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Shmurah — not your average matzah

It takes about 20 seconds in a 1,3000º coal-and-wood fired oven to bake shmurah matzah.


IT COSTS more per pound than filet mignon. It might be burnt or taste like cardboard. It’’s so delicate it often breaks in the box, rendering it unfit for some Passover ritual uses.

Yet every year, Jews from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak line up to fork over their hard-earned money to buy boxes and boxes of the stuff.

This isn’’t your regular box of Streit’s matzah. We’re talking, of course, about handmade shmurah matzah: the artisanal, disc-shaped matzahs considered extra special because the ingredients are guarded against leavening, or chametz, not just from the time the wheat is ground into flour, but from before the wheat is even harvested. “Shmurah” is Hebrew for guarded.

It is a basic requirement for the Passover seder, though there is no requirement that it be handmade. Machine-made shmurah matzah is equally qualified for the seder.

The extra level of scrutiny —— and the labor-intensive process required to make handcrafted matzah —— is largely what accounts for its high price: anywhere from $20 to $60 for a single pound.

“”The amount of hours of labor going into this between me and my staff is incomparable,”” said Yisroel Bass, who runs a farm in Goshen, New York, that produces organically grown shmurah matzah ($34 per pound for regular shmurah, $37 for spelt).

“”Renting out a bakery costs a lot of money — the space and the staff. Equipment breaks every year. Every farm has its expenses, and organic farms end up having more overhead. We can’’t buy the synthetic fertilizer; we have manure,”” Bass told JTA.

“”And G-d forbid I have a bad year and the rabbi comes and says the wheat is no good, I just spent a whole lot of time and money on a product nobody wants. The cost has to reflect that.””

Despite its price, there’’s a thriving market for handmade shmurah matzah. Many observant Jews won’’t use anything other than handmade shmurah matzah on their seder table. Some won’t eat non-shmurah anytime during Passover, though this is a volunteer stringency, not a requirement.

The same Jews who light expensive olive oil menorahs on Chanukah rather than wax candles or buy premium etrogs for Sukkot will lay out extra cash before Passover to buy handmade shmurah matzah. The practice of going above and beyond is known as “hiddur mitzvah,” beautifying the commandment.

“”For the consumer, it is an opportunity to purchase the only sacred food that we have today in our faith,”” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, DC. ““It is a bargain. Buy less brisket and more shmurah matzah.””

MITCHELL WEITZMAN, a lawyer from Baltimore, says shmurah matzah has sentimental value.

“”There is just a sense of authenticity about having shmurah matzah on the table,”” Weitzman said. ““It’’s a feeling more than anything else —— certainly more than serving up Passover-style Fruit Loops the next morning.””

Others say they like the taste and eat it year round, stocking up right after Passover when the price drops dramatically owing to reduced demand.

“”I keep a box of shmurah matzah in the trunk of my car,”” said Tali Aronsky, a public relations doyenne who lives in Israel. “”Keeps crispy in all weather and great in a pinch.””

Some consider shmurah matzah baked after midday on the day before Passover —— known as “matzot mizvah” —— as especially meritorious to eat, and the matzah is priced accordingly. At the Satmar Bakery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a pound of the Passover eve-baked stuff retails for $60. The line of customers at the Rutledge Street store usually snakes around the block.

The Satmar Bakery employs a number of stringencies rare even in the world of shmurah matzah. It harvests its wheat in Arizona, where the dry climate helps guard against accidental leavening (moisture precipitates leavening).

Matzah farmers in the Northeast typically harvest their wheat crop in May or June —— around the Shavuot holiday. The wheat is plucked after the kernels start to harden but before they sprout new shoots. Kosher supervisors monitor the grain even as it’s growing to make sure the wheat isn’’t sprouting.

From the time it is picked until it is milled months later, the wheat must be guarded and stored in a climate-controlled environment. Too moist, it could become chametz. Too dry, it will fail to bake properly. At the Yiddish Farm in upstate New York, Bass says he uses fans and computer monitoring to bring the moisture level down to the desired 11-12% level.

After the wheat is milled into flour — also under close supervision — the baking process may begin.

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