Why is most matzo now square?
Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna weighs on the evolution of matzo.
Matzo is a central food in the Passover Seder, its roots derived from Exodus when the Israelites ate unleavened bread in great haste prior to fleeing Egypt. But matzo’s shape, texture and production have evolved significantly over the years, particularly as a result of 19th century immigration and the industrial revolution.
Jonathan D. Sarna '75, MA'75, University Professor and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis and the world’s foremost expert on American Jewish history, has studied matzo’s evolution. Until the turn of the 20th century, most matzo was handmade and round or irregularly-shaped. The father of today’s highly recognizable square matzo, Sarna says, was a Jewish baker named Behr Manischewitz, who immigrated to Cincinnati from Prussia in 1886. Manischewitz saw an opportunity in the growing numbers of fellow Jewish immigrants to the US and the machines that were changing how food was made, packaged and sold.
BrandeisNOW consulted Sarna to learn more about Manischewitz and the evolution of Matzo:
BrandeisNOW: What were the circumstances that resulted in today’s ubiquitous square matzo?
Sarna: The demand for matzo rose steadily in the United States in the 19th century, keeping pace with America’s growing Jewish population. But the matzo industry itself was under great transformation. By the mid-19th century, most matzo was baked by synagogues which either maintained special ovens of their own or, as was the case in New York, contracted with commercial bakers whom they supervised. Synagogues started spinning off many of their communal functions, and it was at this time that independent matzo bakers developed.
BNOW: What was the origin of the changes in how matzo was made?
Sarna: With the rise of industrialization, processes began to be mechanized. In 1839, a French Jew named Isaac Singer produced the first known machine for rolling matzo dough. It’s often called the matzo-making machine, but only covered the rolling of the dough, not the equally critical and very laborious process of kneading. But Singer’s machine won approval from various rabbis and quickly spread throughout the United States, Germany, France, England and Hungary.
BNOW: So this set the stage for Manischewitz to further streamline producing matzo?
Sarna: Manischewitz had a matzo factory in Cincinnati and by 1903, he was using at least three different machines as part of the matzo-making process. One partially kneaded the dough, one rolled, and another stretched, perforated and cut it. He also used a fan to keep the premises cool and introduced a gas-fired matzo baking oven which allowed for better heat distribution and a conveyor belt that made it possible to automate the whole system. The dough would move through the oven chambers, emerging evenly baked and identically shaped on both ends.
In 1920, his son, Jacob Uriah, introduced a machine that could produce 1.25 million matzos every day.
BNOW: How challenging was it for Manischewitz to market his new-fangled matzo?
Sarna: Manischewitz spared no effort to ensure that rabbis endorsed the matzo as appropriate, even for the most religiously punctilious. In 1903, the bakery was opened to all rabbis “seeking the truth and righteousness.” And in 1938, the company published a list of 124 leading figures, most of them rabbis, who had visited the bakery and attested to its high level of kashrut—ultimately Manischewitz would market it it as “the most kosher matzot in the world.”
Manischewitz also worked to make its matzot seem superior and authentic by advertising. They advertised in English, Hebrew and Yiddish to Orthodox consumers, noting the matzot weren’t touched by human hands during production and were made in a “temple of kashruth, a palace of cleanliness…overflowing with light, air and sunshine.” In other words, they were meeting the highest American food and health standards along with the highest religious standards. By appealing to modern American consumer values and to Jewish tradition to sell their food product, the company implied that purchasers of Manischewitz matzo could subscribe to the highest ideals of both Judaism and America.