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Shmurah Matzah on More Seder Tables Than Ever Before

Shmurah Matzah on More Seder Tables Than Ever Before

Thanks to the Rebbe's campaign, and greater production and distribution, this staple is everywhere

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From small grocers in large Jewish population centers in the United States to chain supermarkets and even big-box retailers like Costco, there has been an explosion in recent years in the amount of shmurah matzah being produced and sold.
From small grocers in large Jewish population centers in the United States to chain supermarkets and even big-box retailers like Costco, there has been an explosion in recent years in the amount of shmurah matzah being produced and sold.

The hottest thing for Passover these days may be the one item you’d least expect.

Faux graham crackers? Infused olive oils? Sriracha sauce?

Try something much more basic. Demand, particularly in the United States, has been growing exponentially for round, handmade shmurah matzah. Shmurah means “watched” or “guarded” in Hebrew, and refers to the flour used to make the matzah being carefully watched to prevent any contact with water or moisture. The round matzahs are handbaked in the same time-hallowed way that Jews have been baking matzah for centuries. Throughout the process, the bakers keep in mind that their product is intended for the seder.

From small grocers in large Jewish population centers to chain supermarkets across the country and even big-box retailers like Costco, there has been an explosion in recent years in the amount of shmurah matzah being produced and sold. And, in many cases, simply given out.

With a whopping 70 percent of American Jews participating in a Passover seder—this year, the first seder takes place on Friday night, April 3, with the second on Saturday night, April 4—it’s no surprise that matzah is big business. What does seem rather surprising is the growing number of people specifically looking for shmurah matzah—also referred to as “seder matzah”—once served primarily by the strictly Orthodox.

Its importance as a necessary item on the Passover table brought it to none other than the White House, where it’s served at the president’s annual Passover seder.

“We have always carried shmurah matzah in a small number of our stores,” says Ahron Scharman, local business manager who handles kosher products for Bi-Lo Holdings, which runs some 800 stores in the southeastern United States, including the popular Winn-Dixie chain in Florida. “We recently expanded our shmurah product offerings, as well as increased the amount of stores that carry them.”

Baking shmurah matzah in Ukraine for distribution around the world.
Baking shmurah matzah in Ukraine for distribution around the world.

Noting that nearly 230 of the chain’s stores now carry kosher-for-Passover items with 50 of them offering shmurah matzah, Scharman says “we have seen a steady increase in demand for shmurah matzah in the last several years. This can be attributed to the growth of the Jewish population in several of our markets.”

Yakov Yarmove oversees ethnic marketing and specialty foods at Jewel Osco, a supermarket chain with stores in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, and has also seen the interest in shmurah matzah rise in recent years.

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years—this is my third supermarket chain—and I’ve watched the progression. In just the last six years, sales of shmurah went from heimishe [very traditional] people to just about everyone buying a box.”

He notes that of the chain’s 185 stores, nearly 100 sell shmurah matzah.

Now available in spelt, oat and whole wheat—and produced by special bakeries in New York, Canada, Israel and Ukraine—it may seem like there’s a variety of round, handmade matzah for every preference.

“There’s a changing tide, a shift in interest,” attests Rabbi Chayim Mishulovin, who runs the Chabad store “Everything Jewish” in Portland, Ore. He says as Chabad emissaries, “we are still telling people about shmurah matzah, but people are, on their own, trying to make sure they have this matzah for the seder.”

But that wasn’t always this case.

Machines Change Everything

For much of Jewish history—before the 1800s, specifically—matzah was all handmade, in a round or oval shape, so that’s what everyone ate.

But in 1838, a Frenchman named Isaac Singer invented a machine to roll matzah dough, making the process far less time-consuming. It represented the beginning of mass production, in addition to the start of a great controversy between handmade dough and the machine-made kind.

Rolling the dough for shmurah matzah at the historic bakery in Kfar Chabad, Israel.
Rolling the dough for shmurah matzah at the historic bakery in Kfar Chabad, Israel.

