The Controversy of Egg Matzot in Oxford's Bodleian Library

Thursday, 25 March, 2010 - 7:30 pm


Oxford’s Bodleian Library houses one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts in the world. One of the most famous manuscripts is Maimonides (1138-1204) book on Festivals (Zmanim) in the Mishneh Torah, which is the principle version on which is based the current published Maimonides.


Thus, when reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah on the Festivals today, one is essentially relying on the particular version of the Oxford manuscript.


Likewise, the current version of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishneh is also based on the version held at the Bodleian library, written by Maimonides in Judeo-Arabic with his own diagrams and illustrations.


As Maimonidean works are one of the main foundations of Jewish law, the subtle differences in the Oxford edition of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is of extreme importance. It is one of the determining factors in how Jewish law has been decided in later works of Jewish law, like the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) by Rabbi Joseph Karo (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, 1575).


It is sometimes a single word in a medieval manuscript that can make something proscribed or permitted in Jewish law. If the word in one edition is written in one form and another edition has the word in another, it will affect how the law is decided and will have wide ranging implications to countless Jews who have aspired to follow the details of Jewish law throughout the ages.


As we celebrate Passover, we will focus on an example that is relevant to the celebration of the holiday.


Maimonides in the laws of Matza (Zmanim 5:2) writes ‘there are five types of grain which will not become leavened when kneaded with fruit juice. Even if one leaves the dough the whole day until it rises it is still permitted to be eaten on Passover and does not constitute leavened food because fruit juice does not causes leavening but rather decay. These juices include wine, milk, honey, olive oil, apple juice, pomegranate juice and similar juices. This is as long as no water whatsoever is mixed with the juice. If however even a drop of water is mixed with the juice it becomes leavened.’


The ruling by Maimonides is of great importance as this is followed by the Code of Jewish law by Rabbi Joseph Karo, who writes ‘fruit juice without water does not become leavened and is permitted to be eaten on Passover.’ He adds that this includes ‘egg yoke and other juices that are considered fruit juice.’


Rabbi Joseph Karo who is born in Spain and follows the Maimonidean tradition in many cases is the basis for the Sephardic custom that allows egg Matzot on Passover.


This is disputed by the Ashkenazic tradition documented by the main commentator to the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530 - 1572). He writes that ‘in Ashkenazic countries it is not customary to knead dough with fruit juice and this custom should not be altered unless in time of great need i.e. a sick person or the elderly who cannot eat regular Matza.’


Rabbi Moses Isserles is indeed careful not to say that it becomes leavened. He does not seem to dispute the fact that fruit juice lacks the stimulus to leaven the dough. However, he still categorically does not allow egg Matza on Passover according to the Ashkenazic tradition.


What is the reason for this prohibition?


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) writes in his work of Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch Harav 462:7) that the reason for the Ashkenazic tradition against egg Matzot and the like is due to the concern that maybe a drop of water got mixed with the juice and would make the dough leavened.


The fact that the reason is due to the above concern, it is clear that there is no fundamental dispute between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim regarding the status of egg Matzot on Passover. They both agree that it does not become leavened - the dispute is only whether we take the concern of a drop of water seriously or not.


This means that Rabbi Moses Isserles and Ashkenazim also follow Maimonides’ text that egg Matzot are in principle permitted to be eaten on Passover as it does not become leavened. This is evident by the fact that Rabbi Moses Isserless expressly states that if the person is unable to eat regular Matza one may indeed eat Matza made from fruit juice or egg Matza.


There are however opinions who argue with Maimonides. Rabbi Avraham ben David of Provence (c.1125-1198), commonly known as the Raavad, writes that the truth is fruit juice does cause leavening and actually leavens quicker than water. He concedes however that the leavening is an inferior leavening and is therefore only prohibited according to the Rabbis and not according to the Biblical text itself.


