Turf Wars, Tradition, and Innovation: The Case of the Soft Matzah – By Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb

Turf Wars, Tradition, and Innovation: The Case of the Soft Matzah

The recent entrance of a soft Matza into Melbourne’s kosher-for-Passover marketplace has brought the sort of furious controversy that seems to follow almost any religious innovation or attempt at doing something outside the “authorised leadership” in the Jewish community.

Matzah, for the uninitiated, is the “bread” product eaten on Pessach (Passover). The definition of matzah is, flour and water mixed together and not allowed to sit for more then 18 minutes before baking.

The European custom is that the matzah is a large cracker (that shatters into a multitude of pieces whenever it is taken on an excursion). This is the tradition that almost all the Jews of Melbourne grew up with.

There are, however, other Jews in the world.

The Jews who came from the Muslim world have a different tradition, producing a matzah that comes in the form of a round, soft bread.

The current matzah row in Melbourne began when Rabbi Meir Rabi put soft Matzah onto the market under his own hechsher (approval for what is kosher) – as opposed to seeking approval from an established authority.

The Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV) responded to this with an email that attacked the “new” matzah as somehow violating the law. The RCV has not, at this point, stated concrete legal precedent for their ruling. What they have said indicates that they object on the basis that the soft matzah only violates the spirit of the law, which in itself is an unclear position.

While I personally will not be eating the soft Matzah this year, I have eaten them in the past (and they were exceedingly yummy), when I was in Israel. There, such matzahs were approved by the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef.

The problem here seems to be twofold. First there seems to be potential marking of the territory by the Rabbinical Council against a newcomer. As I have no direct knowledge of this, I will go into depth here – rather, I’d encourage anyone who is interested to read Rabbi Rabi’s account here.

The second issue, and the more troubling one, is the resistance to all change within Jewish law.

The beauty of the Jewish legal system (as with most modern systems) is the fine balance between the strength of the statutes, and the flexibility granted to the judiciary to interpret these laws.

There will be within this body of law things that cannot be changed simply because we wish it, but there is room for sevarah (logical process) to bring about a new direction, or even to re-ignite old, long lost customs that might be newly relevant.

Two examples besides that of the Matzah are the example of the kosher hagavim grasshoppers, and the tekhelet (blue) string in the Tzitzit (ritual fringes on clothes).

Certain species of grasshopper are listed as being kosher in the Bible, and the ability to identify these species was passed down from generation to generation.

Over the years, as many Jews moved away from the Middle East, they moved away from the natural habitat of these grasshoppers, and lost the tradition of determining which were the kosher grasshoppers.

The Jews of Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, however, maintained the knowledge, and have now passed the tradition back to a number of European Jews.

There were many that balked at renewing a “lost” custom even though that would have connected them to a Yemeni chain of tradition that spans at least 2.5 mellinia. I have also heard that these grasshoppers, when deep fried are quite tasty.

The story of tekhelet (blue dye) is similar. In recent times the colour has been rediscovered, after years of exhaustive archeological, historical, religious and scientific research.

Yet there is unease in some quarters at relying on the above research for resuming the use of the dye. The arguments for not using it are based in intransigence, whereas the arguments for using the dye are backed up by numerous sources.

The Jewish people’s advancement cannot occur under a veil of fear that any innovation will destroy us.

Tradition and custom are processes that evolve over centuries. The effort to preserve the traditions of a glorious past, is often an excuse to view history through rose coloured glasses.

I would not advocate that Judaism move with the fashion industry that seemingly changes weekly; however, using tradition as an excuse never to evolve is equally foreign to Judaism.

The blind acceptance of current traditions and a stubborn stance against progress can only lead to the system becoming increasingly irrelevant to a multitude who would otherwise find in our religion a powerful and good way of life.

The secret here, as with everything, is how to balance evolution with preserving what’s precious. In other words, how can the relationship between progress and tradition be struck so that the beauty of Judaism is not killed by either whims of fashion, or complete stagnation?

Even more importantly, how can we ensure that superficial, outward signs of devoutness do not become a mere facade behind which there is no structure – no real essence of Judaism?

If we do innovate, how do we prevent Judaism from becoming a poor mimic of Western philosophy, rather then the foundation of many of the world’s religions, with its rich and highly developed structure?

These questions are at the heart of all debate about our religion’s and our people’s continuity. The debate that is now taking place over Rabbi Rabi’s matzah is a microcosm of this.

This matter, as with all matters relating to the future of Jewish observance, will certainly be debated down to its smallest detail. We must not, however, use debate as an excuse for inaction.

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7 Responses to “Turf Wars, Tradition, and Innovation: The Case of the Soft Matzah – By Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb”

  1. ronit says:

    Thank you Yaron brilliantly said (and i’m not biased I promise!!!) i was so outraged when i received that email from the Rabbinical Council declaring my new found soft matzah was not kosher! No real reason and no real explanation and with a very large suspicion that this was politically based! Not only was i furious at this sudden ruling but it put me in a very awkward position of struggling between believing what a Rabbi has deemed kosher (and we are supposed to trust our Rabbis) and what the Rabbinical Council deem kosher and unable to determine clearly for myself as it was on the eve of the festival i put it in with my non kosher food. Its time the religion moved forward here in Australia – it has everywhere else!
    PS another great article Rav!

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  2. Giacomo says:

    In actual fact soft matza is not an innovation it is only bringing back the way it used to be. Soft matza was actually thicker than the one Rabbi Rabi brought out for anyone who cares to read the Talmud. Rabbi Rabi’s halachic references in this are very strong – he actually represents the London Beth Din in Kashrut in Australia.

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  3. meir rabi says:

    Shalom Yarom,

    Nice article.
    Regarding your point of resistance to change, you may also consider the great debate that continues today over the acceptability of machine made Matza.

    Also a great debate when stainless steel was innovated to replace the soft iron used for making the special knives used in Kosher ritual slaughter.

    Today there is also dispute between orthodox rabbis as to whether a Jew may ascend the temple mount. Rabbi Tendler assures us that we may and should but above all entryways to that area are signs warning that Halacha prohibits entering that area. Rabbi Tendler Says the great rabbis, Poskei Hador are Not Talking Halacha, But Issuing Political Statements. see http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=23062

    There are also the famous rulings of HaRav Moshe Fienstien who for example permitted a Mechitza, a ritual barrier required in some situations to keep men and women separated, of what was considered by other rabbanim to be very inadequate.

    Also remember that our Sages provided four identifying features to categorize Kosher birds. The Mishnah (Chullin 3:6 [59a]) states: “every bird that is 1) dores (“a predator”) is not kosher. Every bird that has 2) an extra toe,[The extra toe is explained by Rashi and Rav Ovadiah Mibartenura (Chullin 3:6) as a toe behind and above the rest, i.e. the hallux. The Ran and Kaf haChaim (Rav Yaakov Chaim Soffer, 1870-1939) (YD 82:9) explain it to mean that the middle of the three front toes is larger than the other two. Some have suggested that the extra toe is a kind of spur that sticks out part of the way up the leg and does not rest on the ground. The Ramban (Chullin 59a) flatly rejects this since pigeon, the paradigmatic kosher bird, does not have this spur.] 3) a zefek (crop, the biblical more’eh , e.g. Lev. 1:16), and 4) a korkuvan (gizzard, “pupik” in Yiddish) whose inner lining can be peeled, is kosher.” These seemingly simple rules were the source of ongoing and acrimonious debate throughout the ages.
    see more http://www.kashrut.com/articles/ThreeBirds/

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  4. meir rabi says:

    Now that HaRav Shemuel Wosenr’s name is better known by various parts of our community and now that we know in what great esteem his rulings are held by the RCV, I would like to introduce another ruling of HaRav Wosner.

    According to Halacha, milk requires supervision to ensure that it is produced exclusively from Kosher beasts.

    According to some, this supervision need not be performed by a Jew. Government regulations that are properly audited and maintained are adequate. The Chasam Sofer is very strict in this matter and rejects relying on government supervision. Nothing other than full comprehensive Jewish supervision can categorize milk as “Chalav Yisrael”. HaRav Wosner follows this ruling of the Chasam Sofer.

    That is not the ruling I wish draw attention to.

    I wish to draw attention to the following ruling of HaRav Shmuel Wosner. In guiding the Mehadrin (that’s the “Super Kosher”) division of the giant Israeli dairy company Tenuva, he determined that supervision of the milking process by video cameras suffices to satisfy the opinion of the Chasam Sofer.

