Soft Massa: It’s the Real Thing

Soft massa or hard massa, that is the Question.
In point of fact it’s not a Question at all. If you prefer crackers to bread all year round, you’ll probably choose the hard cracker-massa with which we are all familiar. If you usually prefer bread, you’ll probably find unleavened bread, i.e. soft massa, more to your liking. It’s your choice.
This much is beyond doubt: originally massa was soft and bread-like. In the Talmud (TB Pesahim 7a) we read: “Rabbah the son of R. Huna said in the name of Rav: If a mouldy loaf [is found during Pesah in a bread bin and we are unsure whether it is bread or massa], if the majority of loaves [in the bin] are massa it is permitted [because we assume it to be like the majority].” The Talmud goes on to explain that this Halakha only applies if several days of Pesah have already passed in which case “we say every day hot massa was baked and placed there and thus it became very mouldy”, whereas if a very mouldy loaf is found at the beginning of Pesah it must be some days old and is certainly bread from before Pesah.
When did you last come across mouldy massa? You haven’t, because cracker-massa doesn’t go mouldy. Soft bread-like massa does; I know from personal experience. I have been baking soft massa for nearly 30 years.
The passage quoted above explains something else too. Years ago I began to wonder why many Jews have never seen real massa. An examination of all relevant Talmudic and Halakhic sources reveals that that there is absolutely no basis whatever for the assumption that massa needs to be hard. And then one day I asked my father how massa was produced in his home town in Transylvania. He explained that all massa for the town’s population was produced on the same premises. He related to me how a special oven was prepared, how the massa was baked and then packed in paper bags, and how some was set aside to be distributed among the needy. All this was done some weeks before Pesah.
I began to think about what my father had told me. I remembered how my first attempts to produce soft massa had failed: the massa was rock hard. I recalled how success came only after speaking to Jews who knew about baking Middle Eastern pitta and massa who explained that it all depends on the oven: European bread is baked by being surrounded by hot air, whereas Middle Eastern bread bakes on a hot surface. Two very different techniques which result in two very different types of bread or massa.
And then the penny dropped. In Europe, due to local conditions and realities, this was the only type of massa Jews were capable of baking. If you bake massa only once weeks in advance of Pesah, and you know nothing of baking Middle Eastern bread, your only option is to produce cracker-massa by using too little water in the dough, rolling extremely thin and over-baking in the wrong type of oven. This is how cracker-massa became the norm. Cracker-massa does, however, have one advantage: it will keep nearly indefinitely.
In Middle Eastern countries, on the other hand, where leavened bread, i.e. pitta, and unleavened massa-bread (think ‘Lehem ‘Oni’) are produced in a similar manner using the same type of oven (and even look alike), massa was baked fresh daily, as proved by the Talmudic passage quoted above.
Just as European Jews used horseradish (which is not bitter) for maror instead of bitter herbs (e.g. Chinese lettuce, Romaine lettuce, endives, chicory) for the simple reason that in colder European climes leafy, green vegetables were unavailable, so too did they lose the ability to bake real massa. It is that simple.
Here in Israel those in the know and with the facility bake their own soft massa as our forefathers did. Soft massa has also been commercially available in Israel for some years. Last year an independently-minded rabbi in Melbourne, Australia began marketing soft massa. Several local rabbis opposed this “break with tradition”. When I first heard about the Great Soft Massa Debate down under, I spoke to a couple of acquaintances in Melbourne. I learned that someone had consulted Rabbi Wosner of B’ne B’raq who had expressed vehement opposition to “the newfangled soft massa” – and to me this made perfect sense. Rav Wosner has authored an Halakhic response stating that it is forbidden for women to drive cars (see T’shuvoth Shevett HaLewi 4:1), despite adducing no cogent argument. He also forbids the use of a fully automated Shabath lift (North Americans should read: ‘elevator’), again without adducing any Halakhic proof. These positions have nothing to do with Halakha and everything to do with hashqapha/hashkofo (outlook), i.e. a resistance to and fear of anything “new” – even if very ancient, authentic and correct. This is essentially an ideological debate, and it is no secret that different rabbis have different philosophical and ideological viewpoints.
Of course there is always the possibility that some are opposed simply because the other rabbi thought of it first. Or that it somehow threatens their control mechanism over their flocks. Who knows?
This I do know: it’s your choice. And right. And privilege.
Soft massa is the real thing, the genuine article. As you will discover the first time you really do ‘korekh’, wrapping the maror inside the massa – at which point you will finally understand what Hillel the Elder had in mind: a shwarma.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim