Matzah (or matzo) balls are basically soup dumplings made from matzo meal, eggs and other ingredients. Known in Yiddish as a kneidel, the matzo ball has become a staple in many Ashkenazic Jewish homes throughout the year but especially during the Passover holiday.

Interestingly, not only is there no mitzvah to eat matzo balls on Passover (or any other day of the year for that matter), some are actually careful not to eat them during most of Passover. But that itself may be one theory on the origins of the matzo ball.

Ok, let’s backtrack a bit.

History of the Kneidel

Although the exact origins of the matzo ball aren’t clear, it seems to be a relatively new invention dating back to sometime in the 19th century.

On Passover, it is forbidden to make anything that could become leaven or chametz. This of course precludes the adding of anything like a crouton, or something similar made out of flour, to a soup on Passover since that would be chametz. However, once a matzo was already properly baked then it can no longer become chametz.

The theory goes that at one point, perhaps when Eastern European cuisine began introducing dumplings in traditional foods, someone got the brilliant idea of using matzo crumbs, either from the leftover matzo after Passover or from the crumbs produced while baking matzo before Passover, to make “matzo meal” and produce the matzo ball. Nowadays, it is mass-produced by pulverizing matzos, which in most instances were specifically baked for this very purpose.

The kneidel gained fame in June 2013, when it was the winning word in the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee. After the spelling bee, there was a debate as to the correct spelling.

But perhaps there is a deeper origin to the matzo ball, which we can glean from the fact that some are careful not to eat matzo balls for most of Passover.

Getting the Matzo Wet (Gebrokts)

Many communities, including Chabad, have the custom to refrain from eating gebrokts on the first seven days of Passover. Gebrokts is a Yiddish word that refers to matzo that has come in contact with water. It literally means “broken,” and it has come to mean “wet matzo” because matzo is usually ground or broken up into crumbs before it is mixed with water.

Those who refrain from eating gebrokts on Passover do so for fear that during the baking process there may have been a minute amount of flour that did not get kneaded properly into the dough. Upon contact with water, that flour would become chametz.

The custom of not eating gebrokts gained prominence around the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, people began to bake matzos much faster than halachically mandated, in order to be absolutely sure that the dough had no chance to rise before being baked. The flip side of this stringency is that the matzo we eat today is not as well kneaded as matzo used to be, and it is very possible that it contains pockets of flour (for more on this, see Was Matzah Always Hard and Thin?).

Holy Matzo Balls on the Eighth Day of Passover

However, most of these communities have the custom to specifically eat gebrokts on the eighth and final day of Passover (which only exists in the diaspora).1

Why is this?

Passover celebrates the Exodus, a time when the Jewish nation was born. It represents a time when we are still spiritually immature, and we must be constantly on guard for the slightest bit of chametz (i.e., pride and ego), lest we be adversely affected. Fifty days after Passover, and after the seven weeks of character refinement we undergo with the Omer counting, we have spiritually matured and are immunized against the harmful side effects of “chametz.” We are then ready as a nation to receive the Torah. Thus, on the holiday of Shavuot, one of the communal offerings brought in the Temple was specifically made of chametz.2

By the last day of Passover, we’ve already completed the first of the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer. We are not quite ready for chametz, but we are a bit more refined and secure. For this reason, we eat our matzo with liquid, without fear of it becoming chametz.3

Another reason given is that the last day of Passover is connected with the future redemption (as can also be seen from the haftorah of the day), a time when no evil will befall us. We reflect this reality by going out of our way to eat gebrokts on this day, without fear that the matzo may become chametz.4

In light of this, many make a point to specifically have gebrokts on the eighth day of Passover. Of course, one of the best ways to do this is to have matzo balls in your soup on this day.5

So the next time you have matzo balls on the eighth day of Passover, don’t just think about the fine cuisine—remember that just as we were redeemed from Egypt, so will we merit the ultimate Redemption. May it be speedily in our days!

Click here to read how to make perfect matzo balls.