Fifty years later, the first matzah-making factory was opened in Cincinnati by a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant named Dov Behr Manischewitz, called the B. Manischewitz Company. Matzahs were baked and packed in thin, hardy sheets, mass produced for a Jewish population that was dispersing throughout the United States.

By 1920, the factory was the world’s largest producer of matzah.

While some rabbis, especially Chassidic rabbis, prohibited their communities from eating machine-made matzah because of halachic questions (questions pertaining to Jewish law), it nevertheless grew in popularity with Jews because of its lower price, availability and uniform look, according to “How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-Made Matzah in the United States,” a speech given in 2005 at Touro College in New York by American Jewish historian Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

According to Sarna, some European rabbis condoned the use of machine-made matzah for Jews in the United States, but not for their own communities because they understood that without it, the fast-growing American Jewish community “might not have sufficient matzah ... .”

By the 1950s, American Jews were eating such matzah at a fraction of the cost. Square matzah, especially those made by Manischewitz, had become a national brand, attests Sarna.

Once served primarily by the strictly Orthodox, a growing number of people are using shmurah matzah—also referred to as “seder matzah”—for the holiday.
Once served primarily by the strictly Orthodox, a growing number of people are using shmurah matzah—also referred to as “seder matzah”—for the holiday.

The Rebbe’s Campaign

It was against this backdrop that the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—began a campaign to have people distribute shmurah matzah in their communities.

“There was once a custom among community rabbis, they would distribute shmurah matzah to their congregants before the Pesach festival,” the Rebbe began in an address to his followers on April 3, 1954. “ ... For various reasons, the custom has been discontinued. I would like to say, that if I were able to, I would ask that the custom of distributing matzah be instituted and that rabbis give shmurah matzah to their congregants ... .”

The Rebbe went on to say that “thousands of Jews will benefit; as a result of this, they will have handmade kosher shmurah matzah.”

With that, the Rebbe’s shluchim started handing out the handmade and costly matzahs, which cound not be found in average stores or markets.

Among those who took the Rebbe’s challenge to heart was Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Raichek, a Chabad emissary in Los Angeles. He made it his mission to make sure that Jews in his community had shmurah matzah for the Passover seder.

Devora Wilhelm, standing upper left, now co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Oregon in Portland, with members of her family in Los Angeles in 1975. Delivering shmurah matzah was a big part of her childhood, encouraged by her parents, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid and Leah Raichik, shluchim to California. Her own son plans to hand out shmurah matzah at his upcoming bar mitzvah right before Passover.
Devora Wilhelm, standing upper left, now co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Oregon in Portland, with members of her family in Los Angeles in 1975. Delivering shmurah matzah was a big part of her childhood, encouraged by her parents, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid and Leah Raichik, shluchim to California. Her own son plans to hand out shmurah matzah at his upcoming bar mitzvah right before Passover.

“My father was a chassid of the Rebbe and a shaliach, and if it was important to the Rebbe, it was important to him,” states his daughter, Devora Wilhelm, who is now a Chabad emissary in Portland, Ore.

“We [all the Raichek children] remember going to downtown Los Angeles, to the businesses there, to give people shmurah matzah,” she recalls. “And on erev Pesach [Pesach eve], right before he went to shul and right before our seder, my father would make sure we took shmurah matzah to all our neighbors so they would have it at their seders.”

All that sounds simple enough, but it was anything but, according to Wilhelm. In the 1960s, shmurah matzah had to be brought in from New York via train, packed in thin cardboard boxes and prone to breakage. A truck would then transport those boxes to the Raichek home, where it was stored in a closet or, when the orders got bigger, the garage.

“People would come to the house, and we’d stop whatever we were doing to take matzahs out of big, eight-pound boxes and repack them. I remember doing this not only for my father, but also at the first Chabad House in Los Angeles on Gayley Avenue with my sister, Suri Klyne, and my friend, Rivki Rabinowitz.”

