Baking hand-made shmura matza in JerusalemProducing hand-made shmura matza is a communal affair for Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community, in which everyone takes part. The special flour is mixed with water, kneaded, rolled out and baked for a few brief seconds in a screamingly hot matza oven.
Producing hand-made shmura matza is a communal affair for Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community, in which everyone - men, women and children of all ages - takes part.
Jews worldwide - along with non-Jews with Jewish friends and members of Christian denominations that conduct ersatz Passover seders - are familiar with machine-made matza, perfectly squared-off identical sheets of the holiday's traditional unleavened bread, deeply redolent of the cardboard boxes in which they are sold.
But for many within Jerusalem's Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European descent and rite) ultra-Orthodox community - including the majority of Hasidic sects and some non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox groups as well - the use of machine matza is discouraged or even forbidden, so for thousands of Jerusalemites, the lead-up to Passover is marked by an intense flurry of matza-making the old-fashioned way: by hand.
The result is what is called shmura matza. The word shmura is Hebrew for "guarded," in this case implying that all possible stringencies have been applied to the matza production, from the wheat field all the way to the Passover table - the idea being to insure no possible contaminating chametz, or leaven, can ever find its way into the final product. A single piece of shmura matza has been more closely watched than a pampered child. Wheat earmarked especially for matza use is grown, harvested and milled under strict rabbinical supervision. The resulting shmura flour is used for making hand-made Ashkenazi-style hard matza, for machine-made shmura matza, and for traditional Sephardic and Mizrachi matza, which is also hand-made but softer than Ashkenazi matza, reminiscent of Persian lavash.
The special flour is mixed with water, kneaded, rolled out and baked for a few brief seconds in a screamingly hot matza oven. The entire process takes less than 18 minutes; any longer and the matza becomes chametz, invalidated for Passover use according to Jewish law. The final product? It's crispy, toasty and chewy all at the same time, tasty enough to almost let you temporarily forget you can't eat bread - which is why hand-made shmura matza has been enthusiastically adopted even by Jews whose own religious traditions do not discourage the use of machine-made matza. It's just that good, and its authenticity factor can't be beat.
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