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On matzah and tuna

Passover is synonymous with gefilte fish but it’s a lesser seen fish at the seder that I think helps illuminate our understanding of the symbolism of matzah.


I grew up on tuna sandwiches - not at Pesach, of course - but for most of the rest of the year. Tinned tuna - in brine, ideally - was a staple food of my childhood. A cheap protein, reliable and tasty, and hopefully fished using dolphin-free nets. As Leonard Cohen once put it: “I can make a couple of good sandwiches: tuna salad and chopped egg salad.”


I remember the first time I ate sushi, I was already at University, and enjoyed the tuna sashimi. I was hooked once more. And the tuna had become rich and creamy, all the more so when I eventually discovered Japan and Tsukiji market.


Why I am telling you all this? Because I think it helps illustrate and bring home to us the double function of matzah. We all know why we eat matzah: the Israelites left in a hurry, and there was no time for the bread to rise. But sometimes we overlook ha lachma anya - that matzah is a bread of poverty, and - as the bible tells us - was the daily bread that the Israelites were anyway eating in Egypt. They ate matzah because they left in a hurry - but it wasn’t special for them - rather their normal staple food.


For us matzah is both a challenge and a delight. Many of us don’t enjoy eating it, especially by the end of Pesach, but at the same time the first taste of matzah at the seder is blessed and elevated as a very special moment. And that has developed from matzah taking over from the paschal lamb as the symbol of Passover. Pesach has two names - hag hapesach and hag hamatzot - and when the temple was destroyed, the former gave way to the latter. Matzah became the symbol, the bread of freedom and liberty, sweet and rich - but at the same time it remained nothing more than - lechem oni - a poor man’s bread.


Tuna fish manages this double symbolism - both lowly and opulent - by a little trick - it’s not the same fish. But the same slice of matzah serves as both the bread of slavery and the bread of freedom. In doing so, perhaps it reminds me that even as we celebrate our freedom, there are others who are not yet free. When it says in the Haggadah - May all who are hungry, come eat - we are reminded that even whilst we feast, there is hunger all around us which we may not ignore.


As we celebrate this unique and unusual Passover in our homes, as we savour our matzah once more, may we renew our taste for freedom not just for ourselves, but for all those who are not yet free.

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