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What options are available for those

who have trouble eating matzah at the seder?

I recently received the following email:

My father is too old to eat regular matzah at the seder. Does he have any other options if he wishes to fulfill the mitzvah?

There are many reasons why an individual might not be able to eat regular matzah at the seder. Nevertheless, as long as certain considerations are taken into account, there are ways to allow almost everyone to perform the mitzvah properly.

While fulfilling the mitzvah of matzah may seem very simple, there are actually several requirements that matzah must meet in order to be suitable for use at the Passover seder. Some of these requirements are intrinsic to the matzah itself, and some are peripheral.

For example, matzah must be produced for the sake of the mitzvah (lishmah), and it must be “guarded” from hametz,preferably from the time of harvesting, but at least from the time of kneading.1 It is this “guarding” to which the familiar term “shmurah matzah” refers. None of these requirements have any health implications. Other halachic requirements of matzah, however, can indeed potentially impact one’s health.

Gluten

The matzah used for the mitzvah must be made from one of the five species of grain that can become hametz(leavened). These grains are wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats. Since only these grains can become hametz, only these grains may be used for matzah.

Standard matzah is produced from wheat, which contains gluten (a protein found in wheat and other cereal grains), and thus poses danger to patients with celiac disease, whose bodies are damaged by gluten. Therefore, although it is generally preferable to eat wheat matzah, celiac patients may eat certified gluten-free oat matzah as a safe alternative. They should, however, first consult with their gastroenterologist to ensure that oat matzah is indeed safe for them.2

Egg Matzah

Generally, a healthy person is not permitted to eat “egg matzah” on Passover, but it is allowed for the elderly or for sick patients.3 At first glance, then, it would seem that egg matzah would be an ideal substitute for those whose age or illness prevents them from eating regular matzah at the seder. In truth, however, this is not the case. The mitzvah to eat matzah on seder night can only be fulfilled with matzah made from flour and water, as it serves to commemorate our sojourn in Egypt and must therefore qualify as “poor man’s bread” (“lehem oni”), symbolizing our impoverished condition as slaves. Egg matzah, which is baked with fruit juice instead of water, is considered “rich man’s matzah” (“matzah ashirah”), and is therefore unsuitable for the mitzvah of eating matzah at the seder.4

Breaking or Soaking Matzah

Although one cannot use matzah if its taste has been altered, it may be broken into very small pieces, as this does not change the matzah’s nature, and thus does not affect its halachic status. For many patients, breaking the matzah into small pieces is an effective means of making it digestible. If one cannot digest even small pieces of matzah because it is so dry, he may drink water with the matzah to help him swallow it more easily.5Another option is to soak the matzah in cold water, or, if necessary, warm water, to make it soft. Matzah that has been soaked may be used for the mitzvah, even if it has become very soft,6 so long as the matzah does not soak for more than 24 hours.7
If one cannot even eat matzah in this fashion, he may soak the matzah in a different beverage. Some authorities even allow the matzah to be soaked in wine or fruit juiceif necessary, though others rule that soaking in any liquid other than water changes the taste of the matzah and thus disqualifies it for use for the mitzvah.8

Eating a Small Amount of Matzah

Even if someone cannot eat the minimum required amount of matzah, this does not mean that he should not eat any. Many rabbinic authorities rule that an ill patient should eat whatever amount he can, but should either not recite the blessing (“al achilat matzah”), or he should listen to somebody else recite the blessing. This position is not unanimous, however, as many rabbinic authorities rule that there is no obligation to eat matzah if one cannot eat the minimum requirement quantity.9

Foolish Piety

Even on seder night, and notwithstanding the importance and significance of the mitzvotof the seder, health concerns must be taken no less seriously than they are at any other time. For instance, diabetics must be very careful to dose their insulin appropriately and limit their caloric intake during the meal so they can eat matzah without raising their blood sugar to dangerous levels. Moreover, it is important to recognize that if eating matzah (or wine or marror)10 will make someone ill, even if not seriously, he is not required to eat it.11 In fact, a person in this situation is not allowed to eat the matzah – as doing so would constitute foolish piety.12

It is my sincere hope that this information, followed in consultation with one’s rabbi, will help ensure that everyone fulfills the beautiful mitzvotof Passover in the best possible fashion without any
health concerns, so we can all enjoy an uplifting, joyous and
healthyholiday!

