The usual answer is that the Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach in commemoration of the Bnei Yisrael rushing out of Egypt so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. But why would this make it so very important? And is that really the straightforward understanding of what the Torah says? It might come from combining two pesukim which are not necessarily to be combined.
In Devarim 16:3, we have the following passuk:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste (chipazon) did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.The usual assumption is that the mention of "haste" is a reference to the pessukim in Shemos 12:33-34 talking about how the Bnei Yisrael rushed out of Egypt without time for their dough to rise:
"And the Egyptians were urging upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: 'We are all dead men.' And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders."But the word chipazon, which appears later with regard to matzos, does not appear in these pessukim. Instead, it appears earlier, in Shemos 12:11, before the end of the plagues, with regard to the korban Pesach:
"And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is a Passover to God."A few verses later, we have the commandment that on Pesach we must eat matzah and there may be no chametz in our houses. But the tenth plague, and the Bnei Yisrael rushing out, hasn't happened yet!
Of course, one could say that God commanded it knowing what would happen. But then why is there no mention of that? Furthermore, way back in Bereishis 19:3, Lot serves matzos to the angels. Rashi says it was Pesach, and a very non-rationalist person in a book entitled Seasons of Life claims that "the observance of Pesach is based on the spiritual powers in force at that time of year," and "matzah is representative of certain metaphysical forces in effect at that time." But the idea of Lot observing Pesach and serving matzah to his guests is reminiscent of a certain video involving bear-dogs. Is there a more rationalist explanation?
The answer to all these questions is quite simple. And it provides an example of academic scholarship enhancing the Torah rather than challenging it.
Put very simple, the answer is this: Bread, of the chametz variety, is an Egyptian invention.
In Canaan, the lifestyle was a nomadic society of shepherds. The bread that they ate was matzah - of course, not the hard Ashkenazi crackers, but the original, somewhat softer, pita-like matzah. (Which is why Lot served it to his guests.)
Egypt, on the other hand, was a land of farming, which despised the nomadic lifestyle. As Yosef advises his brothers to tell Pharaoh: "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." The Egyptians had mastered the art of leavening bread, which was unknown to those from Canaan (which may be why Potiphar entrusted everything to Yosef except baking bread - see Bereishis 43:32). Baking leavened bread was of tremendous importance in Egypt - that is why there was a sar ha-ofim, a royal baker. There is a list presented by Rameses III which has an amazing variety of breads. But shepherds didn't and don't eat such things - they roam around free, without the burden of heavy ovens and without waiting around for bread to rise.
And so the prohibition against eating leavened bread on Pesach is so very important because it is a way of demonstrating that we left Egypt, the land known for its leavened bread, and we became free, like nomads, to travel to the Promised Land.
For more on all this, see this article from Neot Kedumim, and also this article and this one.
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And now for something completely different. Following my post on Crowdsourcing the Bear, which proved very effective, I have one final bear-related question which has so far stumped everyone that I've asked. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) speaks about the future judgment of the nations, which takes place in order of their importance. First is Rome; second is Persia:
"The kingdom of Rome leaves, and then the kingdom of Persia enters. Why? Because it follows Rome in prestige. How do we know this? As it is written, “And behold another beast, a second, like a bear” (Daniel 7), and Rav Yosef taught that this refers to the Persians…"Tosafos raises the question that if we are judging the prominence of nations via their symbolism with animals, then surely the lion, as king of beasts, is more important than the bear. Since the lion represents Babylon, then surely Babylon should be judged after Rome, before Persia! Tosafos answers that even though the lion is king of beasts, the bear is more powerful and more devious.
But surely the whole proof for the bear being number two is that it appears after the lion in Daniel’s vision. If the lion is not more important than the bear, how does the Gemara's proof work? And if the Gemara is indeed proving that Persia is second from it being second to the lion in Daniel, then why isn't Babylon before Persia?
Many thanks for any light that people can shed on this!