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Joshua Kulp





Shemurah Matzah: Guarded from Water and for a Mitzvah





APA e-journal

Joshua Kulp





Shemurah Matzah: Guarded from Water and for a Mitzvah








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“And You Shall Guard the Matzot”- וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת

Shemurah Matzah: Guarded from Water and for a Mitzvah

Shemurah matzah, “guarded matzah,” has two meanings: The matzah is guarded so that it does not become chametz, and the matzah is made with the express intent that it be used to fulfill the mitzvah. This latter idea, however, does not appear in any of the early (Tannaitic or Amoraic) layers of the Talmud, but only in the editorial (Stammaitic) layer. This article demonstrates how this notion entered rabbinic literature.[1]


Shemurah Matzah: Guarded from Water and for a Mitzvah

Photo by Eli Brody cc 2.0

Introduction: Shmurah Matzah Today

Shemurah Matzah (guarded matzah) is a major industry nowadays. Some people use it for matzah on the seder night, others use it exclusively throughout the holiday. Some companies sell matzah guarded from the time of harvest (קצירה) others from the time of grinding (טחינה), and yet others from the time of kneading (לישה).

Though the cost for such guarding is high, many people who use such matzah are not especially clear what the matzah is being guarded from. This is not surprising; halakhah itself is unclear on this point.

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim 453:4) says that the wheat must be guarded from getting wet;[2] in other words, the concern is accidental chimutz (fermentation.) Commenting on this passage, the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc. #21) says that this is insufficient, and for the matzot shel mitzvah (the matzah eaten during the seder to fulfill the mitzvah) we need them to be extra guarded, i.e., made for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah.[3]

From where does this ambiguity about the meaning and purpose of “shemira” come? It turns out the ambiguity comes from the Talmud itself.

The Role of Kavanah in Tannaic Halakha

The role of intent (kavanah) in ritual is crucial in tannaitic thought, particularly with regard to sacrificial law. For example, the beginning of Mishnah Zevachim and Mishnah Menachot both require a priest to have proper intent when offering a sacrifice.

Tannaitic halakhah considers the intentions of a person offering the Pesach sacrifice to be especially significant. Mishnah Pesachim 5:2 rules that each essential sacrificial action, slaughtering, reception of the blood, the bringing of the blood and the sprinkling of the blood on the altar, must be performed with the correct intent.[4]

Does Making Matzah Require Kavanah?

However, while the tannaim dictate how stringent a person must be when kneading matzah dough to make sure it does not become chametz, nowhere do they state that one must have a particular intention in mind when engaging in any of the steps in making matzah. This is true even for the matzah used at theseder, understood by halakhah as the time one has a biblical obligation to eat matzah.[5]

Interpreting וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת

The Biblical Text

The halachah of shemurah matzah hinges upon a particular interpretation of 12:17:

You shall guard the matzot (וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַמַּצּוֹת).

Academic biblical scholars tend to translate this phrase as a reference to the name of the holiday, i.e., “You shall observe the [festival of] Matzot.”[6] The rabbis, however, understand this to be a reference to guarding the actual matzot, but what does that mean?

Tannaitic Sources

The concept of “guarding the matzot” originates in several midrashim on Exodus 12:17:

  • “And you shall guard the matzot:” Guard them so that you do not bring them to be disqualified. From here they said: “If it [the dough] becomes swollen, she should slap it with cold water.” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 9, p. 32)[7]
  • “And you shall guard the matzot:” R. Judah says: “This was taught [in regard] to the caution [required] in performing commandments. It teaches that three women knead in one kneading trough, this one after this one…[8] Shimon says: “And you shall guard the matzot:” Matzah that needs to be guarded, excluding boiled flour that need not be guarded.[9] (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai 12:17, p. 22)[10]

In all of these midrashim, “guarding the matzot” is understood as a commandment to make sure that there is no leavening once the flour comes into contact with water at the point of kneading.[11]

Amoraic Sources

This same understanding dominates amoraic literature. For instance, Bavli Menachot 53a states,

Preida asked before R. Ami: “How do I know that all grain offerings must be kneaded in cool water and he must guard them so that they do not become leaven? Let us learn from Pesach as it is written, ‘And you shall guard the matzot.’”[12]

Again, “guarding the matzot” simply means to make sure that they do not become chametz.

