At the end of every Pesach seder, while eating the afikomen, Yaakov Gregg and his family select a piece of matzah to put onto the doorpost.
Inside one red-brick Oak Park home, everything is fairly typical except for one thing that catches every newcomer’s eye and causes them to inevitably ask, “What’s that doing there?”
“That” is several pieces of matzah and “there” is on the door header over the kitchen.
Meet Yaakov Gregg, 60, owner of Jacob’s Ladder Heating and Cooling, father and grandfather of a growing mishpachah.
“Jews tend to find a source in scripture somewhere, apply it to our lives somehow and then use it as a segulah (protection),” said Gregg, who has been putting a piece of shmurah (watched) matzah on top of his doorway for over 30 years now. “One theory behind this practice is that shmurah means ‘watched’ and we want the mitzvah of matzah to ‘watch out’ or protect us as well.”
At the end of every Pesach seder, while eating the afikomen, Gregg, his wife, Carole, and their family get to work nibbling the matzah into round or fun shapes and then pick their favorite, the one that will grace the top of the doorway throughout the entire year. Then Gregg hoists the smallest child who’s still awake onto his shoulders and that kid has the honor of putting the matzah onto the door header.
“It’s a lot of fun for the kids; it all adds to the enjoyment of the seder,” Gregg said.
At any given time, he has up to six or seven pieces of matzah from previous years on his door header. If one falls down during the year, he properly and respectfully discards it.
An Old Custom
Gregg was able to procure a source from a Jewish book (Sefer Kaf HaChaim) which said: “The minhag (custom) of saving a piece of afikomen is not only in chutz la’aretz (outside Israel) but anywhere, and it’s not in case you don’t have for next year. The reason is that it’s a shmirah (protection).
Many hang it on top of a doorway until the next erev Pesach when they burn it with the chometz. This minhag is brought down in basically every minhag sefer (Minhag Yisroel Torah, Nitei Gavriel and other Pesach seforim.)”
Does it really work?
“I’ve never experienced major open miracles, but I do believe the matzah fosters an awareness,” Gregg said. “It’s similar to a mezuzah … Its very presence subconsciously reminds us that Hashem is watching over us and helps us find God in our lives.
“That awareness can help us see everyday miracles, turn thoughts like, ‘what a bad day’ into ‘hey, I’m vertical, I’ve got good balance, I can smell and taste, etc.’ It can help us recognize the gifts Hashem has given us that we usually take for granted.”
While Gregg puts matzah over the main entrance into his kitchen, he’s heard that many who keep this custom use the front door to the house. Some people tape up their matzah. He’s even heard of people who carry the matzah around in their pockets as a segulah for wealth!
Russ Siegel, a software developer, and his wife, Kari, an occupational therapist and Feldenkrais practitioner, also have the custom of placing a piece of shmurah matzah over their kitchen doorway in their Southfield home. Russ has been doing it for 22 years now; when he first heard of it, it seemed to be a growing local custom.
The Siegels put up one piece of afikomen after each seder and, at the same time, take down the previous year’s matzah.
The family also sometimes get questioned by visitors about the shmurah matzah, seemingly random on top of the door header, and Kari simply explains, “We guard the matzah, and the matzah guards us.”
The matzah is also a symbol, a reminder of the freedom of the past and the promise of good times ahead.
“We aren’t aware of any clear miracles or protection that we’d really attribute to the matzah, but we like having it up there. We’re aware of it and notice it every day,” said Kari.
Their children, Daniel, 10, and Tova, 8, enjoy the custom too, although of course they have never known life without it.
An Expensive Bread
Rabbi Chaim Moshe Bergstein, director of Chabad in Farmington Hills, together with his wife, Chaya Devorah, had never heard of this custom before, but he does know all about shmurah matzah. He’s been providing shmurah matzah for the Detroit Jewish community for over 40 years.
This year Rabbi Bergstein sold (or gave away) almost 500 pounds of shmurah matzah — 280 pounds from New York, 80 pounds from Israel and 120 pounds from, incredibly, Ukraine. The Ukrainian matzah was baked and shipped to America before the hostilities began.
Rabbi Bergstein deals with a supplier and does not know the Ukrainian bakers personally or how they are faring in the war.
