The difference between leavened bread and matzah is that leavened bread rises and inflates, while matzah remains flat and deflated. Chametz, or ‘leavening’, comes into being when there is a fermentation of a particular enzyme found in grain. That is, when water is mixed with any of the "five grains" (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats), fermentation begins, and these foods are considered ‘leavened’ after only eighteen minutes. Chametz dough rises due to bubbles of oxygen and carbon dioxide that are released in the process of fermentation.

The words Chametz and matzah each contain three letters...

The words Chametz and matzah each contain three letters and they share two of the three (Mem and Tzadik). The differing letters are the Chet in Chametz and the Hei in matzah. Furthermore, there is only a tiny difference between a Hei and a Chet in their graphic design: the left leg of Hei is suspended in mid air (ה), whereas the left leg of Chet rises up to the top of the letter (ח).

The empty gap in Hei represents humility and an openness to receive, and the closed gap in Chet represents arrogance. Chametz foods thus represent egocentrism, or a sense of self that becomes inflated, appearing to be more than what it really is. Just a tiny bit of arrogance can make a big difference.

Bread of Idolatry

The Torah guides us to carefully eliminate every single particle of Chametz in our possession before Pesach. The absolute prohibition of Chametz is very unusual among prohibitions, because normally a very small amount of a prohibited substance might be considered neutralized and nullified. The reason that Chametz is such a stringent prohibition is that yeast symbolizes the yetzer hara, the human inclination toward negativity. 1

According to the Zohar, Chametz represents avodah zara or ‘idolatry’, one of the most extreme manifestations of the yetzer hara. "Whoever eats Chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol." [Zohar, 2:182]

...many times our money, possessions, power, are the modern idols...

While perhaps we no longer actually worship literal idols, the notion of idolatry is the concept that any force or idea in the world, other than the One G‑d, can help us. What’s worse, many times our money, possessions, power, are the modern idols people actually worship. One’s "gold and silver" are modern man’s idols. The combined numeric value of the words Kesef/ silver and Zahav/gold is one-hundred and seventy-four. 174 is the amount of hours we are not allowed to eat Chametz. 2

Fascinatingly, the laws of Chametz mirror the laws of idolatry:

  • Regarding both prohibitions - idolatry and Chametz on Pesach - there is ‘no shi’ur’, no permissible measurement; one must be completely rid of them, since even the tiniest speck cannot be considered nullified. The prohibitions of possessing or eating Chametz on Pesach are thus similar to the prohibitions of owning or worshipping an idolatrous image.
  • It is also prohibited to derive any benefit from Chametz on Pesach, whether monetary or other. Similar is the prohibition to derive benefit from idolatry at any time.
  • On the Eve of Pesach, we should burn, crumble or destroy all Chametz in our possession. This is similar to the commandment to destroy idolatrous images.

The ancient Egyptians actually invented yeasted bread, as well as beer, which is also made with yeast and grain. The food of the idolatrous slave-owners was Chametz  and the bread of Egypt is the bread of idolatry. During Pesach, we celebrate our freedom from Egypt by withdrawing from Chametz, thereby withdrawing from any trace of ‘Egyptian’ idolatry.

Bread of Simplicity

...‘bread of poverty’ really means...not mixed with any other ingredients, free to be itself...

According to the Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel commentaries, matzah was the food of slaves, since it takes much longer to digest than other foods and thus it staves off hunger. Matzah is called ‘the bread of affliction’ and ‘the bread of poverty’. Yet, it is also the bread we ate on the night we were freed from Egypt. The Maharal says that ‘bread of poverty’ really means ‘bread of freedom’ since ‘poor’ means ‘simple’, not mixed with any other ingredients, free to be itself, not needing anything other than itself to exist.

The definition of a slave is someone whose life is murkav or ‘mixed’--dependent upon and fused with his matter. A free person, on the other hand, is independent and autonomous. ‘Rich’ bread is ‘mixed’ with other ingredients: juice, milk, eggs, sugar, nuts, etc. The flour of ‘rich’ bread is only a vehicle or servant of the other ingredients, and it is dependent upon these other ingredients for its flavor or image. Matzah, in contrast, is pashut, ‘simple’, having only the most essential ingredients, and thus is ‘free’ from other influences. It is what it is, rather than existing in order to serve an extrinsic entity.

Bread of ‘I’

Like grain, the ego is not a problem in itself.

Like grain, the ego is not a problem in itself. However, when our sense of ‘I’ is mixed with the ‘water’ of desire, and this mixture is allowed to stagnate or ‘ferment’, it can quickly rise and become egocentrism and arrogance. When the ‘ego’ thus becomes ‘centric’, it fills our picture of who we are. If we regard this self-image as real, we can easily become enslaved to it. The idol of self is also usually a mixture, a composite of images of other people we have known or seen, and this complexity obscures the simple essence of who we really are.

Freedom therefore involves throwing out our old, fermenting self-definitions, crumbling them or burning them in the fire of Divine consciousness. When there is no detectable shi’ur [measure] left, we can be simple, humble and autonomous, like matzah. We are then open, like the letter Hei, to receive the miracle of inner freedom.

From The IYYUN Hagadah [see // for sales information.]