Rabbah’s View: Excluding Matzah Made for a Different Purpose

Mishnah Pesachim 2:5 rules that thanksgiving loaves and nazirite cakes cannot be used for the obligatory matzah on the first night of Pesach, even though they are also unleavened. Rabbah explains:

As Scripture states, “And you shall guard the matzot”—matzah which is guarded in order to be used as matzah—this excludes these, which were not guarded for the sake of matzah but for the sake of a sacrifice (Pesachim 38a-b.)[13]

Rabbah’s derasha explains a limited case where matzot were specifically made (kneaded) for another ritual purpose, and thus, cannot later be used to fulfill the different mitzvah of matzah on Pesach. He does not generalize from the specific cases he adduces that matzah on Pesach must be made with a particular intent. Rabbah’s statement and the baraita brought to support him have no parallel in tannaitic collections or in the Yerushalmi.

Introducing Shemurah Matzah 1
Pesachim 40a –

The intertwining of these two understandings of “guarding the matzot”—guarding them from becoming chametz and specifying the intention with which they were made, occurs in Bavli Pesachim 40a, towards the end of a long passage concerning the practice of washing grain before it is ground into flour (letitah). In this passage, Rava is quoted three times. First he claims that washing grain is forbidden, since it may cause fermentation. Then he argues that washing grain is actually permitted, and finally he changes his mind again and says that it is a mitzvah to do so. We will begin with this final quote.

הדר אמר רבא: “מצוה ללתות, שנאמר ‘ושמרתם את המצות.'”
Subsequently Rava said: “It is obligatory to wash [the grain], for it is said, ‘And you shall guard the matzot’ (Exodus 12:17).”

The Talmud first suggests that Rava understands the Torah’s requirement to guard the matzahs to imply that the matzahs have been washed since washing the grain puts it at risk for chimutz, a risk that would be otherwise negligible. Implicit in this interpretation is that Rava understands the word “guard” in the tannaitic sense of making sure it doesn’t become chametz.

Difficulty with Rava: From When Must the Grain be Guarded?

אי[מא][14] שימור דלישה.
Perhaps the verse refers to guarding from the time of kneading.

The Talmud now rhetorically asks how we know that the verse implies that grain must be guarded at such an early stage in its processing. A simpler alternative would be that the verse requires guarding because of the water used during the kneading process. If this is correct, there would no proof that the Torah requires the grain to be washed.

However, the Talmud rejects this possibility and defends Rava.

Problem with Alternative Suggestion – Defending Rava

שימור דלישה לאו שימור הוא,
Guarding from the time of kneading is not considered guarding,
דאמר רב הונא:
for R. Huna said:
”בצקות של נכרים אדם ממלא כריסו מהן, ובלבד שיאכל כזית מצה באחרונה.“
“The doughs of gentiles, a man may fill his stomach with them [on seder night], provided that he eats as much as an olive of matzah at the end.”
באחרונה – אין, בראשונה – לא.
Only at the end, but not at the beginning.

In this section the Talmud uses a statement made by R. Huna (early 4th century, Babylonia) to prove that grain must be guarded even before it is mixed with water to make dough. This would support Rava who said that when the Torah mandates “guarding the grain” it implies that one must wash the grain, bringing it into contact with water even before it is kneaded into dough.

However, we should note that R. Huna himself says nothing about “guarding matzot.” All he says is that dough made by a gentile may not be used for matzah shel mitzvah (the required matzah).[15] The stammaitic editors assume R. Huna is disqualifying gentile dough based on their understanding of the rule of “guarding matzot.” They use his position to reject the possibility that guarding from the time of kneading and on is sufficient, because gentile dough does not fulfill the requirement of shimur (guarding). Thus, they use their understanding of Rav Huna to argue that Rava is correct in his assumption that the verse refers to the need for grain to be guarded even before the flour is kneaded into dough, from the time the grain was washed and on.

