What's in a Word?

For the week ending 27 April 2024 / 19 Nissan 5784

Pesach: Eating Cake

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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One of the long-standing controversies related to the Laws of Passover concerns the kashrut of machine-made matzot. Rabbis in different times and places have offered various arguments for why such matzot should be forbidden or permitted. One small part of the controversy revolves around the question of whether matzot ought to be round or not. As many of my readers know, machine-made matzot are typically square-shaped, not round, yet some have argued that because matzah is associated with the word ugah (often translated as “cake”) in the Bible, matzot must (or at least should) be round. In this essay, we delve into the controversy and also discuss several synonyms to ugah, like the words kikar, gluskos, kugel, and pashtida.

Where do we find that matzah is associated with ugah in the Torah? The answer is that it is actually an explicit verse in Exodus (also recited in the Haggadah shel Pesach): "they baked the dough that they took out from Egypt as ugot matzot — not chametz — because they were chased from Egypt..." (Ex. 12:39). The connection between matzah and ugah is also found in several Midrashic sources: When a war refugee informed Abraham that his nephew Lot was captured, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §42:8) explains that it was Passover time and Abraham was busying himself with “the mitzvah of ugot” (i.e., matzah). As the Midrash explains it, this is why said refugee came to be known as Og (a personal name apparently derived from the same etymological root as ugah). Later, when Abraham encountered the Three Angels, he told his wife Sarah to "knead [dough] and make ugot" (Gen. 18:6), which the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §48:12) sees an allusion to the idea that this happened on Erev Pesach, meaning that Abraham was actually asking his wife to bake matzot. Interestingly, the Bible never reports that those ugot ever materialized, and Rabbi Shalom Shabazi (Chemdat Yamim to Gen. 18:6) explains that this is because Og came along and ate them before Abraham could serve them. He uses this as a different way of explaining the basis for the name Og.

All in all, the word ugah and its related inflections appear exactly seven times throughout the entire Bible (Gen. 18:6, Ex. 12:39, Num. 11:8, I Kgs. 17:13, 19:6, Ezek. 4:12, Hos. 7:8).

But what does the word ugah actually mean?

Rashi and Mechillta D’Rabbi Yishmael (to Ex. 12:39) define the word ugah as chararah. Similarly, Targum (to I Kgs. 17:13) translates ugah as chararah. But what does chararah mean?

In some places in the Mishnah, a chararah refers to some sort of baked good (Shabbat 1:10, Bava Kamma 2:3). Another Mishnah (Peah 5:8) refers to a certain way of stacking produce known as a chararah, with the Jerusalemic Talmud (there) explaining that this term refers to "round stacks" of produce. It is therefore safe to assume that chararh and ugah in the sense of “baked good,” both refer to a round-shaped foodstuff.

We find similar usages of the word ugah referring to round things outside of the context of baked goods. For example, the Mishnah (Chullin 2:9) rules that one may slaughter an animal in such a way that its blood pools into an ugah shel mayim, which Rashi (to Chullin 41a) defines as a “round pit filled with water.” Similarly, the Mishnah (Moed Katan 1:1) rules that one may not make ugiyot — a diminutive form of ugah — around a grapevine on Chol HaMoed, with Rashi (ibid.) explaining that this refers to “small round pits of water.”

In a similar way, the famous story of Honi the Circledrawer (Choni Ha’Me’agel) tells that the miracle-worker was able to end a drought by drawing a circle on the ground around himself, and then pleading with Hashem that he will not leave that circle until rain falls (Taanit 23a). The exact wording used by the Talmud there to refer to Honi’s action is ug ugah, again showing that the word ugah implies something “circular” or “round.” Indeed, philologists like Shadal (to Gen. 18:6) and Dr. Alexander Kohut (in Aruch HaShaleim) see the word ugah as related the word chugah (“circle/circuit”), while others like Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) connect ugah to igul. [For more about the relationship between different words for “circle/round,” see “Around in Concentric Circle” (Dec. 2017).]

In light of all this, Rabbi Yehuda Aszad (1794–1866) in responsa Yehudah Ya’aleh (Orach Chaim vol. 1 §157) writes that the prevailing practice in his time was to specifically eat matzot that were round-shaped because the word ugah implies something “round,” and the Torah makes a point of describing the matzot that the Jews ate during the exodus as ugot.

He further explains that the Jews specifically ate round matzot because it is faster to prepare such shaped matzot, and the Jews were famously in a rush when they were leaving Egypt. Rabbi Aszad also adds that the round shape of the matzah alludes to the “Cycle of Poverty” (as matzah is called the “Poorman’s Bread”) and to the “Circle of Life” (as on Passover Night we hint to our mourning over the loss of the Temple). Additionally, he conjectures that the Egyptians made a rule that one may only bake breads in multilateral shapes (like rectangles or triangles), as a way of paying homage to the multiple gods recognized by Egyptian polytheism. Because of this, when the Jews exited Egypt, they purposely baked round matzot to allude to the One God of monotheism, who has no beginning and no end (like a circle).

On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon Sofer of Erloi (1850–1944) strongly denies that there is any esoteric reason for matzah traditionally being baked in a round shape. He notes that even in gentile circles, most loaves of bread are round, thus showing that there is nothing intrinsically special about the circular shape. Moreover, Rabbi Sofer notes that from the Torah's perspective not only is round not special, but on the contrary, there seems to be something more special about squares than circles: tefillin must be rectangular and several things related to the Holy Temple are also square or rectangle (like the four-cornered altars, the Kohen Gadol's breastplate, and the shewbread). This shows that square-shaped is even more special from the Torah’s perspective than round-shaped. Similarly, Rabbi Chizkiyah Medini of Hebron (1834–1904) points to the shewbread as precedent to show that rectangular matzot are also fit (see also HaDrash V’Ha’Iyun, Tzav §29).

