Matzah: A symbol of both slavery and freedom?
Of all the many religious holidays in the Jewish calendar Passover (Pesach) is perhaps the mostly widely and persistently celebrated worldwide. One may speculate on the reasons. Perhaps it is because of its association with freedom. I don’t know. For my family it is a time of get-together to reflect on things and eat a lot of food, some of it good. So here are my reflections for this year – emanating from my rather esoteric interest in capital theory.
Matzah is a central symbol and prop of the celebration. I like it and end up eating too much of it. But what does it represent? It is “the bread of affliction” in two ways. First, it is what the Children of Israel ate in Egypt while they were slaves. Not for them the rich, plump, bread of their oppressors. They had to make do with the harsh flat bread we call matzah. Second, when finally Pharaoh agrees to let them go, to exit slavery for freedom, they must hurry before he changes his mind again. So they do not have time to bake normal bread, they must take the shorter route of baking matzah, which requires less time because it does not require yeast to rise.
In each of these ways “time” is important. It points to the universal, the essential, relationship between time and value in production. And what could be more basic, more essential, than the production of bread? The value of bread, like the value of anything, is a reflection of our preferences. In general we prefer bread to matzah. But it is more difficult to produce bread than matzah. It takes more “time.” And time is something that slaves do not have. They serve every minute at the behest of their masters. They do not have the luxury of the time to prepare the dough for bread and to set it aside to rise over time. To be enslaved is fundamentally not to be in control of one’s time.
But the lesson is broader and more subtle than this. For it is not time, in itself, that is valuable. It is what we do with it. The passage of time by itself produces no value. The symbol of dough rising is an apt one. The dough must be correctly prepared if the passage of time is to result in the output of delicious bread. It takes time for the dough to rise – pure time. And it takes time – labor-knowledge-time - to prepare the dough correctly. In fact, the passage of pure time is seldom the important part. Rather it is the value of the input-time, valuable because of its potential to produce what we value, that is the key.
Thus, modern complex economies are economies that fundamentally embody fortunes of valuable “production time” – vast and intricate networks of indirect production processes stretching back into antiquity and forward to eternity. We can see this graphically in the modern production of matzah. This happens now mostly in matzah factories. And, in a literal sense, the production of a piece of matzah is almost instantaneous. It happens very quickly as the matzah dough is laid on the matzah machine and baked in less than 18 minutes. But, if one considers the time taken to produce the matzah machines, to acquire the knowledge necessary to operate the machines, to build the buildings in which the factory resides, etc., etc., we see that it is a very long and involved process indeed, one that is only possible in a society of free people who have been able to create this intricate network over a long period of time.
Considered in this way, we may say (ironically and paradoxically) that the matzah we eat today is at once a symbol both of time-deprived slavery and of time-rich freedom! The fact that we can choose to eat matzah made in a complex sophisticated factory is a result (symbol?) of our freedom. We have the time and freedom to make it so that it is easy to bake it in a short time – we take time to make it less time-consuming. A nice paradox.
Chag sameach Pesach. May the holiday serve to enhance our appreciation of what it means to be free and our resolve to defend freedom wherever we can.