Other meanings for eating unleavened bread

In his discussions of the deeper meanings for eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, first-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo reveals a strong objection to excess and arrogance; he yearns for the "good old days" of simplicity and frugality. Imagine if he were to see us today! In the spirit of simplicity and in the search for quality over quantity, we share with you Philo's musings. (For more about Philo, see the note below.)

The bread we eat on Passover is unleavened either because our forefathers, when under divine guidance they were starting on their migration, were so intensely hurried that they brought the lumps of dough unleavened; or else because at that season, namely the springtime, when the [springtime] feast is held, the fruit of the corn has not reached its perfection, for the fields are in the early stage and not yet mature for harvest. It was the imperfection of this fruit (which belonged to the future, though it was to reach its perfection very shortly) that God considered might be paralleled by the unleavened food, which is also imperfect. This serves to remind us of the comforting hope that nature, possessing as she does a superabundant wealth of things needful, is already preparing her yearly gifts to the human race.

Another suggestion made by the interpreters of the holy scriptures is that food, when unleavened, is a gift of nature, whereas leavened food is a work of art. For men, in their eagerness to temper the barely necessary with the pleasant, have learned through practice to soften by art what nature has made hard. Since, then, the springtime feast, as I have laid down, is a reminder of the creation of the world (its earliest inhabitants, children of earth in the first or second generations, must have used the gifts of the universe in their unperverted state before pleasure had got the mastery). God ordained for use on this occasion the food most fully in accordance with the season [so as to] to rekindle the embers of the serious and ascetic mode of faring... to confer admiration and honor on the old-time life of frugality and economy, and as far as possible to assimilate our present-day life to that of the distant past....

Leaven bread is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; ...even though he may be superior to others in prosperity...let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. For if the Creator and Maker of the universe, though needing nothing of all that He has begotten, has regard to your weakness and not to the vastness of His might and sovereignty, makes you a partaker in His gracious power and fills up the deficiencies that belong to your life, how ought you to treat other men, your natural kinfolk, seedlings from the same elements as yourself, you who brought nothing into the world, not even yourself? For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal!

Why does He say (Exodus 12:8) that they shall offer unleavened bread on bitter herbs together with the above-mentioned sacrifice?

Unleavened bread is [a sign] of great haste and speed while the bitter herbs [are a sign] of the life of bitterness and struggle which they endure as slaves. That is the literal meaning. But as for the deeper meaning, this is worth noting: bread that which is leavened and fermented rises, while that which is unleavened is low. Each of these is a symbol of types of soul, one being haughty and swollen with arrogance, the other being unchangeable and prudent, choosing the middle way rather than extreme....

The bitter herbs are a manifestation of a psychic migration, through which one moves from...wickedness to virtue. For those who naturally and genuinely repent become bitter toward their former way of life and are vexed with their wretched life.... We, who desire repentance, eat the unleavened bread with bitter herbs, that is, we eat [bitter herbs representing] bitterness over our old and unendurable life, and then [we eat unleavened bread representing] the opposite of overboastful arrogance through meditation on humility, which is called reverence.

English translation by F.H. Colson, 1937. Reprinted in The Passover Anthology ( Jewish Publication Society, 1993).
author Philo (c.20BCE-50CE), Alexandrian philosopher and exegete, interpreted the Greek version of the Torah (Septuagint) within the conceptual frameworks and methodologies of Hellenistic philosophy. He believed that the books of Moses were the source of all Greek philosophy, and that they were almost entirely allegorical. His biblical interpretation aimed at penetrating the literal narrative and finding its spiritual message, and was therefore universalistic in nature. At the same time, Philo stressed the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their role as mediators between humanity and the Creator of the universe. Although Philo's impact on modern Jewish thinkers is minimal, his attempt to fuse Jewish and Greek culture makes him one of the most intriguing intellectuals of the ancient world.

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