Last spring, my friend Penny let me “babysit” her sourdough starter while she was out of town for several weeks, and before returning it to her, she told me to keep half. Since then, I have had a great time experimenting with new recipes and baking all the breads and rolls we have eaten and served here for the past six months. So far the sourdough starter is thriving, but friends tell me that sometimes they die. In fact, while my half of Penny’s starter is going strong, Penny’s half didn’t survive. Apparently, sourdough can be a delicate thing.
And yes, all this is related to Parshat Bo, where we read the first instructions concerning the celebration of Passover—which hasn’t happened yet because the Israelites are still enslaved in Egypt. Our story of redemption entails three types of bread: fancy yeast breads of Egypt, matzah, and manna.
Parshat Bo contains the first mention of the famous food restrictions that pertain to Pesach:
וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן, וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה: לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחָגֻּהוּ. שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ--אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם: כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל--מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי
This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to Adonai throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove se-or from your houses, for whoever eats chametz (leavened bread) from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. (Exodus 12:14-15)
Torah commands us to remove שְּׂאֹר (se’or) from our homes so that we cannot eat חָמֵץ, which is anything leavened with yeast (bread, rolls, etc.). What, exactly, is se’or?
People have been making bread for 30,000 years. In the main, ancient peoples ate flatbread (examples from around the world include: lavash, tortillas, naan, roti, johnnycake, tortilla, and injera). Our matriarchs and patriarchs ate something like matzah or pita. Historians believe that Egyptians may have been the first to bake yeast breads 5,000 years ago. Hieroglyphs depict the process; archaeologists have uncovered grinding stones, baking ovens for yeast bread; and yeast cells have been detected in ancient loaves. (You can learn more here and here.)
With this in mind, let’s return to the question I posed earlier: What is se’or? My colleague and friend, Rabbi Howard Kosovske, makes a compelling argument that se’or, which we often translate “leavening,” refers specifically to sourdough. Rabbi Kosovske point out that sourdough is key in a bread-based diet. Today we use commercial yeast, easily purchased in the supermarket in jars or packets, but in Egypt, people depended on sourdough, which takes a week to prepare, must be carefully maintained, but then can be used time and again to produce a luxurious bread. The Israelites would have learned how to make and maintain sourdough in Egypt. It was precisely this se’or, the sourdough—providing the staple of their bread-based diet, that the Israelites are commanded to destroy.
I’ve thought a lot about this idea. Destroying the se’or each spring, year after year, constitutes an enormous act of faith that God who redeemed Israel from Egypt once, will again redeem Israel/Jews from the threat of starvation. Sourdoughs are fragile enough. It’s not clear at what point in history people understood that airborne yeast produced the sourdough, but presuming that this was understood in the biblical period, minimally Jews were destroying the very source of their bread-based diet each year. (Recall that Penny's half didn't survive.) This is an experience most of us do not have because commercial bread and yeast are ubiquitous, and we do not fear hunger, let alone starvation.
Without se’or, the people were limited to eating the flatbread of their ancestors. Presumably baking bread without a se’or, the sourdough starter, should suffice, but halakhah requires that we eat matzah, flatbread in the extreme. The rigorous conditions under which matzah is prepared, scrupulously guarded and quickly baked to ensure that wild yeast in the air cannot get a foothold in the dough, can be understood as a rejection of, and independence from, the slave culture of imperial Egypt that produced pyramids and storehouses on the backs of slave labor and dined on luxurious bread but dehumanized the very people who baked it for them.
The third bread in the Exodus story is manna. In the Wilderness, between the pyramids and yeast breads of Egypt and the traditional flatbreads of Eretz Yisrael, God provides manna, an ephemeral bread that appears in the morning and disappears within hours, teaching the Israelites that God’s presence in their lives is constant and dependable. They don’t need to see God (i.e., have bread in hand) at all times for God to be near. Bread will come each morning; God is ever-present. Manna weans the Israelites off “Egypt” and prepares them to make their own way in Eretz Yisrael.
Ironically, we could say that yeast bread is the “bread of affliction,” matzah is the bread of freedom, and manna is the miracle that reminds us that redemption is an ever-present possibility.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman