Rage Against the Matzo Machine?

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The Newark Star-Ledger reports on the precautions taken at the Manischewitz matzo bakery in Newark to assure compliance with religious law.

But the story of mechanically made unleavened bread actually begins before the company's foundation in America. One of the 19th century's most striking technological breaks with religious tradition was the non-rise of square, machine-made Passover matzo in Europe over 150 years ago. I haven't been able to find any baker-Luddites in the Jewish community of the era, but there were concerned rabbis. A few years ago, Rabbi Shmuel Singer, head supervisor of Passover certification for the best-known kosher agency, explained it all. In the absence of a central authority, leading European rabbis of the mid-19th century issued conflicting rulings but finally accepted the idea "that a machine was a tool, no different than a rolling pin, and therefore, it sufficed if the Jew operating the machine had the correct kavanah [intention]." They also interpreted social justice in a consumer- rather than producer-friendly way. Machine baking might cost jobs, but it enabled poor families to nourish themselves over the holiday while obeying tradition. As with other faiths, there was also a symbolic dimension; most Hasidic rabbis saw approval as an entering wedge for a more secular lifestyle, and according to the article still prescribe hand made matzo, at least for the actual seder. (In fact, the process of traditional baking is a reminder of Egyptian as well as Hebrew food technology in the ancient Middle East, and plant biodiversity today.)

An undated woodcut in Rabbi Singer's article suggests that the earliest machines in America as well as Europe produced matzo in the traditional round shape. Why is it square today? Yes, the shape is more rational for producing matzot in batches, but that's not the only reason. Many products receive an extra step or two to conform to buyers' expectations. The real reason was that die-cutting matzot for a round shape entailed reprocessing dough, and the strict time limit for baking meant that those recycled pieces might exceed the 18-minute limit before baking and contaminate the batch.

According to the Star-Ledger article, the Manischewitz factory's flour comes from Lancaster county, Pennsylvania -- Amish country. It's hard to say how much if any of the grain was grown on Amish farms. But Amish share with Hasidim a style of technology assessment that looks to impact on the community.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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