The Bread of Affliction, a Poor Translation — By Ben

Photo by Avital Pinnick

On Seder night, as we begin the Maggid (story telling) section, the matzah is broken and lifted as the leader proclaims, “Ha Lachma onya”, this is the bread of our affliction. This is a direct reference to a verse from the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy): “For seven days you must eat matzah, the bread of ‘oni’ – for you left Egypt in haste.” I’ve intentionally not translated the word oni, but clearly it is a form of the word onya from the Hagaddah’s phrasing. The Gemara gives two translations for oni, the most popular being ‘poor,’ meaning the matzah is referred to as “the poor man’s bread.” But given that we are supposed to conduct ourselves as royalty on Seder night (reclining, drinking the finest of wine), why would we be also eating this poor man’s bread?

Poor Your Heart Out

The Gemara identifies two ways the matzah is compared to the bread of poverty. Since the middle of the three matzahs are broken, this is like a poor person who isn’t able to eat a whole loaf of bread themselves but who must either eat scraps or ask for pieces from others. Why is this of note? On any given holiday meal (or Shabbos) one must make the hamotzi blessing on two full loaves of bread (this is known as lechem mishneh). The fact that the broken piece is incorporated into the hamotzi blessing on Seder night is quite an aberration. For whatever the reason, the idea of being “poor” seems to be essential to whatever we’re tying to accomplish on Pesach.

The Gemara also notes that a poor man is limited in his resources and can only have his oven on long enough to cook the bread, but not long enough to let it rise. Thus it flattens into matzah, like the Jews in haste during the Exodus story. But if you know the Pesach story well, this idea of leaving in a hurry is a little problematic. For one, we know that Hashem told Moses that the Jews were going to leave two weeks ahead of time. They weren’t caught by surprise when their freedom was granted. Then there’s the Midrash that after the plague of the first born, Pharaoh came to Moses in the middle of the night and told him that the Jewish people had his permission to leave immediately. Moses responded to Pharaoh that they would not leave like thieves in the night, but would leave in the morning, when they were ready.

So neither answer gives us much insight as to why we must declare the matzah “lechem oni.”

Words to Live By

The other definition the Gemara gives for oni is that it is connected to the Hebrew word to “answer” or “to say.” Here it is referred to as “Bread over which is said many things.” From here we learn that on Seder night we are telling not only the story of the Exodus, but also praising Hashem with Hallel over the matzah. It is well known that the focus of the entire Seder experience is that the story of the Jews is told. Every oddity of the night is designed to make the children ask questions and pique their interests so that they will learn this story. To that end, we spend quite a bit of time talking before we eat. This seems to be in conflict with the idea of the experience of a poor man who probably wouldn’t want to wait so long.

From Poor to Profound

When a person faces poverty, they will seek relief that is immediate, even if that relief isn’t long lasting or complete. If you are living on the street and an affordable apartment suddenly becomes available, are you concerned as to whether the place is rent controlled? Of course not. You have immediate needs that must be met.

Early on, when Moses returns to the Jewish people to tell them that Hashem is freeing them from Egyptian bondage, this is their mindset. They are highly skeptical of Moses, especially when their burdens are increased by Pharaoh. When Moses proclaims Hashem’s desire to liberate the Jews, Moses lays out for them two goals. “Hashem, the God of your fathers, appeared to me… saying, I have remembered you and that which is being done to you in Egypt. And I said, I will raise you up from the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites and the Hittites… to a land flowing of milk and honey.” (Shemos 3:16-17)

However, when the Jewish people respond, they omit an important detail. “The people believed. When they heard that Hashem was mindful of the Children of Israel and that He had seen their suffering, they bowed their heads…” (Shemos 4:31) Note that there was no mention of reaching the Promised Land. Their state of poverty only allowed them to focus on the immediate suffering, not the wealth they would eventually receive.

The Richness of Haste

So what is it about this poverty that we should be holding onto during this night of regality? According to the Sages, the Jewish people didn’t actually have the merit necessary to leave Egypt. They didn’t actually deserve to go out. However, there was a spiritual awakening from above that elevated the Jewish people to a whole new level of holiness as a kindness from Hashem. All of a sudden, the Jewish people were in a land that they didn’t belong.

When everyone finds themselves in a place they shouldn’t be, there’s an urge to leave. This is particularly true when speaking of levels. Children who are gifted can act out in a regular level classroom because they are bored. If you ever were placed in a class where you knew the material, you probably wanted to leave as quickly as you could. This is the true reason for the haste the Jewish people felt on Pesach night.

What does this have to do with poverty? The Jews left Egypt with wealth. However, what makes a person truly rich? There are many cases of people who won the lottery and within months, ended up declaring bankruptcy. But for a person who has put in the time, effort, and terrifying risks for the reward, those individuals are much more likely to hold on to their wealth. So too, just because the Jewish people had been handed over a higher spiritual level, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t still poor in mind. The fact that before the splitting of the sea the Jews were still scared of the Egyptians despite their miracles, shows that they still hadn’t attained this richness of mind.

Freely Given Isn’t Poor, Necessarily

When we realize that all the wealth that has been given to us isn’t something we are owed, but is a gift, that’s when we truly appreciate it. It is okay to pray for something you don’t deserve. In fact you should! When one receives divine assistance, it is known as si’ata d’shamya, and by its very nature it is undeserved. It is okay to benefit from something you don’t deserve because, honestly, what does anyone deserve? What are we entitled to? Nothing!

So it is because of this fact, we look back and understand where we came from and the poor man’s bread we once ate. Only with that understanding are we finally free to enjoy the richness of the wine, the reclining, and the richness of mind to anticipate, lashana habaha berushalyaim, next year in Jerusalem.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s