Small Victory in the Matzah Wars

The battle between fans of hand shmurah and machine continues unabated, having changed very little since the opening rounds in the early nineteenth century. Some people point to the halachic difficulty in incorporating kavanah lishmah into a mechanized operation; others are equally passionate in pointing out the many opportunities for real kashrus problems to arise in the manual baking of matzos. No one is going to end this dispute in the near future.

Solutions to some of the kashrus problems have been proposed over the years, and were ignored because of the profit motive. Mishpacha recently reported an “innovation” that many consumers always assumed: that the workers be observant, motivated Jews who had an interest in insuring a product made to the highest standards, which is part of the reason that people are paying small fortunes for their matzah. In fact, many of the American bakeries until recently employed non-observant immigrant laborers who had to be browbeaten into compliance with strange regulations they had no interest – other than keeping their jobs – in complying with. Meanwhile, Lakewood residents were warned today that their might be a supply shortfall, and that the prudent would buy matzos early or from more distant locations.

In Los Angeles, we gloat over what has been a win-win-win arrangement that joins the quality of chaburah matzah, the participation of major supermarket chains, and offers parnasah to a growing number of workers in Israel.

Many of us remember from our yeshiva days the thrill of participating in a chaburah to bake hand matzos. We also remember our misgivings about how many things could go wrong that don’t go wrong with a well-designed machine baking. We saw our participation, in part, as an antidote to the errors that could otherwise occur. A successful entrepreneur in LA who remembered what his rabbeim sought in a chaburah baking was disappointed by some of the industry standards, and over the space of a number of years came up with a winning combination.

US matzah bakers negotiate only on their own individual behalf, and their clout is therefore limited to each’s own productivity. The situation is different in Israel. So many bakeries are united under the Badatz umbrella, that the Badatz can specify its own conditions and terms (i.e. about the cutting, processing, storing of the wheat) with greater ease and success than groups here. They also insist on employing only frum workers. After trying domestic sources for a few years, Los Angeles turned to Israel, and got what the owner believes is the best package of halachic enhancements he has seen. He then used his connection to the supermarkets he deals with the other weeks of the year, and got them to sponsor the matzah as a loss-leader, just as they sometimes do for turkeys around Thanksgiving. The result is quality chaburah matzah (LA sends over a chaburah to assist with the baking) that goes for $10 a pound, and can be purchased in the markets or directly from shuls.

It has been so popular that non-Orthodox shuls have been attracted to the very visible signs of “Old Country” Judaism, and have bought large quantities to distribute to their members. The attraction is facilitated in part by the bright, colored boxes designed in Bet-El by graphics people who appreciate the value of a mitzvah, and put their soul into artistic design that promotes it.

The approach is one that merits consideration by others. If more American cities outside of New York (which has its own bakeries for its population) were to follow suit, the Israeli bakeries would be able to provide a decent livelihood to a growing pool of workers.

Still, the best halachic enhancement is the cheapest. When Rav Yisroel Salanter was asked what stringencies should be observed in baking matzah, he said, “One. Don’t yell at the women rolling out the matzos.”

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4 Responses

  1. JD says:

    I too have never liked the use of non-religious workers at the matza factories, but it is permitted under law. The employ religious workers exclusively will increase the price quite a bit. The only way to make it work would be with subsidies, always a risky approach, or all hand matza should be made by chaburos for themselves and their shuls for zero labor cost. Of course, not every lives near a bakery and who has the time to do this? Practically speaking, I think we are stuck with the current system unless we are willing to pay $25/lb.

  2. Barbara says:

    To the last line – Ah-mane. With a Yiddish accent.

  3. joel rich says:

    Still, the best halachic enhancement is the cheapest. When Rav Yisroel Salanter was asked what stringencies should be observed in baking matzah, he said, “One. Don’t yell at the women rolling out the matzos.”
    ===================================

    And, as is often the case, works on many levels. Not only Did R’ YS enhance the dignity of the women’s labor but he also ensured they would not be afraid to tell the supervisor if something had gone wrong in the process (i.e chametz would be created) rather than let it slip through to avoid a yelling.

    KT

  4. Mordechai says:

    Good article. Thanks.

    But how can it be allowed to go without a quibble. ;-)

    “When Rav Yisroel Salanter was asked what stringencies should be observed in baking matzah, he said, “One. Don’t yell at the women rolling out the matzos.””

    My recollection is that is was more like ‘the woman rolling the matzos is an almonoh (widow). Be especially careful not to speak harshly and oppress her.”

    Of course, I doubt R. Yisroel would be really upset with your formulation as well.