Breaking Down Gebrochts

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matzah ballsby R. Tsvi Selengut

Introduction

The custom of abstaining from eating “gebrochts” during Pesach is widely known in the Jewish community. There are many, especially in the Chasidic community, who strictly observe this custom as an integral part of their Pesach. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the various origins of this custom as they appear in Rishonim and Acharonim and to analyze how they fit in our modern-day context. It is not the intention of this author to, in any way, question the validity of practicing this custom. It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to keep ancient customs even when their origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery.1

Definition of Gebrochts

Gebrochts is Yiddish for broken. It refers to the practice of breaking up matzah into matzah meal or larger pieces to use in baking or some other dish (e.g. dipping in soup, frying in oil, etc.). Gebrochts is also referred to as matzah shruya, soaked matzah. Those who keep this custom do not use matzah meal and will not allow any matzah to come into contact with water or liquid substances. It is commonly assumed that this is out of concern that the matzah and water will create chametz after contact. However, it will be shown that this is not the only reason for the development of this custom.

Chumra or Issur

Perhaps the most important starting point for a discussion of gebrochts is the fact that no one assumes it is actually halachically forbidden. The Gemara2 clearly states that one may fulfill the obligation to eat matzah on the first night of Pesach with matzah that was soaked and softened in water. In fact, the Rosh writes that it was common practice to soak matzah in water before the seder for the elderly or the infirm who had trouble chewing.3 It is readily apparent from this Gemara that any reasons for the custom to abstain from eating matzah that came into contact with water are in the realm of chumra, an added stringency, rather than an actual halachically forbidden act.

A Concern of Chametz

One of the earliest sources of abstaining from gebrochts appears in the commentary of R. Eliezer Ben Natan (1090 – 1170), the Raavan, to Pesachim. The Raavan addresses the issue of a number of dishes that involved boiling pieces of matzah that were already baked (one of which he refers to as “farfel”). He states simply that it is permitted, in line with the Gemara regarding soaked matzah. However, he then quotes a custom which he obviously found strange:

There are those who do not want to dip their matzah in soup on the first night of Pesach because they saw that their parents practiced this way as well. [These individuals] assume that this was done because [their parents] were concerned that it might become chametz, but they are incorrect. They only [abstained] from this so that the taste of matzah would remain in their mouths the entire first night.

There are three noteworthy points within this comment of the Raavan about this early form of gebrochts. Firstly, the custom was only practiced on the first night of Pesach. Secondly, it began out of a misunderstanding of the piety of those who simply did not want to taste any other form of matzah at the first seder. Lastly, the custom was assumed by those who practiced it to be out of concern that water and matzah coming in contact would create some form of chametz. This last point will serve as the main driving force behind the adoption of this custom by many later achronim.

Marit Ayin

Although a concern of chametz is the most often quoted reason for the custom of gebrochts, it is not the only one. The Raavan himself concludes his comment by endorsing the custom of not eating boiled matzah dishes, albeit not for the reason the custom was practiced. The Raavan writes that it is not proper to cook these dishes on Pesach because one might come to cook them out of regular flour, a biblical violation of chametz. It is not clear whether the Raavan’s concern was that one would mistakenly make these dishes with flour themselves or that others would see them and assume they are permitted. However, this point is expanded upon and clarified by R. Chaim Benviniste (1603 – 1673) in his famous work, Knesset Hagedolah. He writes that the Raavan’s fear of mix-up actually came to pass:

When I was a child I heard that there was once a pious woman who was frying fish in oil on Pesach…..Because it was Pesach she could not [use flour] so she took baked matzah and crushed it into fine meal and coated the fish with it. Her neighbor walked in at that time and saw what she had done and thought that it was actual flour. The next day, her neighbor had fish to fry and coated them in actual flour (!). Her husband entered and became enraged at her. She responded, in shock, that she had seen the very pious woman doing the same so it must be permitted…….The event reached the town’s rabbinic assembly. They issued a decree that [matzah meal] should no longer be used because of marit ayin. And this is our custom until this very day — we do not do this because of marit ayin.4

The Knesset Hagedolah’s concern of marit ayin changes the definition of gebrochts radically. It would not preclude matzah from ever coming into contact with water. Rather, only using crushed matzah in a fashion that would make it easily confused with actual flour is forbidden. It is doubtful that the Knesset Hagedolah would extend this concern to large pieces of matzah put into soup, which are clearly discernable as not being chametz.5 Obviously today’s commonly practiced custom of gebrochts, which does not allow any water-matzah contact at all, is not concerned merely about marit ayin. It should also be noted that this chumra of marit ayin advanced by the Knesset Hagedolah was rejected by a number of achronim.6

