Bentleys, Matzos, and the Chumra Machine
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There's a funny video making the rounds lately. It starts as an advertisement for Bentley automobiles, and ends up being an advertisement for handmade matzos! The voice-over informs us that "Hand-made is always better" - and it tells us that this principle which is true for cars, is also true for matzos. "You can't ever compare the quality of hand made to mass machine made matzah," it says. "If you're going to do it, do it right."
The video is put out by Chabad, and reflects the Rebbe's insistence that his followers use Shmura handmade Matzah, at least for their sedarim. We are used to Chabad trying to spread Chabad ideology beyond its adherents. But there are others who are trying to spread its message.
We recently discussed the attempt of Rabbi Yair Hoffman to encourage everyone to eat one and a third matzos in two swallows in less than two minutes. In his latest column in the Five Towns Jewish Times and Yeshivah World News, he refers to the Bentley ad, and presents various arguments for and against the legitimacy of machine-made matzos. He concludes that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities," and thus to eat hand-made matzos. Is this true?
First, let's discuss the Bentley comparison. I've been in a Bentley, and I can agree that it is an extraordinary car. But does this mean that hand-made is always better? And is the superiority of a Bentley relevant to matzah? Let's take a look at another video about the manufacture of Bentley automobiles (actually, feel free to skip it - it's not that important):
Note that we are talking about a very small number of products, which are manufactured very slowly and carefully, by dedicated craftsmen who are presumably being paid very well. The possibility of human error is therefore very small. Second, and more significantly, it's not as though machine-made cars are likely to involve errors in their manufacture - they are less likely to do so. It's simply a matter of certain touches requiring fine motor skills that are better performed by hand. And note that certain parts of the Bentley manufacturing process, which require uniform processes done with great precision in rapid time, are done via machine!
With matzah, the Bentley advantage is simply irrelevant. There is no important aesthetic enhancement of matzah being produced by hand with fine motor skills. If we are talking about a concern to avoid the possibility of chametz, then machine-made matzah, which avoids human error and is more uniform across large scale processes, is superior.
In fact, this brings us to the fascinating case of the Liska Rebbe, described in Ami magazine. Due to "the fear that a small part of the Matzah that wasn’t baked properly can come in contact with liquid, thus rendering it chometz," the Liska Rebbe and his followers do not eat any matzah on Pesach except for the minimum quantity required at the seder. (The article notes that the Divrei Chaim was strongly opposed to this practice, yet the article states that this is a sacred custom.) Now, this is of course an extreme and arguably bizarre chumra. But it should be noted that it is based on actual incidents, and that this concern does not arise with machine matzos, only with handmade matzos. Thus, handmade is not always better.
There are, however, other concerns with machine made matzos. In particular, there is a question about whether machine matzos satisfy the requirement of being made with intent. There is no need to get into all the intricacies of that here; suffice it to note that there have been great rabbinic authorities on both sides of this dispute. Rav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, for example, head of the Badatz Eidah Charedis, wrote that people should be scrupulous and only eat machine matzos, due to the absence of risk of human error. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ate machine matzos his entire life.
Now let us turn to Rabbi Hoffman's claim that "it would be proper, if possible to fulfill this Mitzvah in the manner that our forefathers have done and in a manner acceptable to most authorities." Let us first deal with the first part of his claim. Rabbi Hoffman's recommendation that a person should do what his forefathers have done appears to be recommending that people ignore family custom in favor of earlier historical practice. But is it not very problematic to tell people to ignore family minhag? And if he is recommending that people should do what our forefathers did in antiquity, does this mean that everyone should also eat soft matzah, and lettuce rather than horseradish for maror? (And that's just the tip of the iceberg!)
As for the notion of fulfilling a mitzvah "in a manner acceptable to most authorities" - this is really something that needs to be dealt with in a post on its own, analyzing whether halachah is about dealing with a metaphysical reality or following a correct decision-making process. For now, I will just note the following. If one does not have a particular family custom, or a rav to follow, then following the majority is one option - but another is to research the issue and form one's own conclusion. It's not as though hand made matzah is necessarily advantageous - as discussed above, some authorities feel that machine matzah is superior, while others feels that it is, at the very least, perfectly acceptable. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was considered one of the most significant halachic authorities of the generation, used machine matzos! And if one has a particular family minhag in this area, one should surely not abandon this merely in order to follow a majority of authorities (if it even is a majority of authorities), nor should one abandon it in order to adopt the historical practice of those who lived before machines had been invented. As I noted in my post Seder Historical Realities vs. Seder "Traditions," the living tradition is very significant, especially on Pesach. Dissuading people from following their traditions is not something to be done lightly.
(And while we're on the topic of doing mitzvos in the best possible way... the best way of giving tzedakah is to help people towards not needing tzedakah any more. Lemaan Achai is a local charity that excels at this. You can also fulfill the mitzvah of kimche d'Pischa with Lemaan Achai, via scrolling down at this link.)
Sources: Meir Hildesheimer and Yehoshua Liebermann, "The Controversy Surrounding Machine-made Matzot: Halakhic, Social, and Economic Repercussions," HUCA Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 193-262