was mixed into one of the breads of thanksgiving caused the "Song of Thanksgiving," Psalm 100, to be removed from the daily prayers on Passover.

Others associate the three matzahs with three groupings in the nation – Priests, Levites, and Israelites – or with the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This symbolism, however, could apply to any holiday feast throughout the year and has no reason to be specifically associated with the Seder.  

The ancient Hebrew calendar

We would like to offer another explanation: If we consider the ancient Hebrew calendar, we note that when Passover fell on a Sunday, there would have been on the previous Friday sufficient manna for three days (see below).  Could this be related to the number of matzahs we use at the Seder?

Differences of opinion exist with respect to dating in the ancient Hebrew calendar.  Saadiah Gaon and Rabbenu Hananel hold that from the time of the exodus from Egypt until the takkanah established by Hillel the Elder, the calendar was set according to precise calculations, as in our day, including the principles that the Jewish New Year cannot fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, and that the first day of Passover cannot fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday.   Along this line, Rabbenu Hananel commented on Exodus 12:2:

During all the forty years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, a cloud accompanied them by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Throughout that time they never saw the sun by day nor the moon by night..., so how could they have determined the months by sighting the new moon?!  Surely the commandment was observed by computation.

The practice of consecrating the new month by actually sighting the moon was instituted in the time of Hillel. In the opinion of Saadiah Gaon and R. Jonathan Eibschitz as well, since the moon was not sighted throughout the journeys of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, due to the cloud cover which prevented it from being seen, the calendar was calculated.   Maimonides, however, believes that since the exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew calendar was set by consecrating the new month on the basis of sighting the new moon.

The Hebrew calendar by Saadiah Gaon’s approach raises the possibility that three days worth of manna could only have been needed for the first day of Passover.   We preface our remarks by noting that midrashic literature is divided over the question of whether manna fell on the festivals. [12]   Some believed that manna fell on the festivals just as on weekdays, while others held that on festivals, as on the Sabbath, manna did not fall.  Most halakhic authorities side with the view that there was a double portion for the festivals just as for the Sabbath, and assume that on the festival itself the manna did not fall but that a double portion fell on the eve of the festival, as on the eve of the Sabbath.  Here we present some details about the festivals:


The New Year:   according to the Torah is one day, and may not fall on Sunday or Friday, i.e., not contiguous to the Sabbath.

The Day of Atonement:   does not fall on a Sunday or a Friday.

The Feast of Tabernacles:   opinions differ as to whether it was celebrated in the wilderness.  Some conclude from the language of the Bible that this commandment is dependent on living in the land of Israel.   Others conclude from the structure of the readings in the Bible that while the Israelites were in the wilderness they rested on the first and eighth days of the festival and offered the festival sacrifices.  The commandments of dwelling in a sukkah and of the Four Kinds ( etrog and lulav) were only practiced after entering the land of Israel. [13]   Be that as it may, the first and last days of the festival never fall on a Sunday or a Friday.

The first day of Passover:   cannot fall on a Friday.   It follows from Shabbat 87b that the eve of Passover fell on the Sabbath during the one year in which the paschal sacrifice was offered in the wilderness.  In this situation there had to be enough manna on Friday to last three days:  Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The seventh day of Passover:   the Torah tells us that in the second year after the exodus from Egypt the paschal sacrifice was offered.  The Sages deduced that from that time until the Israelites entered the land the paschal sacrifice ceased to be offered.  What about the other commandments of the festival – resting on the first and last days, and eating matzah?  Were they observed in the wilderness?  On this point opinions differ.  Some people believe that a few of the laws concerning the festival were observed throughout the entire time the Israelites were in the wilderness.

The seventh day of Passover can fall on a Friday but not on a Sunday.  Having a holiday fall on a Friday causes tension between two principles:  the principle of manna not falling on the festival (according to those who ascribe to this view), and the principle of a double portion of manna falling on Fridays.  In such a situation, which of these principles would hold?  Tosefot on Tractate Betzah 2b, Binyan Shlomo, [14] and Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk [15] hypothesize that in such a situation sufficient manna came down on Thursday to last for three days.  What they suggest need not necessarily have been, since the Torah emphasizes the special quality of the double portion of manna on Friday several times, but never mentions any exceptional cases.  This is reinforced by the fact that the double portion of manna was a tangible symbol to the Israelites of the divine uniqueness of the Sabbath. [16]   It is not beyond the realm of possibility that when the seventh day of Passover fell on a Friday, a double quantity of manna fell, sufficient for that day and the Sabbath, as on any Friday.

