Saturday, May 07, 2005

It Looks Like Bread And Tastes Like Bread, But....

So you’re buying a loaf at the local kosher bakery and the woman behind the counter looks you in the eye and inquires, ‘mezonot?’ You just nod knowingly and take whatever she gives you, unwilling to confess ignorance.

Jewish law ascribes special significance to bread, the ‘staff of life’, viewing it as the key food in any meal of which it is a part. Due to this extraordinary status, one is required by Rabbinical law to ritually wash one’s hands and recite the hamotzi blessing before eating a bread-based meal and by Biblical law to recite birkat hamazon – full grace – afterwards

These stipulations often create practical difficulties for travellers and business-people, who may find themselves in situations where reciting the grace is awkward and finding an opportunity to wash one’s hands presents insurmountable complications. Sometimes it simply isn’t feasible to ‘wash and bentsch.’

At this stage, the reader is thinking, ‘then don’t eat bread,’ but the halachah has an alternative solution. In common with other legal systems, Jewish law rigorously classifies the entities with which it deals; accordingly it presents a careful definition of bread. It is a baked product, made from dough that consists of flour ground from wheat (or one of four similar grains) kneaded with water. Of course, small quantities of other ingredients, such as yeast and sugar, may be added, but these are incidental. If the dough is boiled (e.g. pasta), made from other grains (e.g. rice) or liquids (e.g. fruit juice), even if it is later baked, the halachah does not recognise the result as bread; hence the rules governing it do not apply. While the precise parameters involved are very complicated and subject to lively discussion amongst halachic authorities, suffice it to say that when pure fruit juice is used as the liquid component of dough, the halachah views the final product as cake, rather than bread.

This provides us with a curious variety of food – one that looks and tastes like bread, yet requires no prior hand washing, nor subsequent lengthy grace. The hamotzi reserved for bread is replaced with the mezonot blessing, normally said before eating cakes, crackers and pasta, while a short blessing is recited afterwards. Hence the mysterious term ‘mezonot bread.’

This seems like a marvellous solution for the hungry air-traveller or pizza-starved teenager, but there is a major snag. The halachah is well aware that the diner adopts a tactic enabling him to eat a proper meal without the usual attendant responsibilities. But as our diner treats the so-called mezonot bread as real bread, the halachah does the decent thing, and ‘upgrades’ its status to bread! Thus a meal at which mezonot bread is the mainstay requires the full gamut of pre and post-prandial rituals, and we are back to square one. This is known as keviat se’udah, the act of dining on significant quantities of mezonot foods; in the eyes of the halachah this transforms them into bread. It applies to any baked goods, whether crackers, cakes or biscuits, but is most germane to mezonot bread, which is commonly used for sandwiches and as rolls for burgers and hotdogs, foods generally consumed as full meals. It is interesting to note, however, that the great Rabbi Padwa zt"l assumed that meals eaten on a plane are never considered fixed, due to their inconvenient nature.

The upshot is that the convenience of mezonot bread has limited applicability – to smallish snacks eaten in an ad hoc manner, rather than ‘meals’. But provided that the manufacturing criteria are met, it will work for the odd slice of pizza consumed on the hoof and those little sandwiches served at Kiddushim. Enjoy!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.