“The Ukrainian bakers claim their method of making matzah is more traditional, whatever that means, but they have a good hechsher and I trust them,” Rabbi Bergstein said. “They wrap their matzah in a thin, colorful cellophane and package them in well-fitting boxes, which seems to stop them from breaking so easily. The Ukrainian matzah bakers definitely give more care to packaging than the American matzah bakers!”
The Ukrainian matzah became popular about 15 years ago and, according to Rabbi Bergstein, always gets rave reviews.
“The matzah from Ukraine is much thinner than usual, which makes it easier to chew … It doesn’t give our jaws such a major workout. It’s crispy and really delicious. People love it,” he said.
He sells regular Ukrainian matzah for $18/pound and whole wheat for $21/pound, significantly cheaper than the usual $30-40 price tag from Amazon or other locations. Still, a typical 5-pound box of machine-made kosher-for-Pesach matzah can cost under $10 … How to justify the expense?
According to Rabbi Bergstein, there’s a mitzvah to watch the flour of the matzah from the beginning of the baking process to make sure that no water came in contact with it. For centuries, Jews have taken it further than that, and watched the flour even from the time of its milling. Shmurah matzah, however, is guarded from the time of harvesting — even though it is definitely kosher if it was just guarded from the time of baking.
“The only time there is actually an obligation to eat matzah is at the seder,” Rabbi Bergstein said. “The matzahs for the seder have to be made ‘Lishmoh’ — for the sake of the mitzvah. It is clear from the codifiers that every aspect of the baking from the mixing, the kneading, the rolling of the dough, the placement in the oven, has to all be done with intent for performing the mitzvah. Every phase of the baking process has the workers actually articulating aloud, ‘l’shaim matzos mitzvah’ — literally, “for the purpose of making the matzahs that will be used for the mitzvah.
“It’s hard to imagine that the entire process of intent at every phase is transmitted by the pressing of a button that starts the assembly line for machine-made matzah,” Rabbi Bergstein added. “It is thus better to have the hand-baked matzah because of the intent by the people involved in the baking saying that they do this Lishmoh — for the sake of the mitzvah.”
Bread of Healing
What does Rabbi Bergstein say about shmurah matzah offering yearlong protection?
“Matzah is called the ‘bread of faith’ and ‘bread of healing,” Rabbi Bergstein said. “According to the Zohar, shmurah matzah helps us with our faith. It acts like a channel, a receiver of messages coming straight from God. Matzah is supposed to be a remembrance of our redemption, a vehicle for us to relive what went on at that time … And one of the things that we experienced back then was that we were, as it says, ‘cured of all ills.’ So too, matzah has the characteristic of being able to heal us.”
Best of all, Rabbi Bergstein actually knows a story to back this up. He knew the players personally. Since it’s been so many years, however, he said any discrepancies or missing details are because of his faulty memory.
“Years ago,” Rabbi Bergstein began. “Back in the late ’60s/early ’70s, my shadchan Rabbi Mendel Baumgarten was close to the Pozepov family who had just arrived in America from the former Soviet Union. With great enthusiasm, the Pozepov family took on different mitzvos, kosher, Shabbos, mikvah … But sadly, soon after that, the young Pozepov father was diagnosed with cancer and given only a 5% chance of survival.”
Distraught, the family turned to their friend, Rabbi Mendel Baumgarten. Here they were taking on all these mitzvot in order to become closer to God and this is how He was repaying them?
Baumgarten had a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe soon afterward and told him about Pozepovs.
“The Rebbe opened a drawer in his desk, took out a whole shmurah matzah that had clearly been there since Pesach and said, ‘This is the bread of healing, let him wash, say hometzi, eat it and bentch afterwards.’ Rabbi Baumgarten passed on the message to and he followed the Rebbe’s instructions,” said Rabbi Bergstein. “I saw Mr. Pozepov a few years later; he had surpassed the doctor’s predictions. He was at his children’s weddings; he lived to see many grandchildren.”
So even though Rabbi Bergstein had never actually heard of the custom of putting shmurah matzah over doorways, the concept was certainly not foreign to him.
“This special matzah which is made just for the sake of the mitzvah has power to give us all kinds of blessings, including cures,” Rabbi Bergstein said with a big smile. “Does it for sure always work? I know it did at least once.”
For more information or if you would like to have shmurah matzah, contact Rabbi Bergstein at (248) 613-1809.