Matzah – The Jewish Brand

March 02 2021

The idea of “brand identification” has become embedded in our culture and economy. A brand is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a particular company or entity. Whether it is the Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren, or Disney’s silhouette of Mickey Mouse, effective branding involves the ability to create a simple yet profound association with a company’s products.

In 1916, one of the most successful matzah manufacturers was the Pacific Coast Biscuit Co. in Portland, Oregon. Each spring, the Jewish Tribune of Portland would carry the following advertisement:

“This trademark stands for supreme quality.” Resting just above that headline was a large, conspicuous swastika. 

The advertisement continued: “Whenever you see the famous swastika sign just remember its significance to the fathers and its present meaning. Then, it meant brightness and prosperity — today it is the symbol of purity and quality. When buying matzahs, the swastika is your surety of purity.”

For five years the Pacific Coast Biscuit Co. sold matzahs sealed in a carton branded with a swastika.

Until Hitler unfurled his new red banner in 1921, the swastika was merely a symbol of good luck. Yet to our modern eye, the swastikas on matzah is an affront; as contradictory as a hashgochah on pork!

Ironically, it could be argued that the entire Pesach Seder is a study of contradictions:

• The four cups of wine we drink symbolize redemption, yet it is customary to use red wine and we spill out some of our wine when recalling the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (Divrei Yirmiyahu, derashot) thereby diminishing our joy despite the fact the punishment was justified. 

• Maror recalls the bitterness of our suffering but serves as a condiment for the korbon Pesach (nowadays commemorated by koreich) celebrating our redemption. 

• We dip our karpas and maror as a sign of aristocracy, but the karpas is dipped in salt water to evoke the tears shed by our enslaved ancestors. In contrast, the bitter maror is dipped in the sweet charoset.

• The apples in charoset recall the fertility of the Israelite women and the Divine protection afforded to their babies. Its texture reminds us of the mortar the Israelite slaves had to produce for bricks.

• Many have the custom of eating a hard-boiled egg at the Seder, representing both the korbon chagigah/Festival Offering and aveilut/mourning.

• We recline for matzah (redemption); sit up straight for maror (servitude); and then recline when we eat matzah and maror together (“Zecher l’mikdash, K’Hillel”), symbolic of redemption.

• After Birkat Hamazon, before we begin saying the second part of Hallel, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim no. 480) cites a custom to open a house door that leads outside as an expression of faith that tonight is the leil shimurim — a night of protection and ultimate redemption. Yet, at the same time, the Magen Avraham comments that if it is dangerous outside, then don’t open the door since we shouldn’t rely on a miracle!

And of course, there is matzah. Above anything else, matzah is the brand identity for Pesach. The Torah’s name for Pesach is “Chag HaMatzot.” 

There are two passages in the Haggadah that deal explicitly with the reason for matzah. 

The first is “Ha Lachma Anya,” which identifies matzah as “the bread of affliction.”

The second is “Rabban Gamliel… ,” who explains that “the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened” before they were redeemed; “for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay…”

These two references also reflect the contradictory themes of slavery and freedom.

The entire seder simultaneously commemorates both our exile and our redemption. How do we reconcile these opposites?

The answer, according to Rabbi, Dr. Abraham Twersky, ZT”L is that we do not need to reconcile all conflicts.

So much of modern psychology is focused on the resolution of contention. This, explains Rabbi Twersky, has resulted in people eschewing all conflicts. Living with ongoing stress has become unthinkable. Rabbi Twersky argues that the loss of tolerance for conflict has had a profound impact on interpersonal relationships as well as on the intrapersonal psyche. For so many people, addictions, lack of job stability, the unprecedented divorce rate is, to a great measure, due to the inability to withstand conflict, and the desire to seek immediate relief from all frustrating situations.

The Pesach Seder is characterized by the coexistence of conflicting ideas. The concept of freedom espoused in Torah is quite distinct from our modern culture’s, where the ultimate aim of freedom is the absence of all discord. Cheirut — the Torah’s definition of freedom — includes the capacity to live meaningfully despite stress and the ability to grow in the face of conflict.

The cheirut of the Torah means the freedom and ability to live with stress and conflict, to eat the pesach, the matzah, and the maror. Without such conflict — lo yatza yedei chovato — we cannot fulfill our obligations of the Pesach Seder.

Rachel Yehudah, a leading authority on PTSD and resilience, studied a group of Holocaust survivors to determine how they handled life after barely escaping genocide. She found that resilience is not a constant, steady state. Despite the common belief that people are either resilient or vulnerable, strong or weak, healthy or sick, Yehudah maintains that people can experience these states simultaneously.

The Seder emphasizes an essential aspect of spirituality: the ability to live with conflict. Perhaps it is this very ability is essential to our continuity. 

The swastika as a brand can come and go. Indeed, Hitler’s predicted “thousand-year Reich,” with all of its hubris and devastation, lasted only 12 years and four months, yet the Jew and his humble matzah is at two millennia and counting!

The last Seder in the Warsaw ghetto occurred in April 1943. There, a young boy named Mordechai was sitting with his family around their table. The Seder was bereft of matzah, wine, or anything resembling a Yom Tov meal. They had no maror per se, but bitterness surrounded them. The ghetto was burning, the sound of marching soldiers, gunshots and bombs drowned out the cries of the resistance fighters trying bravely to withstand the Nazi onslaught. Mordechai, who had just finished reciting the Mah Nishtanah, said: "Tati, I have asked you the four questions but I still have one more question: Tati, will I be here tomorrow?"

Tears streamed down the father's face as he turned to his young son and answered: “My dearest Mottele. I cannot promise you that I will be here tomorrow or that you will be here tomorrow. But I swear to you that there will always be Jewish children who will ask the Mah Nishtanah and who will continue that which is holy to Klal Yisrael.”

Matzah is paradigmatic of the Jewish experience as it transcends specific times and locales. Perhaps that is why it remains the most consistent brand in Jewish history. During the darkest and most foreboding times of Jewish history, matzah inspires us with a message of hope. Exhorting us to remember our humble origins, transcend our present fears and anticipate a glorious future.


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