Rabbi Chayim Mishulovin, left, who runs the Chabad store “Everything Jewish” in Portland, Ore., with Eric Patton of North Portland, who came to buy Passover supplies and wound up wrapping tefillin for the very first time.
Rabbi Chayim Mishulovin, left, who runs the Chabad store “Everything Jewish” in Portland, Ore., with Eric Patton of North Portland, who came to buy Passover supplies and wound up wrapping tefillin for the very first time.

“After we grew up and went on shlichus, my father would ask us if we were giving out matzah, and if, so how much,” Wilhelm continues, noting that when she and her husband, Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm, first moved to Portland some 30 years ago, they would bring in between 40 to 50 pounds of shmurah matzah to distribute.

And though markets in Portland now carry it, Mishulovin, who happens to be Wilhelm’s son-in-law, imports some 500 pounds of shmurah matzah for distribution among the nine Chabad centers in Oregon, as well as promotes its sale at the “Everything Jewish” store. In addition, he is continuing the Chabad tradition of personally handing out matzah prior to Passover. He says the number of it in pounds keeps increasing year after year.

‘Importance of This Mitzvah

The surge in distribution and usage of shmurah matzah is not, however, limited to the United States. Around the world, Jews are looking for what some call a more “authentic” matzah.

Consider South Africa, for example.

“Thirty-five years ago, a total of 300 kilos [66 pounds] of handmade shmurah matzah was brought into South Africa. This year, the total is in excess of 1,400 kilograms,” or more than 3,000 pounds, according to Rabbi Yossi Baumgarten, a shaliach in Johannesburg. “This is even more amazing when you consider that in that 35-year period, the community has decreased by about 30 percent.”

Mishulovin's son and Wilhelm's grandson, Shmuel Dovid (named for Devora Wilhelm's father), displays boxes and boxes of shmurah matzah at the store his father runs in Portland, Ore.
Mishulovin's son and Wilhelm's grandson, Shmuel Dovid (named for Devora Wilhelm's father), displays boxes and boxes of shmurah matzah at the store his father runs in Portland, Ore.

Baumgarten believes that the growth is “mainly due to the dedicated shluchim of South Africa, who, acting on the Rebbe’s directive, go out of their way to distribute shmurah matzah all over South Africa in the weeks between Purim and Pesach. Many recipients, in turn, have realized the importance of this mitzvah and now look to buy handmade shmurah matzah for their families—at least for the Pesach seder.”

Yarmove of the Jewel Osco supermarket chains agrees. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind [that] the Rebbe planted those seeds. They are now a forest and paying dividends,” he says. “No doubt about it.”

One other thing that’s adding to the increase in interest is the price point. While handmade shmurah matzah can sell for upwards of $25 a pound—in some cases, even exceeding $30 a pound for specialty matzah like oat—Yarmove, Mishulovin and others note that they do what they can to keep costs down.

Mishulovin sells boxes for $18, while Yarmove makes sure that his stores carry a variety of different types of shmurah matzah at different price points. Yarmove has even started carrying a three-piece package of matzah that retails for $6.99 and provides enough for a seder; moreover, it’s made a bit thicker and doesn’t break as easily as some other types.

As for Wilhelm, she’s continuing in her father’s footsteps.

Noting that her youngest son will celebrate his bar mitzvah just days before the start of Passover, Wilhelm says attendees will be going home with a unique party favor: “We are giving away between 60 and 80 boxes of shmurah matzah so people will have some for the seder.”

Shmurah Matzah at the White House: President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama host an annual Passover seder at the White House for Jewish staff and friends. Here, a glimpse of the table in 2013 that included handmade shmurah matzahs. (Official White House Photo: Pete Souza)
Shmurah Matzah at the White House: President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama host an annual Passover seder at the White House for Jewish staff and friends. Here, a glimpse of the table in 2013 that included handmade shmurah matzahs. (Official White House Photo: Pete Souza)

Making matzah and memories at the historic bakery in Kfar Chabad, Israel can be read here.

Despite the ongoing trials of history in Ukraine, shmurah matzah remains an important local industry. Read about it here.



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