A New Concern of Chametz

The primary source for today’s practice of abstaining from gebrochts is the responsa of R. Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745 – 1812), found at the end of the Shulchan Aruch Harav. In a teshuva dedicated to the issue of gebrochts, he strongly endorses this stringency. He explains that over the years he watched as matzah baking practices changed. The bakers stopped taking time during the kneading process and began to knead the dough very quickly in order to shorten the time before the matzah entered the oven. As a result, the dough was not thoroughly kneaded. R. Shneur Zalman observed the following about the matzot after baking:

Our eyes see that many matzot have some flour on them even after baking. This results from the fact that they were not kneaded thoroughly.

The presence of flour raises the issue of it coming into contact with water and becoming chametz. He further claims that even though the flour itself was baked, which would render it unable to become chametz,7 one still must be concerned that the flour was not fully baked.8 While this last point is not the consensus of most poskim, R. Shneur Zalman recommends being stringent in accordance with the oft quoted dictum of the Arizal that one must be stringent about all issues on Pesach.9 As a result, he writes that gebrochts is kept in order to avoid a real concern of eating chametz on Pesach.

This position became the primary custom among Chasidic groups. It has been recorded that this was even the practice of R. Dov Ber of Mezeritch, known as the Magid of Mezeritch, the successor of R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov as leader of the Chasidic movement.10 It is this concern of under-baked flour that is the basis of those that practice the custom today.

Crunchy or Soft Matzah

A final approach to the development of gebrochts is advanced by R. Ephraim Zalman Margalios (1762 – 1828) in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch, Shaarei Teshuva.11 He accepts, in theory, the concern of possible chametz forming from the contact of under-baked matzah and water. However, he qualifies this by pointing out that, he believes, our matzah is very different from the matzah that the custom began with.

Our matzah is cracker-like and thoroughly baked. It would be seemingly impossible to ever have an uncooked doughy section in it. However, the Gemara12 states that the maximum allowable thickness of matzah is a little less than a tefach, which is quite thick. This halacha is codified in Shulchan Aruch.13 In fact, according to some, even if the matzah ends up being thicker than a tefach, it is kosher bdieved.14 A matzah baked in this way would look more like a soft loaf than our cracker-like matzot. R. Margalios explains that these thick matzot would very likely have areas inside them that were not thoroughly cooked and remained doughy. When such uncooked dough would meet water, either in its matzah form or as matzah meal, it could become chametz. However, our matzot preclude any of these issues. For that reason R. Margalios reaches the conclusion that gebrochts should no longer be of concern today:

It appears that this stringency began as a result of the fact that originally the custom was to bake very thick matzot for Pesach….in which case it was very common to find a part in the middle that was not fully baked……But today is different — most people don’t bake thick matzah, but thin crackers. They make meal out of it by drying it in the oven and crushing it up. Therefore all of the concerns are no longer applicable.

Was keeping the custom of gebrochts ever the consensus?

It is important to note that aside from the rejection of gebrochts presented by the Shaarei Teshuva, other prominent authorities were not concerned with the issue either. Eyewitness testimony of R. Chaim Volozhiner informs us that the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) himself ate gebrochts on Pesach and said there was no issue at all.15 R. Yaakov Emden writes that his father, the Chacham Tzvi (1656-1718), completely rejected this stringency and presented reasons why it is incorrect.16 Even the Chasam Sofer (1762-1839), who lived in an area where many kept this custom, did not hold of it himself.17 Therefore, it seems that while gebrochts might have been the custom of many Jewish communities, at no point was it the consensus practice of all or even most halachic authorities.

Conclusion gebrochts today

Many Jewish communities continue their practice of being stringent about gebrochts today. It is very clear that marit ayin is not the reason it is kept. As noted above, this reason would allow contact of matzah with water as long as it is not mistakable with chametz. Additionally, it would be difficult to claim that in the world of mass-produced Pesach products anyone would confuse Pesach substitutes with chametz. The Shaarei Teshuvas approach also would preclude the stringency because our matzot are not thick but cracker-like.18 The approach of the Shulchan Aruch Harav might present more of a basis for the custom today. On the one hand, it is hard to find any of the flour described by R. Shneur Zalman on our matzot. This might mean that even he would assume there is no issue today. However, it is very possible that the Arizal’s dictum of being stringent for every concern on Pesach is the main reason behind his argument. It is therefore conceivable that even with the lack of flour on matzah, he would still endorse gebrochts today.