Besides for ugah, there are another two Hebrew words used to describe the shape of bread in the Bible. The first is the word kikar, which appears in the compound phrase kikar lechem (a “kikar” of bread) five times in the Bible (Ex. 29:23, II Sam. 2:36, Jer. 37:21, Prov. 6:26, I Chron. 16:3). The second is the word challah, which sometimes appears on its own (e.g., Lev. 7:12, 15:20, Lev. 24:5, Num. 6:15), sometimes in the phrase challat lechem (e.g., Ex. 29:23, Lev. 7:13, 8:26, II Sam. 6:19), and sometimes in the phrase challat matzah (e.g., Ex. 29:2, Lev. 2:4, 7:12, 5:26, Num. 6:19). These two words also imply a “round shape” (see Ibn Ezra to Lev. 2:4), but it is not readily clear how exactly they differ from the word ugah. [For more about other words for “bread,” including kikar and challah, see “Let Them Eat Bread” (June 2018).]

After consulting with two scholars — namely, Dr. Tamar Katzir of the Academy for the Hebrew Language and Rabbi Shaul Goldman — it seems that indeed the etymological basis for both the words kikar and ugah relate to “roundness,” and in practice the two words are essentially synonymous. Nonetheless, those scholars independently suggested that kikar implies something “spherical,” while ugah implies something merely “round.” In other words, kikar would be used when referring to a three-dimensional round object (“loaf”), while ugah would be used when referring to a flat two-dimensional object. This explains the appearance of cognates to ugah in the story of Honi the Circledrawer, as the circle that he drew in the ground was merely a picture, so it was two-decisional. Similarly, matzah is described as an ugah rather than kikar because matzah is so flat that it resembles something two-dimensional. This is also implied by the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament(HALOT), which defines ugah as a “round flat loaf of bread,” and kikar as “a disk-shaped round loaf.”

Another word for “cake” (or “sweetbread”) in rabbinic parlance is gluskos/gluskin. The Talmud (Pesachim 6b) relates that the rabbis decreed that it not enough to simply declare one’s chametz null and void by verbal fiat, but rather one must seek out all of one’s chametz and destroy it. As explained in the Talmud (there), the rabbis made this decree, lest one find a nice gluska over the holiday of Passover and be tempted to eat it (or leave it in his possession until after the holiday).

The word gluskos also appears in another context: The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §88:2) that the Pharaoh’s baker sinned against the king by allowing a pebble in his gluskin, which is why he ended up in jail with Joseph. Similarly, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b, Ketubot 111b) foretells that in the future, the Holy Land will be destined to produce ready-made gluskaot — instead of mere stalks of grain that still have to be processed into baked goods. Interestingly, Rashba’s student, R. Yitzchak of Pira (to Gen. 3:21), implies that gluskaot refers to a type of clothing, rather than to a baked good.

Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606–1675) in Mussaf HaAruch writes that gluskos derives from the Greek word chóllix/hollix, and then defines it in Hebrew as “an ugah” and “a small round bread.” Seemingly following Rabbi Mussafia, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) also traces the etymology of gluskos to the Greek word kollix (“a roll of bread”). [That Greek word reminds me of the Hungarian word kalács (“cake”), but you’d have to ask a real linguist as to whether there is an etymological connection between those words.]

Alternatively, the Rabbinic Hebrew word gluskos may be related to the Ancient Greek word glukús, which originally referred to "sweet new wine" but then expanded to refer to anything “sweet” (not unlike cake). The related English word glucose in reference to various “types of sugar” was coined much later in the 1800s.

Speaking of English, we find some interesting parallels to what we see with the Hebrew word ugah. The English word cake derives from the Norse word kaka, which linguists like Julius Pokorny (1887–1970) see as ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root gag/gog ("round"), due to the interchangeability of the g and k sounds. This is quite reminiscent of how the Hebrew word ugah also denotes something “round.” Similarly, the diminutive form of cake is cookie, which has a parallel in Modern Hebrew, wherein the diminutive of ugah is ugiyah ("biscuit/cookie"). The German equivalent to cake is kuchen/kukhn, which derives from the same PIE root as cake. Whenthe diminutive -el is appended to it, it becomes kichel (literally, "little cake") in Yiddish. A French cognate of these words is quiche.

Now we can talk about the Yiddish word kugel (or kigel depending on one’s dialect). The prominent linguist Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906–1984) writes in his dictionary of Modern Hebrew that kugel derives from either the Hebrew word k’igul (“like a circle”) or from the German kugel (“sphere/ball” in Modern German). Although the first etymology proposed sounds a bit funny and is often called a “folk etymology,” Rabbi Shaul Goldman point to another source to this effect: When Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1907) cites in Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim §429:8) the custom to use "Kosher for Passover" flour in preparing kugel for the Sabbath before Passover, he spells the word kugel as though it were k'igul— thus bringing our essay full circle back to another word related to a “baked good” that is associated with “circles/roundness,”

In Modern Hebrew, kugel is referred to as pashtida. That word, in turn, is already used by Rashi (Pesachim 74b) and Tosafot (to Eruvin 68a, Pesachim 74b, 76b, Avodah Zarah 66b, Chullin 64a), and is derived from the Latin word pasta (which comes from the Greek word paste).

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