According to a 2013 PewResearchCenter study, though only 23% of American Jews attend religious services at least monthly, 70% participate in a Seder on Passover. The likely reason: Passover brings family together. These reunions are often filled with promise and hope of quality time that will yield lifelong memories.
The reality is that it can be difficult to be with lots of people in cramped quarters for numerous meals that go on for hours without some conflict, competition, or quarrels arising. This is summed up nicely by the saying that the definition of a dysfunctional family is any with more than one member.
An Unusual Custom Regarding Matzah Proves Helpful in Providing a Method for a Happy Passover
Passover, particularly the Seder, has a theme of the number four. We ask four questions, discuss four sons, and drink four cups of wine. Yet, when it comes to matzah, we have only three. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan, points out that in the 17th century, the practice was, in fact, to have four matzahs at the Seder. According to the Chok Yaakov, a possible explanation for the fourth matzah was to have a backup. There are additional mentions of this custom in 18th century England.
Using four matzahs was, however, opposed by authorities of Jewish law. This rebuff was not because of the idea conceptually but for a technical reason. The authorities felt that the more matzah baked, the more dough necessary, and the more dough necessary, the greater the chance that chametz (bread which is forbidden on Passover) will be baked. It is because of this technicality that three matzahs are used.
This reasoning still leaves an unanswered question. Why was it once a tradition to have an emergency matzah, while there is no mention of similar practices for other holy items such as a Shofar or Menorah?
The difference lies within the execution of the holy act. Using a Shofar or Menorah can be accomplished and fulfilled on one’s own. There is no dialogue, no relationship, and no interaction involved with those items. The Seder, in stark contrast, is characterized by haggadah – a dialogue and conversation. Passover, perhaps more so than other holidays, brings people together.
Expectations and Passover
Studies show that depression and anxiety spike during holiday time. Offering a rationale, Dr. John Oldham, Chief-of-Staff and Senior Vice President of The Menninger Clinic reports that “a lot of times, it’s the disconnect for many people between what is supposed to be a really warm family gathering and what it ends up being for some families.”
We bring high expectations to holiday reunions, believing it will be great and everyone will get along. As mentioned above, Passover is expected to bring people together and provide only happy times. The kids will be entranced by the Seder. Nothing will go wrong. Perhaps the custom of a fourth matzah originated because we must understand going into the Seder and Passover that not everything is going to happen to perfection. In the case of the olden times, a matzah was expected to break.
The Message of the Fourth Matzah
The message of the backup matzah, though we no longer practice it, is to adjust expectations. Maintaining hope in a perfect experience, relationship or holiday is exhausting and not realistic. It is critical to understand at the outset that things will go wrong. Bumps will be encountered.
May our lives and our matzahs remain whole, but let us be prepared for something to break and know that we have the ability to put it back together again.
- This piece was originally published by Rabbi Goldberg on the BRS website on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. It has been modified from its original format.
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