It's Krazy Kezayis Time!
(Technical note: A lot of people signed up to receive this blog via email, using the form on the right of the website. But it doesn't work unless you confirm your subscription request. If you don't see the confirmation request in your email inbox, check your spam folder.)
With just over a week to go until Pesach, the kezayis stringency season has started! This year, we have something new to add to the increasingly huge size of a kezayis. Rabbi Yair Hoffman argues that ideally, one should adopt Rav Dovid Feinstein's view that a kezayis is two-thirds of a machine matzah (itself based on the non-reality-based strictest view in the Rishonim that a kezayis is half an egg, coupled with the non-reality-based stringency of the Noda B'Yehudah that an egg today is only half the size of the eggs of antiquity). To this, Rabbi Hoffman adds the Shulchan Aruch's view that, to accommodate the views of different Rishonim regarding which of the matzot to eat from, one should ideally eat a kezayis of matzah from each of the top two matzot (which results in a total of one and one-third of a matzah, by adding this to the previous stringencies), at the same time. This is in turn interpreted by Rabbi Hoffman to mean as follows:
Place both kezeisim in the mouth together. Both kezeisim are then chewed well and split, within the mouth, in half—one kezayis on each side. Then one is swallowed, followed by the other.
Oh, and he adds that ideally, this should all be done within two minutes. And to add insult to injury (possibly quite literally), he refers to this as "The Forgotten Method of Eating Matzah." (At least to his credit, Rabbi Hoffman also notes Rav Chaim Volozhin's view that a kezayis is the size of an ordinary olive.)
Rabbi Hoffman is aware that to most people, this appears, to be frank, utterly ridiculous. He attempts to preempt this criticism as follows:
Let us remember that for centuries, Jews have tried to fulfill mitzvos in the most ideal manner possible. Often what this means is to fulfill the mitzvah in a manner that is consistent with the views of as many of the Rishonim as possible. Some people who are not accustomed to this notion will find such dedication extreme. Others, however, will realize that dedication to mitzvos and Torah observance is a manifestation of ahavas Hashem, the love we have toward G-d.
I have lots to say about the questionable notion of "following the views of as many Rishonim as possible," and how this relates to the difference between rationalist and mystical approaches to Judaism, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, let it suffice to quote Rabbi Aryeh Klapper:
Let us concede that sometimes “the most ideal manner possible” to fulfill a mitzvah is to engage in rishon-position-maximization... Surely there are other values as well, though, both general and matzah-specific, and relating to both the letter and spirit of the law, such as hiddur mitzvah (making commandments aesthetically pleasing), simchat mitzvah (joy in fulfilling commandments), oneg yom tov (making the holiday pleasurable), akhilah b’teiavon (eating matzah with appetite), avoiding akhilah gasah (gross consumption), and last but not least, avoiding potentially fatal behaviors.
The all-time most popular monograph of mine is on the subject of the evolution of the kezayis. It demonstrates that the kezayis was originally - wait for the shocker - the size of an olive. It then explains how this quantity continually rose over the centuries. This year, I updated the monograph with some minor corrections and the following new postscript:
The reaction of many people to my conclusions about the kezayis is one of shock, followed by the question: “So do you yourself really eat such a small portion of matzah and maror?” Yet this is a very strange question. It sheds light on the problems caused by the evolution of the large kezayis measurement.
Why on earth would anyone only eat an olive-sized portion of matzah? The mitzvah comes late at night, after a really long day, when people haven’t eaten for hours. Any normal person will eat much more than an olive-sized portion! The kezayis is a minimum. The halachah says that eating anything less than a kezayis is simply not called an act of eating. But any ordinary act of eating is obviously more than the bare minimum! Does anyone build a sukkah ten tefachim high?!
So why do so many wonder if people like me will be eating an olive-sized portion? This is probably because the evolution of the large kezayis, along with the change from traditional maror (wild lettuce, sowthistle, etc.) to horseradish, has made eating a kezayis such a tricky and stomach-challenging ordeal that this is all that people aim for. The Mishnah Berurah states that ideally, one should swallow the kezayis in a single gulp (after chewing it), which is extraordinarily difficult with enlarged sizes. Many are lenient to chew and swallow it toch k’dei achilas pras, “within the amount of time required to eat half a loaf of bread,” which is the maximum time permitted for it to still be defined as a proper act of eating; yet even this presents a challenge with a jumbo-sized kezayis. Thus, people struggle to eat the minimum amount of food within the maximum time allowance!
Kezayis becomes not the minimum, less than which is simply not an act of eating, but rather the challenge, the goal. And people become so focused on eating the right quantity that this becomes the main thing that they think about – the quantity, rather than the mitzvah itself. But when you eat traditional matzah, and traditional maror (which was the normal hors d’oeuvre in antiquity), and a kezayis is a kezayis, nobody would only eat a kezayis. And instead of focusing on the quantity of what they are eating, they focus on its significance.