The Matzah-Baking Machine
A 19th-century controversy
It was inevitable that a matzah-baking machine would be invented during the Industrial Age, but the use of this item was not without controversy. It is easy to tell who won. Just walk into any supermarket before Passover and there are shelves of machine-made matzah. Still, even today, many Jews will insist on handmade matzah for the seder. Reprinted with permission from A Passover Anthology (Jewish Publication Society).
In about 1857, the first matzah-baking machine was invented in Austria, beginning a heated controversy that raged for half a century. Dr. Solomon B. Freehof has given us a full account of this dispute, which he calls "one of the most acrimonious discussions in the history of the responsa literature." However, this should not be surprising as this was, indeed, a radical innovation for the fulfillment of a duty whose execution had long ago been elaborately defined to the minutest detail.
The newly invented machine kneaded the dough and rolled it through two metal rollers from which it came out thin, perforated, and round. It was then placed in an oven. As the corners of the dough, cut to make the matzot round, were re-used, it was feared that the time elapsing until these pieces of dough were used again might allow them to become leavened. A later machine was developed that produced square matzotso that there would be no leftovers. Other subsequent improvements in the machinery speeded up the entire process of production, leading to a general acceptance of the modern method. Meanwhile, many distinguished rabbis raised their voices in protest against the new machine, while others, equally respected, permitted its use.
Solomon Kluger of Brody, in a letter to Rabbi Hayyim Nathan and Rabbi Leibush Horowitz of Cracow, Galicia, where the machine was already in use, prohibited the eating of the machine-made matzot,especially for the matzot mitzvah [the matzah eaten to fulfill the commandment at the seder]. This letter and similar pronouncements by other rabbis were published under the title Moda' ah le-Bet Yisrael ("Announcement to the House of Israel," Breslau, 1859). In rebuttal, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson published the pamphlet Bittul Moda'ah ("Annulment of the Announcement," Lemberg, 1859).
Making matzah without a machine. Photo credit: Jewish.co.uk.