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Passing Over the Exodus Story

One has to recount the story of Exodus in order to fully appreciate the origin of matzah and the ever-so delicious matzah ball.

Can you imagine eating 78 matzah balls in 8 minutes? That’s about 4,000 calories and 2,700 mg of cholesterol! Joey Chestnut accomplished that monumental feat back in 2008 at the Inaugural World Matzoh Ball Eating Championship! Joey, though, is a professional. He eats for a living. As a competitive eater, he holds numerous records, the most famous one being 76 Nathan’s hot dogs and buns downed in ten minutes. It seems, though, that matzah balls were a tough challenge because Joey has passed over trying to better his record.

So what are matzah balls anyway? There are no matzahs out there galloping around protecting their family jewels from Jewish cooks. To make matzah balls, you need eggs, chicken fat, salt and of course matzah meal which is made by grinding up matzah. There are recipes galore online, so it is easy to give it a go. Matzah is a type of unleavened bread that is central to the celebration of Passover. Just mix flour with water, knead the dough for no more than eighteen minutes, roll it into a flat sheet, and bake. Why the eighteen-minute limit? Because after that time, naturally occurring yeast in the dough can start the leavening process which must be avoided to conform to the story of the Exodus as told in the Bible. Let me quickly recap that for you.

According to the biblical account, sometime around 1700 BC, the Canaanite Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers who were jealous of him because he was his father’s favourite son. Famously, Joseph’s father, Jacob, had gifted him with a beautiful multi-coloured coat, much to the annoyance of his brothers. A coloured coat? How did they do that in those days? Actually, the dying of fabrics dates back well over 5,000 years with naturally occurring substances being used. The roots of the turmeric plant yielded yellow, madder root produced red and indigo leaves were a source of blue.

Joseph, who apparently had an aptitude for interpreting dreams, managed to endear himself to the Pharaoh to the extent that he and his descendants, the Hebrews of the Bible, came to play important roles in Egyptian society. But with the passing of years, they were seen by the rulers to present a threat to their power and eventually were enslaved and forced into manual labour, especially making bricks for construction. Bricks were made of mud poured into molds and strengthened with straw, much like concrete today is reinforced with steel. A later Pharaoh, perhaps Ramses II, so feared the slaves that he decreed boys born to them had to be drowned. And so begins the story of Moses, who was saved from drowning in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter and rose to become a Prince of Egypt until he was summoned by God to lead his people out of slavery.

The stubborn Pharaoh would not let his slaves go, even after Moses demonstrated God’s power by having his staff turn into a snake at Pharaoh’s feet. After all, his magicians could also accomplish the same trick! How? One theory is that some snakes clasped at the neck become catatonic and can take on the appearance of a rod until they are released. Sounds a little snake oil-ish. In any case, after God unleashed the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of the first-born sons of Egypt, the Pharaoh finally gave in. Hebrews were told to mark their dwellings with the blood of lambs so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes and spare their sons. This of course is the origin of “Passover.”

The Pharaoh, devastated by the death of his own son, finally allowed Moses to lead his people out of Egypt into the wilderness. They quickly packed up their belongings to leave as fast as possible, fearing the Pharaoh would change his mind. They left with such speed that the dough they had been preparing to make bread did not have time to rise and had to be quickly baked into a type of flatbread, which of course is the origin of Matzoh, central to the celebration of Passover. (I don’t subscribe to the joke that cardboard was invented so that there would be something to which matzoh could be compared. I actually like it. No sodium. No sugar. Good dose of fiber. Put a little butter on it and it goes great with coffee.

The Pharaoh did indeed change his mind and pursued the slaves until God intervened with a pillar of flame and parted the Red Sea, allowing the Hebrews to pass. The pursuing Egyptians drowned as the sea closed in on them. Moses then led his people through the desert for forty years, received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and passed the torch to Joshua who led the former slaves to the Promised Land.

So the story goes. Historically, there is no record of any Hebrew slavery in Egypt, and the Egyptians were meticulous about keeping records. Neither is there any archeological evidence of wandering through the desert for forty years by more than 600,000 men and their families as the Bible describes. Such an astounding number of wanderers would have surely left some fragments of pottery or tools behind. Some accounts even infer that the pyramids were built by Hebrew slaves. That is definitely not correct. Those magnificent structures were built at least four hundred years before the story of the Exodus which is said to have been around 1200 BC. The limestone blocks were hauled into place by an army of labourers, not slaves, and fitted together ingeniously with mortar made of calcium sulphate and sand.

Does it matter that the historical account of the Exodus may not be factual? Not to me. It is a wonderful story of liberation from the yoke of slavery, a metaphor that can be applied to many aspects of modern life. Slavery can be literal, political, or economic. You can also be a slave to drugs, potentially harmful ideologies or, to conspiratorial thinking.

Although I am not very observant, and I do not think the Red Sea actually parted, or that Moses’ staff turned into a snake, I do celebrate Passover. Why? Because commemorating the story of the Exodus, whether factual or metaphorical, represents the triumph of right over wrong and reminds us to be constantly vigilant about those who would enslave us one way or another.

Now it’s time for those matzoh balls. But Joey Chestnut’s record is safe. I may be able to manage four or five. By the way, it is not illegal for gentiles to eat matzah balls.

Happy Passover!


@JoeSchwarcz

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