In the Torah, shmura matzah — watched or guarded matzah — is one of the primary mitzvot of Passover. “You shall guard the matzot” (Ex. 12:17) is the commandment that guides the production of unleavened bread, protected from harvesting to baking, to ensure that the combination of water and flour do not remain together beyond 18 minutes, when forbidden chametz forms.
In Israel, where it is known as matzah shmura, and in other Jewish communities around the world, the baking of the seder staple is a key point on the Hebrew calendar, starting in some cases months before the month of Nissan arrives and accelerating in the weeks after Purim.
In shmura matzah factories, the baking process is a race against time, the participants kneading and scraping, rolling and hole-poking, putting the raw dough into the oven and pulling out the crisp finished product, all to the beat of a stopwatch.
Shmura matzah is the work of rabbis from prominent yeshivot and grandmothers from the former Soviet Union, young students and senior citizens, all glowing in their kosher l’Pesach goods that will be sampled at their families’ seders.
Round or square, thin or thick, shmura matzah is a delicacy, an acquired taste than costs $10-$20 or more a pound, a reminder of both the food the Hebrew slaves ate in ancient Egypt of the haste with which the former slaves left on the night the seder commemorates.
Despite the price, shmura matzah is “poor man’s bread,” a reminder of the spiritual poverty in which the Hebrew nation lived in Egypt.
The harvesting season for this year’s Passover wheat crop is over. Now, the baking is in full swing. The shelves of kosher stores around the world this week are crammed with the finished product.