In other words, the reason why the Raavad prohibits egg Matzot is not just because of a concern that water might have got mixed in with the fruit juice but rather because fruit juice itself is problematic; it is considered leavening to a certain degree and is thus prohibited, albeit Rabbinicaly.


In summary so far, we have three opinions regarding the status of egg Matzot for consumption on Passover, which is essentially merely two opinions. According to Maimonides it is completely permitted to eat, as there is no leavening. This is also the opinion of Rabbi Moses Isserles and other Ashkenazi authorities that egg Matzot do not leaven and are only prohibited as a custom. Conversely, according to the Raavad it is completely prohibited, as there is indeed leavening also with fruit juice.


Jewish law clearly follows the view of Maimonides that there is no leavening and it is permitted on Passover, although Ashkenazim have a custom not to eat it.


The medieval argument between Maimonides and the Raavad is a reflection of a similar argument a hundred years before Maimonides in France between Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly known as RASHI (1040-1105), and his grandson Rabbi Jacob ben Meir, universally known as Rabbeinu Tam (c. 1100–c. 1171).


Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says that egg Matzot are prohibited as the egg allows for inferior leavening and his grandson says that it is completely permitted, as it is not considered leavening at all.


Accordingly, Maimonides seems to be in agreement with the grandson of the great Ashkenazic commentator from France, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.


The dispute boils down ultimately to the reading of the Talmudic text in the 5th century. The Talmud writes (Pesachim 35a) the sage “Rabbah son of Channah says that if one kneads dough with wine, oil or honey one is not punished for eating leavened food on Passover, for fruit juice does not become leavened.”


The problem with this text is that it is ambiguous. It is phrased only in the negative, that one is not punished if one kneads dough with fruit juice but it does not say categorically that it is permitted to be eaten. According to Talmudic principles, it is entirely possible, as found in many other cases, that while someone may not be punishable for a certain action, it is still prohibited according to Jewish law.


This is indeed the opinion of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki and the Raavad. For some reason, Maimonides chose to ignore the point that the Talmud phrased the law in the negative and phrased his own law in the Mishneh Torah in the positive that it is permitted, in agreement with the opinion of the grandson of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.


This whole intricate discussion in a minute detail of Jewish law becomes more complicated and interesting in light of a slight mysterious variation in a manuscript of Maimonides in the Bodleian library in Oxford.


In Maimonides commentary to the Mishnah (3:1) it is written as in the Mishneh Torah that Matzot from fruit juice are permitted. However, those words are crossed out and have written over it “one is not punished with excision”, thus implying that although exempt from punishment, is still prohibited according to Jewish law.


With this Oxford correction, Maimonides’ opinion seems to be radically realigned from the most lenient to the strictest ruling of the three opinions on this subject. His opinion now does not just disallow the eating of egg Matzot in line with Ashkenazic custom but actually prohibits such Matza, as it indeed becomes leavened, albeit inferior.


Had this correction found in the Oxford manuscript been known or accepted, perhaps not only the Sephardic tradition, which usually follows Maimonides, would have been different, but also the Ashkenazic tradition. The custom not to eat egg Matzot would not have been just because of custom, allowed in certain circumstances, but altogether prohibited.


It is striking that such a correction in Maimonides was not accepted and preference was given to the original text. This could be because, as some point out, it is unclear whether Maimonides himself made the correction or his son, Rabbi Abraham Ben Moses (1186-1237), who took over the leadership of Egyptian Jewry and became a scholar in his own right, writing an important commentary to Maimonides (Hagohot Maimonit).


If the correction was made by the son of Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Ben Moses, it would explain why it may not have been taken into consideration in the decision making of Jewish law centuries later.


One thing, however, is clear; with the identity of the author of this correction unknown, this mysterious variation in this Oxford manuscript will leave the question about the permissibility of egg Matzot for Sephardim and Ashkenazim academically, if not practically, inconclusive.

Comments on: The Controversy of Egg Matzot in Oxford's Bodleian Library

Avigdor wrote...

fascinating! thank you.