Matzah, the Exodus, and the Roots of Anti-Semitism

January 19, 2024 | Meir Soloveichik
About the author: Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. His website, containing all of his media appearances, podcasts, and writing, can be found at

Tomorrow, synagogues will read Exodus 10:1–13:16, which includes the commandment to eat matzah on Passover. That makes this a particularly appropriate time to remember Don Gaetano Tantalo, an Italian Catholic priest who saved the lives of seven Jews by hiding them for nine months during World War II. Meir Soloveichik writes:

Had he done only this he would have been remembered by our people as a hero, but he did much more. He facilitated the religious observance of his Jewish friends. . . . Perhaps the most striking example of this service relates to Passover. . . . Don Tantalo supplied his Jewish friends with matzah, as well as “brand-new dishes” to fulfill the requirement for kosher vessels and utensils. One can only imagine what this involved in 1944.

The most moving memento of this seder is a simple piece of paper bearing a series of numbers written in Don Tantalo’s hand. This, Yad Vashem tells us, is a calculation of the Jewish calendar written out by the priest so that his Jewish friends would know when their holiday occurred. It is the gift of Jewish time itself. . . . The first commandment given on the eve of the Exodus concerned not matzah, nor bitter herbs, but the marking of time itself: “This month,” God declares to Moses, “shall be for you the first of months.” This means that the Jewish calendar, the Jewish marking of time, is linked to the Exodus; the Jewish understanding of time is bound to the miraculous emergence and redemption of God’s covenant people.

This commandment, too, is found in this week’s Torah reading.

But not all Gentiles are so understanding of the symbolic value of the Jewish calendar. The New York Times published an article yesterday titled “Black and Jewish Activists Have Allied for Decades. What Now?” Its focus is on collaboration between Jews and African Americans in the anti-Israel movement. Suffice it to say that the author describes Kanye West as “seeming to draw from a long line of Black indictments of Jewish power” (such as those uttered by Louis Farrakhan) in his now-infamous 2022 anti-Semitic outburst.

The article’s author interviewed an activist named Nicole Carty, who offered the following insight into the Jewish experience:

Carty noted what she views as a Jewish propensity for “trauma myopia.” . . . There have been, she said, “so many similar genocides.”

“I’ve been to a lot of Passover celebrations,” she added, “and it’s so weird that the story is only of Jewish subjugation, even though subjugation is still so present for other people.” She went on: “Black people still haven’t had their histories honored. We are still gaslit about the impact of slavery and the continued impacts of white supremacy.”

How to make sense of this astonishing statement? Although Rabbi Soloveichik wrote this essay well before the Times article appeared, it contains an answer:

We can now begin to understand the lie that typifies the last thousand years of anti-Semitism: the blood libel, begun in Norwich, England, in 1144. Thomas of Monmouth claimed that Norwich’s Jews had murdered a Christian child in order to use his blood in the production of matzah. The blood libel spread throughout the world, so that for Jews the celebration of Passover, the festival of freedom, was often the most frightening time of the year.

A theological approach allows us to understand how the absurdity of the blood libel captures the essence of anti-Semitism. By turning the matzah, a symbol of Jewish chosenness, into a symbol of ritual evildoing, the libel illustrates how, as [Robert] Nicholson writes, anti-Semitism “turns Jewish chosenness on its head and assigns to the people of Israel responsibility for all the world’s ills.”

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