Most importantly, interpreting Rav Huna’s disqualification of gentile dough as due to lack of shimur marks a subtle but significant switch in the use of the concept “guarding.”[16] Up until this point, “guarding matzot” referred to all matzot, not just those used to fulfill the commandment, because the point was to guard the matzah from becoming chametz; now the editors are using it to mean “preparing it le-shem mitzvah—to fulfill a particular mitzvah.” The stammaitic layer has conflated the two issues, “guarding” and “kavanah.”

The Talmud supports this point in the next line.

מאי טעמא?
What is the reason?
משום דלא עבד בהו שימור.
Because he [= the gentile] had not performed guarding.
ולעביד ליה שימור מאפיה ואילך!
But let him [=the Jew] guard it from the time of baking and onwards?
אלא לאו שמע מינה –
Rather learn from this
שימור מעיקרא בעינן.
that we require guarding from the outset (i.e., even before the kneading.)

The above argument supports Rava’s position—as interpreted by the stam—that shimur is required from before the kneading process begins, but, contrary to what was meant in the earlier part of the passage, shimur here no longer means “guarding from chimutz” but “intention to perform the mitzvah.”

Rejection of R. Huna as Proof for Rava

The Talmud now makes one final attempt to interpret the verse as a reference to guarding the matzot from the time of kneading (and thus contradict Rava’s assertion that washing the grain is an implicit Torah requirement):

How do we know that [the verse cannot refer to a requirement to guard the matzot only from the time of kneading]?
דילמא שאני התם,
Perhaps that case [of the gentiles’ dough] is different,
דבעידנא דנחית לשימור –
because when guarding became necessary,
לא עבד לה שימור.
he did not guard it.
אבל היכא דבעידנא דנחית לשימור עביד לה שימור –
But in a case where he did guard it when guarding became necessary,
הכי נמי דשימור דלישה הוי שימור.
it may indeed be that guarding from the time of kneading is considered ‘guarding.’

The editors see this as a viable interpretation of Rav Huna, one that would deny his statement as proof for Rava’s requirement that grain be washed. R. Huna disqualified dough made by gentiles because it was not guarded at the time it was kneaded into dough. This would prove only that the guarding process must begin at the time of kneading. It does not prove that “guarding” must begin earlier, or that grain must be washed.

Nevertheless, the editors know from another statement of Rava that he maintained his position despite the lack of proof in earlier amoraic tradition.[17]

Rava Reiterates his Position

ואפילו הכי לא הדר ביה רבא,
Yet even so, Rava did not retract.
דאמר להו להנהו דמהפכי כיפי:
For he said to those who were turning over sheaves,
“כי מהפכיתו – הפיכו לשום מצוה.”
“When you turn them over, turn them over for the purpose of the commandment.”
אלמא קסבר:שימור מעיקרא –מתחלתו ועד סופו בעינן.
This proves that he holds [that] we require guarding from the outset, from the beginning to the end.

In this final section, the editors deduce from Rava’s statement made to those “turning over sheaves” that “guarding” needs to start before the dough is kneaded. The editors of the Talmud, as well as most commentators, assume that Rava means that the people turning over the sheaves must do so “le-shem mitzvah,” or else those sheaves could not be used to make the matzah shel mitzvah. However, this does not appear to me to be Rava’s intention.

Rather, as I understand it, Rava’s statement is connected to the original meaning of “guarding”—keeping grain or flour away from water so that it does not become chametz, and that, as Daniel Sperber has suggested,[18] Rava is dealing with a situation in which the grain had already become wet. What he said to them was—when performing this particular act, make sure that the grains do not become leavened and thus will not be able to be used on Pesach at all. If I am correct, Rava’s statement has nothing to do with intent, nor does he distinguish between matzot that one may eat on Pesach and those used in the fulfillment of a mitzvah.

