Passover: The Three Matzot

Why do Jews have three special matzot for the seder?

Seder plate
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During the Passover seder, Jews have on the table a seder plate with three matzot placed one on top of the other. These three -- the special bread that is very much like a cracker that is baked for only 18 minutes to commemorate the bread of affliction baked hastily during the Exodus -- play a special role during the reading and performing of the haggadah

At the seder, a specific type of matzah is eaten.

At Passover, there are several types of matzah available, including the kind made with only flour (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats) and water and other types made with fruit juice, eggs, or wine in addition to water, which Jews tend to eat throughout the week.

Many Jews believe that for the seder you must you shmura ("guarded") matzah, which is made from grains that have been highly supervised from the point of harvest to baking to make sure that no fermentation has occurred. These Jews believe that this shmura matzah can be either hand made or machine made, although there are some who insist on eating only hand-made shmura matzah. According to this, hand-made matzot can also be used on the eighth day of Passover outside of Israel. 

When it comes to the three matzot at the seder, there are many different takes on the significance of having three specifically. These opinions come from thousands of years of tradition and from sources within the Midrash.

According to one opinion, the three matzot are known as the Kohen (priest), Levi, and Yisrael (Israelite), which are the three types of Jews that make up the Jewish people. 

  • Top matzah: Kohen, taking priority in all matters.
  • Middle matzah: Levi, broken in two at the beginning of the seder, the smaller of the two pieces is left on the plate and is eaten later in the seder along with the Kohen to fulfill the commandment to eat matzah. The larger of the two pieces is placed in a special "afikomen" bag and is searched for later in the seder. 
  • Bottom matzah: Yisreal is used for the korech, which is the sandwich made with bitter herbs often called the "Hillel sandwich" during the seder. This allows everyone at the meal to take part in the performance of the commandment to eat matzah

Some commentators say that the three matzot refer to the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Others see them as alluding to the three portions of flour that Abraham asked his wife Sarah to bake when the angels visited him in Genesis 18:6. Abraham tells Sarah to be quick, which connects very closely to the haste in which the Israelites had to bake their bread, or matzah, when fleeing Exodus. 

There are some who connect the three matzot to the thanksgiving offering to God of three cakes. This thanksgiving offering was required whenever someone returned from a journey at sea, journeyed through the desert, recovered from an illness, or was released from prison. According to the Exodus story, the Israelites managed all four of these feats in one fell swoop. As a result, Jews honor this thanksgiving offering by placing three matzot on the seder table. 

Because the three matzot are meant to be placed one on top of the other, and many Jews have elaborate matzot holders to keep the three pieces separate but clearly stacked.

 

Read more about the Passover seder here