We say two blessings before eating matzah. We bless the One who brings forth bread from the earth (ha-motzi) and we bless the One who has given us the practice of eating matzah. The former is the blessing we say upon eating bread or matzah all year around, while the latter is unique to this Passover ritual. It is important to note that by the time we reach the blessing over bread, the bread—or in this case, the matzah— has already been broken. Half of the middle matzah has been hidden away to be eaten later. We will eat only the smaller part now
Beginning a festive meal with broken bread creates a striking contrast to Shabbat and every other holiday, when the traditional practice is to make sure to say the blessing over whole loaves. Putting two whole loaves on the table expresses a sense of bounty and abundance: Shabbat is the day we step away from the rush of daily life in order to acknowledge that we have all we need, indeed, that we have more than we need. But the brokenness, as the Talmud notes, is part of what identifies matzah as “bread of affliction” or, as the Talmud reads it, of poverty. We eat “like a poor person, who eats only part of their bread” (B. Pesaḥim 115b). Rashi even proposes that the blessing on eating matzah is directed only towards this broken piece, while the blessing over bread is directed to the remaining two whole matzot as it would be on any other holiday. Common practice, however, avoids the need to make this distinction by holding both the broken and the whole matzah together while saying both blessings. Some people even make sure to eat from both the whole and the broken matzah simultaneously.
Our practice has thus become an embodiment of the rabbinic teaching that “the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were put in the Ark of the Covenant” (B. Menaḥot 99a). Both the tablets that Moshe shattered when he witnessed the Golden Calf and the second whole set of tablets he brought down as a sign of God’s forgiveness find their place in the Ark. As we hold the broken and the whole pieces together in our hands on Passover night and then take them into our body, we do well to reflect on the spiritual challenge posed by holding them both together. Putting the broken tablets in the Ark implies that our shortcomings, our failures, and our worst moments are no less central to our relationship with God than our best moments. Do we dare, do we even know how to bring that kind of fullness into a relationship, human or divine?
And what does it mean to eat the bread of a poor person, always worried about what is left for tomorrow, while at the same time eating the bread of satisfaction and abundance? Can I simultaneously acknowledge the environmental devastation, the poverty, the war, the oppression, and the abundance, the gift of life and opportunity, and the beauty of the moment? Can I acknowledge that I am simultaneously my best and my worst, part of the problem and part of the solution? Might that be one of the meanings of freedom that this ritual is meant to teach? And now that we have joined the blessings of ha-motzi and matzah, will the memory of the brokenness of the matzah linger every time we say ha-motzi?