Introducing Shemurah Matzah 2
Chullin 4a –

In another talmudic text the stammaim impose their interpretation of “guarding” onto a tannaitic text that understands guarding as preventing the formation of chametz. Bavli Chullin 4a transmits a baraita from Tosefta Pesachim2:3:

מצה של כותיים מותרת ואדם יוצא בה ידי חובתו בפסח.
Matzot made by Samaritans are permitted and one may use it to fulfill one’s obligation on Pesach.
ור’ לעזר אוסר לפי שאין פקיעין בדקדוקי מצה.
R. Eliezer prohibits this for they are not experts in the particulars of the commandments like Israel.[19]

According to the simple reading of this baraita the first opinion holds that we can trust that Samaritan matzot are not chametz, whereas R. Eliezer holds that we cannot.[20] However, the stam comments on the first position of the baraita:

This is obvious.

The Talmud is bothered by the fact that the second half of the opening position seems superfluous. If it is permitted to eat Samaritan matzah on Pesach, then certainly it should be usable as matzah for the seder! The Talmud then offers an explanation for this seemingly superfluous phrase.

מהו דתימא?
What might you have thought?
לא בקיאי בשימור, קמ”ל.
They [Samaritans] are not experts in ‘guarding’ therefore it teaches us [that they are].”[21]

The response is based on the stammaitic understanding of “guarding” as “guarding the matzah with the intent that it be used in the fulfillment of the mitzvah”[22] (Rashi ad loc, s.v.מהו דתימא”). As Rashi explains, one might have thought that Samaritans are like the gentiles mentioned by R. Huna, whose matzot may be eaten but not used in the fulfillment of a mitzvah. The baraita, according to the stam, teaches us that Samaritans are not treated as gentiles, for Samaritans known how to have proper intent when making matzah.[23]

This baraita is a further example of a tannaitic halakhah that refers to the issue of whether or not matzah is edible at all on Pesach, which the stam tries to explain in reference to the issue of intention.

Ritualization: From Korban Pesach to Matzah

Tannaim and amoraim interpret Exodus 12:17 to mean that one must guard dough so that it does not become chametz. According to some amoraic statements, grain needs to be guarded even before it becomes dough, either when it is already harvested and lying wet in the field, or when it is washed. In all of these texts, the purpose of guarding is to prevent leavening. No special “intent” is required when making matzot to use to fulfill the mitzvah.[24] The matzah used for a ritual purpose cannot be made by a gentile, or by a Jew with the specific intent of using it for another ritual purpose, yet a Jew need not have any special intent in mind when making matzah.

Only in the latest stratum of the Bavli does the stam reinterpret the concept of “guarding,” transforming it from a practical issue—to prevent leavening—to a religious/ritual issue of intent. In order to use grain in the fulfillment of a mitzvah, it must be guarded from an early stage with the intent of using it as the mandatory matzah on the first night of Pesach.

The development of the notion of “guarded matzot (מצה שמורה)” is an excellent example of a larger process whereby foods used at the rabbinic seder became increasingly “ritualized.”[25] Matzah, of course, is already considered a symbolic food in Exodus.[26] Tannaim and amoraim emphasized the symbolic meaning of matzah and were concerned that the matzah not become chametz and that it remain “poor man’s bread” (Deuteronomy 16:3). Nevertheless, only the anonymous editors of the Babylonian Talmud introduce the notion that the matzah must be prepared for “the sake of matzah,” enforcing a ritual intent on its preparation similar to that found in the laws of sacrifice.

The ritualization of matzah, began in the biblical text itself when matzah was transformed from an agricultural rite to one with historical/symbolic significance, is thus brought to full fruition in the latest stratum of the pinnacle of rabbinic creations, the Babylonian Talmud. The proper intent that needed to be present when offering the Pesach sacrifice was applied to the symbolic inheritor[27] of that very sacrifice, the matzah.


March 23, 2015


Last Updated

October 12, 2023


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Dr. Rabbi Joshua Kulp is a Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is the co-author of The Schechter Haggadah and Reconstructing the Talmud Volume 1 and Volume 2. He received his Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University and his semicha from the Hadar Institute.