    I anticipate that when Kosher milk, utilizing such forms of modern technology, is offered to the Melbourne Jewish community, it will be embraced with much fervor and be applauded by all, including the RCV. I am confident that there will be much gratitude publicly expressed (perhaps even from the pulpit of some Shules and Synagogues) to those who have introduced this additional stringency in Kosher foods making it at the same time both a more affordable and also a more accessible commodity.

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  5. Ben says:

    Giacomo, Rabbi Rabi does not represent the London Bes
    Din. On Rabbi Rabi’s website it states that he is not
    connected with the LBD.

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  6. AusIsr says:

    See below for the recent revelations by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick shlita of the Kashrut Authority (NSW) about the chametz status of soft matzah that KVY produced. Surely this shows that the rabbonim who have many years of experience in supervising kashrus in our technological and global day and age are the ones to be relied upon, rather than individuals who run agencies like KVY.

    These individuals might not – despite their being talmidei chachomim – be sufficiently up to date with the latest developments in mass food production, etc. (I mean no disrespect to Rabbi Rabi shlita by these comments.)

    Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb or Rabbi Rabi might like to respond to these revelations…

    Notification issued by the Kashrut Authority (NSW) on 10 February 2011 (direct quote):

    Kosher Certification of Bondi Pie Shop Not Acceptable

    It has come to the attention of the Kashrut Authority that a pie shop in Bondi has now come under the supervision of Kosher V’Yosher based in Melbourne. It is our duty to inform kosher consumers that in our professional opinion the Kosher V’Yosher kosher certification cannot be relied upon. A similar declaration has been made by the Rabbinical Council of Victoria in July 2010.

    This in no way is a reflection on the quality of the establishment or its food. It is however a statement in relation to kosher certification.

    The appearance of Kosher V’Yosher in NSW has prompted us to make an announcement at this time. The KA makes this statement from first hand knowledge of the kashrut practices of Kosher V’Yosher .

    A notable example: Last year a product was certified by Kosher V’Yosher as being Matzah and Kosher for Passover. The KA is aware of problems in both the ingredients and the manufacturing process, which would render the product unfit for Pesach use and according to the Shulchan Aruch safek, if not actual Chametz. This conclusion, which was based on information received from the manufacturer and visiting the plant, unfortunately became known only after Pesach. The company is now certified by the KA but its product is not suitable for Pesach.

    Kosher V’Yosher has addressed various challenges on their website. Our conclusion and professional opinion, after having reviewed the explanations and positions taken by Kosher V’Yosher, and based upon our own first hand knowledge, is that their certification cannot be relied upon.

    The kashrut of commercial premises is a highly refined area. The KA and other leading Kashrut authorities within Australia are in regular contact with other reputable kashrut authorities around the world, exchanging information about food technology and production technique to ensure appropriate standards of Kashrut for the consumer. We hope that kosher consumers will understand the seriousness and gravity of this warning.

    The Kashrut Authority

    The Kashrut Authority is under the auspices of the Sydney Beth Din and the Yeshiva Rabbinate

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    • Yaron Gottlieb says:


      This letter in no way negates the statements that I have made. If anything it enhances it.
      I do not endorse any Kosher authority, but rather am happy to eat from any reputable source.

      Here in the letter they state that:
      1) Rabbi Rabi cannot be relied upon because of the statement of the Melbourne authorities (who did not bring any proof for this statement)
      2) He gave an authorisation to an unnamed product from an unnamed source and we are expected to accept that this product was not legitimately kosher.
      3) The Sydney authorities are not happy with some of the statements on the Kosher V’Yosher website (we do not know which of the statements this is)
      4) This is an area where only KA have the knowledge required to run a kosher authority (based on what? we will never know)

      This is based entirely on heresay and sweeping statements that we are required to accept or reject on blind faith. This has never been the way of Judaism, it is about knowledge and debating the facts openly so that everyone can learn and grow from it. This response from KA is against everything Judaism stands for.

      If the facts of the case are as damning as they claim them to be, let them present those facts, and Rabbi Rabi’s credibility as a kosher authority will be destroyed, but until some facts are presented to the public I will be ignoring all statements of this type by kosher authorities, and I would recommend everyone else does so too.

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