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On time and awareness
My overall sabbatical project is about communion. As part of that, I am spending some time this summer baking bread. And this week, I spent some time trying to make matzah.
Now, I want to be clear here. I am not Jewish. I do not keep a kosher kitchen. I do not observe Passover (and it isn’t Passover right now, anyway). But I wanted to get something like a feel for this incredibly important unleavened bread. So I found a recipe, I did a little research, and I gave it a shot.
And strangely central to that shot—that experience of baking this simple bread—was a unit of time: eighteen minutes.
According to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites lived in slavery in Egypt, God commanded them—each household—to keep the Passover: to slaughter a lamb, to roast it, and to put some of that lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintel of their house; to eat the lamb and the unleavened bread that goes with it hurriedly, with sandals on and staff in hand; and, as time went on, to remove all the leaven from houses and to eat only unleavened bread for seven days. (Exodus 12:1-20)
For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, for whoever eats what is leavened shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether an alien or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. (Exude 12:19-20, NRSVue)
Matzah is the unleavened bread. Outside of Passover, there are variations made from a variety of flours and with flavorings like onion and garlic added in. During Passover, at its simplest, it is nothing more than flour and water, balled up, rolled out, and baked into either a pita-like soft piece or the more common cracker-like board.
Regardless of the specifics, the key to matzah is that it be unleavened: it cannot even begin the process of rising. Obviously, that means that the baker cannot add yeast to the mixture of water and flour. But, more challengingly, that means that the baker also cannot allow the wild yeasts that live in the flour and float in the air to start their work in that mixture.
And that raises a question: how long does it take those wild yeasts to start their work in a mixture of flour and water? And the standard answer is eighteen minutes.
But that also raises a question: what counts as eighteen minutes?
The recipe that I used assumed that the clock started the moment that the first drops of water hit the flour, and did not stop until the baker pulled the matzah out of the oven. Another source seemed to imply that the clock started at the same time, but that it stopped when the matzah went into the oven. But other sources—sources like Maimonides—were much more forgiving: according to these sources, the clock didn’t start until the baker stopped working on the dough!
I am inclined to trust Maimonides over random recipes that I found on the internet, and to take the attitude that it is more important to work quickly and constantly than it is to watch the clock. All the same, when I attempted to make my matzah, I kept track of time and always knew how close to—or far from—the eighteen minute mark I was.
I tried making matzah twice. Once with a timer going down and once with a stopwatch going up. Here’s what I noticed:
When the timer was counting down, eighteen minutes seemed like no time at all. I felt rushed, I forgot steps, and I couldn’t quite keep my head in the game. Eighteen minutes was not enough time.
When the stopwatch was counting up, eighteen minutes seemed like all the time in the world. I focused on the task at hand, I worked slowly and methodically, and I double-checked what I was doing. And, if I had given the cookie sheet in the over more time to preheat (and/or had a thicker cookie sheet or even a preheated pizza stone in the oven), I think that eighteen minutes would have been plenty of time.
This is, maybe, a demonstration of something I already knew: that scarcity dominates the mind. In this case, that was (a perceived) scarcity of time. In other cases, it might be a scarcity of food, sleep, friendship, or money. Regardless, it dominates the mind, constrains our abilities, and makes it more likely that we will make mistakes.
But, once that scarcity disappears, it becomes much easier to focus, and we can do what we need to do. We might even be able to do what we need to do within the bounds of the scarcity that used to be there.
There are big possibilities for that, and you can read about them in books like Scarcity or my own Radical Charity. But, for now, the lesson is not to set timers when they aren’t actually necessary: when we focus on the task at hand, when we move forward quickly and intentionally, and when we keep working the dough, there may just be all the time in the world.
Even if all the time in the world is only eighteen minutes.