The Feast of Weeks:  this festival is tied to the omer offering, which is dependent on being in the land of Israel.   The festival was celebrated but once in the wilderness, and then Moses added one more day of his own accord, so that it was celebrated on the 51st day, which day could have been a Friday or a Saturday, but not a Sunday.  If the festival fell on a Friday, manna could have fallen as suggested above, so that a quantity sufficient for three days was not necessary.

Thus it appears that Passover eve falling on the Sabbath is the only situation in which one would have needed three days worth of manna.  The sources at our disposal cannot resolve the question of whether in this situation there were three portions of manna delivered from Heaven or only two portions, along with a miracle which made the two portions last for three days.   Rabbi Moses of Vilna, in Binyan Shlomo (par. 19), is of the opinion that there never were more than two portions of manna per person on any given day, and that when it had to supply three days of food a miracle occurred and the two portions sufficed for three days of food.  This opinion is shared by Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, [17] as he puts it:

Accordingly, a better explanation of why we do not use three loaves on a festival which comes after the Sabbath, just as three days worth of manna used to fall – since manna would not fall on the festival itself …  is that the custom of laying out two loaves is for the miracle of the extra manna left over on a regular day rotting and becoming worm-infested with worms, whereas it would remain fresh when left over from Friday in order to sanctify the Sabbath; and this applies only to the Sabbath, since [otherwise] when they left it over it rotted; but after the Sabbath, since it had already not spoiled after Friday, there was no longer any test in their keeping it over after the Sabbath and it spoiling, since that was not in contradiction to the Lord’s command, and no miracle was indicated by this.  Therefore, one does not set out three loaves.

In conclusion, there is a parallel between the manna falling in a quantity sufficient for three days on the first day of the festival of Passover which the Israelites celebrated in the wilderness, and laying out three pieces of matzah on the Seder plate, according to the approach of Saadiah Gaon. For the Israelites who left Egypt witnessed the unique quality of the Sabbath by means of the double portion of manna which fell on Friday and did not rot when kept over to the next day.   This miracle took place also on the festival, and even more impressively, when the festival fell on a Sunday and the manna rained down enough for three days. This miracle had the power to impress upon the Israelites in the wilderness and the generations that followed them the divine status of the Jewish festivals and the blessing showered upon those who observe these special days. 

We have no way of knowing whether the variations in custom regarding the number of matzahs to be set out for the Seder reflect ancient controversies regarding the method of structuring the ancient Hebrew calendar and the number of portions of manna that fell, in the event that Passover began on Saturday night..   As set forth above, books of Jewish custom give other reasons to explain the number of matzahs used on the Seder plate.



[1] Berakhot 39b.

[2] Deut. 16:3, or “bread of poverty.”

[3] Teshuvot ha-Geonim, Sha`arei Teshuvah, par. 280:   “For we must break bread over two loaves on a festival, and since it is a festival, one breaks bread over two [matzahs], even though one is a partial [matzah].  That is because of the term “bread of distress,” but they are considered two loaves.” See also Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav, par. 475.3.

[4] Or Zarua, Part II, Hilkhot  Pesahim, par. 252.

[5] Ra'avya, Part II, Tractate Pesahim, par. 415.

[6] Maimonides, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, 8.6. Hilkhot Shabbat 30.9.

[7] Alfasi, Arvei Pesahim, p. 25b. 

[8] Rabbi D. S. Movshovitz, Sdeh Eliyahu:  Be’ur ha-Gra ha-Shalem al ha-Shas, Tractate Berakhot, Part II, Jerusalem, p. 137.

[9] Orah Hayyim, 3.473.4

[10] Rosh, Arvei Pesahim, 30.

[11] Berakhot 54b.

[12] Cf. Tosefot, ba-yom ha- shishi,” Betzah 2b.

[13] Cf. Y. Shaviv, “Sukkot ba-Midbar,” Shema`atin, 1982, vol. 19, no. 67-68, pp. 11-14.

[14] R. Shlomo ben Yisrael ha-Cohen, Binyan Shlomo, Hilkhot Shabbat, par. 19 p. 50.

[15] Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, Meshekh Hokhmah, loc. sit. 16.

[16] Mekhilta, Parashat be-Shalah and Tosefot Betzah 2b raise the possibility that on some of the festivals manna fell as usual, while on other festivals a larger amount fell on the eve of the festival.

[17] Meshekh Hokhmah, loc. sit.