Footnotes:

1. Unless the grinding process involves water, in which case shemirah (guarding) is required from at least the time of grinding.

2. The following ruling from Nishmat Avraham(English edition, vol. 1, p. 124, 273:C) is provided for the benefit of celiac patients:

One who suffers from Celiac Sprue, a gastrointestinal disorder, is forbidden to eat foods containing gluten such as bread made from wheat flour. He may suffer from severe diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort if he eats a product containing gluten. The halachot which follow are subject to the consent of the patient’s specialist, who knows his case best. I only wish to provide broad guidelines. A gastroenterologist should be consulted in every case. If the patient’s condition is so severe that he is unable to tolerate even the slightest amount of bread made from wheat flour without a severe, life-threatening exacerbation ensuing, he is halachically forbidden to eat such a product. One may eat matzah made from any of the five different types of grain which include oats in order to fulfill his obligation to eat matzah during the seder. Therefore, if one suffers from Celiac Sprue, but not to the extent of having life-threatening reactions to gluten, he should attempt to obtain matzah made from oat flour. If he is able to obtain such matzah, he should, if his physician permits, eat the five kezeitim of matzah required by halachah during the seder. If he is unable to obtain oat flour matzot, and knows that he cannot tolerate even the slightest amount of gluten products without aggravating his condition, he is forbidden to eat matzah. However, if he knows from experience that he can tolerate a small amount of gluten without exacerbating his condition, he should act as follows: He should not eat any matzah during the entire meal. At the end of the meal he should wash his hands without reciting a blessing, say the blessings of hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, and al achilat matzah, and then eat a kezayit of normal matza as the afikoman. In so doing, he fulfills the Torah obligation to eat matzah at the seder.

3. This applies to all Ashkenazim and some Sepharadim, depending on custom. Nevertheless, according to all customs, one may not eat egg matzah to fulfill the mitzvah of matzah at the seder.

4. Shulhan Aruch, Orah Haim 462:1.

5. Responsa Binyan Tzion, 29.

6. Mishnah Berurah461:17. For a healthy person, matzah that has been soaked is acceptable only bediavad (after the fact, if it had been eaten in this fashion).

7. Ibid.

8. Mishnah Berurah 461:18.

9. For a list of the poskim on both sides of the issue, see Nishmat Avraham, English edition,
vol 1, pp. 256-257 (461:A).

10. Rav Ovadia Yosef, Hazon Ovadia, p. 173.

11. Mishnah Berurah 472:35. See also Hazon Ovadia, p. 125.

12. Some rabbinic authorities rule that one fulfills the mitzvah even if it was facilitated through a sin (“mitzvah haba’ah ba’averah”). See Responsa Mahari Asad, Orah Haim  160, and Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 2:43. Others rule that one fulfills no mitzvah at all by eating matzah knowing that it will endanger his health. See Responsa Maharam Schick, Orah Haim 266, and Responsa Minhat Yitzchak 4:102:2. See also Nishmat Avraham, Hebrew edition, Orah Haim 472:2.

Dr. Daniel Eisenberg is with the Department of Radiology at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, PA and an Assistant Professor of Diagnostic Imaging at Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine. Dr. Eisenberg writes extensively on topics of Judaism and medicine and lectures internationally on topics in Jewish medical ethics to groups of all backgrounds. For information on scheduling a lecture or learning more about Jewish medical ethics, visit
Dr. Eisenberg at www.daneisenberg.com.