In conclusion, above all else, gebrochts shows the strength of custom and tradition in the Jewish community. Even though it is by no means required or even endorsed by many amudei hahoraah, eminent halachic authorities, in our history, it still is the subject of much discussion around the seder table. Perhaps this is the timeless message of the survival of this custom.
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  1. See for example Rama in Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 93:1. 

  2. Pesachim 41a 

  3. Rosh, Pesachim 2:17 

  4. Knesset Hagedolah O.C. 461; See also Shaarei Teshuva O.C. 460:10 who records this as one of the sources of gebrochts

  5. See Knesset Hagedolah, ibid, where he makes a similar differentiation between the case of matzah meal and “matzah patties,” which everyone knew were not made of chametz and did not constitute marit ayin

  6. Shaarei Teshuva Ibid. 

  7. Pesachim 39b 

  8. Ibid. See also Beit Yosef O.C. 461 s.v. Katav Harambam

  9. Beer Heitev O.C. 447:1 

  10. Kovetz Yagdil Torah Vol. 12 pg. 10 

  11. Shaarei Teshuva O.C. 460:10 

  12. Pesachim 37a; Beitzah 22b 

  13. O.C. 460:5; See however Chiddushei HaRashba, Beitza 22b 

  14. Magen Avraham O.C. 460:4 

  15. Maaseh Rav 186; HaGaon HaChasid MVilna p. 102 

  16. Shut Sheeilat Yaavetz 2:65 

  17. Shut Maharshag 1:56 

  18. Perhaps one could make the case that the soft matzah baked by some Sephardic communities would be more of a concern. 

About Tsvi Selengut

Rabbi Tsvi Selengut is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek of Belle Harbor, NY and a Shoel U'Meishiv at the DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys. He also gives Torah-based classes in corporate environments and shuls in the greater NY area.

3 comments

  1. Here’s an audio shiur on the topic – R’ Ezra Schwartz mentions the issue of flour contamination (with the dough/matzah being baked) as a possible concern according to some, even today.

    While “In conclusion, above all else, gebrochts shows the strength of custom and tradition in the Jewish community. Even though it is by no means required or even endorsed by many amudei ha’horaah, eminent halachic authorities, in our history, it still is the subject of much discussion around the seder table. Perhaps this is the timeless message of the survival of this custom.” is a nice message with enough modifiers to give wiggle room, the detachment of minhag from original halachic roots (if they were the reason) can have downsides as well (e.g. causing extrapolations to inappropriate cases, causing divisions amongst subgroups, higher costs…) – in my opinion, worth considering in many cases.

    http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/811216/Rabbi_Ezra_Schwartz/Different_Matza_Minhagim:_Are_They_All_Equally_Good
    Rabbi Ezra Schwartz -Different Matza Minhagim: Are They All Equally Good?

  2. In a somewhat ironic touch, many non-Ashkenazic Jews still use thick matzah, and yet the fear of gebrochts causing chametz is completely unknown outside of the Ashkenazic world. So the only people who practice it are the only ones who don’t have to fear it from that angle.

    • Actually, there is a more ironic touch. The then=-recent changes is kneading the SA haRav refers to is related to the thinning of the Ashkenazi matzah. More things were brought within the 18 min time limit than halakhah actually demands. Note the Rama sets a thickness limit on a matzah of 1 tefach (3-1/8″ – 4″); if crunchy, people would loose teeth! He also discusses a minhag of making a point of using a se’ah of flour (144 eggs) per matzah. Again, had to be thick, or picture the logistics of basking, carting and putting on your table a sheet of matzah some 58x the size of today’s standard hand-made.

      So, what created the minhag of gebrochts was the start of the crackerization of matzah. At this point is was a little thicker, somewhat more like a mess-kit “hard tack”. Which makes the Pischei Teshuvah in comparison to the SA haRav (and historical record) ironic.

      Another problem I have with the PT’s line of reasoning is that if the problem were unbaked but mixed dough inside a thicker matzah, then the problem of chameitz doesn’t require water. It would prohibit thick matzos altogether. (As I implied abover, this is problem since really thin matzos are only early 19th cent and only Ashkenaz.) The problem has to be with mixing and kneading, that there is still dry flour, that somehow didn’t roast in the oven, that would become chameitz. But this has nothing to do with how you shape the dough after you make it.

      But for all my questions on gebrochts, which is not my minhag, I have more questions on qitniyos. I’m not ready to give up that minhag, and I similarly expect people to take my arguments as purely theoretical, and not ch”v a campaign against someone else’s minhagim.

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