I was told by a couple of the talmidim of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, that the Rav maintained that every minhag—even just a family tradition—usually has some sort of basis in halachah.
Family traditions were very important to my father a”h, and he was always careful to do mitzvot exactly as they had been handed down to him by my grandfather. A first-rate talmid chacham, my grandfather was what was often called a kolboynik (a sort of Jewish Jack-of-all-trades), who served as the rabbi/chazzan/shochet/mohel and melamed in various small communities in England and Wales during the first half of the twentieth century.
When I questioned my father as to why he did something a certain way, the answer was always because that was the way his father had done it.
Most of the time, it wasn’t hard to find that there was indeed a halachic basis for our family minhagim. For example, at Minchah on Tishah B’Av we take off our tefillin immediately after Kedushah, whereas most men keep them on until Minchah is completely over. In the Sha’arei Teshuvah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, I discovered that this was the pesak of the Maharil. But—up until now, that is—I couldn’t find any halachic clue that would help me solve the mystery of the half a matzah.
You see, when he did bedikat chametz (the search for leaven), my father, like everyone else, took a candle to light the way, a feather to collect the crumbs and a bag to hold the pieces of chametz that he found. But, unlike everyone else, he always put half a matzah into the bag. “Why?” I asked. “Because that’s what my father did,” was the only response I ever got.
In order to arrive at the solution to this puzzle, we need to go back another two generations, to my father’s maternal grandfather, Zvi (or Hirsch) Zelig Siemion, known to all as Reb Zelig. Born in Warsaw in 1856, he and my great-grandmother, Soroh Leah, moved to Antwerp in 1904 and then to England in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. He gained a reputation, not only as one of the best shochetim in London, but also as a ba’al chesed. According to Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz in his book A World Apart: The Story of the Chasidim in Britain, “. . . his home became a veritable shelter for homeless refugees; no one was ever refused hospitality.”
Reb Zelig lived to be over eighty years old, but his life was violently cut short during the German Blitz. Like most of the population of London during that terrible time, my great-grandparents would spend their nights in an air-raid shelter. On the night of the twenty-first of Elul (September 23/24) 1940, for no apparent reason, they went to a different shelter from the one in which they usually slept. This shelter received a direct hit from a German bomb, killing Reb Zelig, Soroh Leah, their daughter Esther, son-in-law Moshe Brown, and granddaughter Chanah Rochel. It was a sad and cruel fate, which weighed heavily on my grandparents for many years.
But now to the solution of our mystery. . . .
Last year, a couple of weeks before Pesach, I went to Meah Shearim to buy shemurah matzah. As he was wrapping my package, the baker told me that he had not taken challah1 from the batch of matzot. I must have looked a bit blank, because he said, “Just burn half a matzah with your chametz.”
I nodded and wished him chag same’ach, but as I left, I had a sudden, glorious light bulb moment. Unwittingly, the baker had just handed me the reason for the half a matzah that had eluded me all these years. I recalled that I had been told that Reb Zelig had an oven in his attic in which he would bake matzot for his entire family each erev Pesach. (According to my mother, a”h, they were so hard that you had to be careful not to break your teeth on them.) Apparently, or so I surmised, he also didn’t take challah when he baked his matzot, and he must have told my grandfather, who told my father, to burn half a matzah with his chametz. That must be how this became a family minhag, but the reason for it somehow got lost along the way.
Finally, I had solved the mystery of the half a matzah, and it did indeed have its roots in the halachah. So don’t belittle the traditions that you inherit from your forebears, and if there is one you can’t explain, look for clues and ask around, because the answer is definitely out there somewhere.
1. A portion of the dough that was originally given to the kohen and which nowadays is burned (Bemidbar 15:20).
David Olivestone, a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Committee and a frequent contributor to the magazine, lives in Jerusalem with his wife Ceil.