Apr 16, 2017
The Secret Matzah Machine
Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman describes the machine he invented under Communist rule to help chassidim bake Matzah in Samarkand.
The following is an excerpt from the book "Samarkand - The Underground with a Far-Reaching Impact" by Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman which tells the story of the Chassidic underground that operated in the Soviet Union, upholding Judaism during the rule of communist terror.
Gripping narrative sweeps the reader to distant lands, and paints a picture of mysterious figures in Samarkand's alleys, secret Torah study under the constant threat of arrest by the KGB, and the long and hard fought victory in inspiring Jewish renaissance throughout the Soviet Union.
The Kirkus Reviews book magazine recently called the book "An edifying portal into the perseverance of Jewish culture in the face of attempts to destroy it."
The Secret Matzah Machine
It was only in the 1950s that we were able to obtain some wheat that had been watched from harvest. There was a righteous and G‑d-fearing woman in Georgia who grew wheat in a small field near her house specifically for making shmurah matzah. We made contact with her, and every year, after the harvest, she would send us seven to eight kilograms of wheat. She received orders from Lubavitch communities in several cities in Russia, and sent each area a small amount. She would parcel the wheat in paper sacks (we could not obtain plastic bags), made sure they were well wrapped, and sent them via airmail. We usually received the package after Sukkos.
We purchased a large hand-powered coffee grinder, essentially a millstone constructed from slabs of iron, and used it to grind the wheat. We needed to put the wheat through the grinder many times in order to produce fine flour, and between uses we would tighten the metal discs so that they would draw closer together. Ultimately, out of the eight kilograms of wheat that the Georgian woman sent us, we generated six kilograms, more or less, of sifted flour.
Since the grinding of wheat by hand demanded tremendous physical exertion, we divided the work over an period of several weeks. Every Thursday night a group of yeshivah students convened at the home of a member of the community, and while one would grind the wheat, the others would study a Torah talk of the Rebbe and farbreng together. The atmosphere was enhanced by a special aura that could only be generated by the painstaking care taken in executing this holy commandment.
After a quarter of an hour, the student grinding the wheat would grow weary and another would take his place. It was a very slow and measured process; each week we would grind just over a kilogram of wheat. That is how we spent the long winter Thursday nights, until we had completed grinding all of the eight kilograms.
By the end of the process we would have matzos, baked to the most scrupulous standards. It was enough to supply each of us with the minimum amount required for the Seder nights, as well as with an additional two to three matzos to use for the rest of the festive holiday meals, which traditionally require two whole matzos. Outside of these times, we did not eat matzah on Pesach.
Frequently, we had no shmurah matzos left for the end of the festival, which made it difficult to observe all of the halachic provisions associated with the traditional festive meal. Kiddush, for example, must be recited in conjunction with a meal, which normally means eating matzah right afterwards. Instead, after making kiddush, we would drink another glass of wine to stand in for the matzah, as a halachic workaround of sorts.
One time in the middle of Pesach I had only two matzos remaining, and I went to my friend Michoel Mishulovin and asked him whether he had an extra matzah so I would have the traditional two matzos for both of the Shabbos meals during the intermediate days of the holiday. He told me that he had just one matzah left for himself. I gave him one of the matzos that I had, and he gave me half of his matza, leaving us with equal portions.
When I had only two matzos remainingwe would set out to divide the precious few matzos, R. Moshe Nisselevitch would passionately say: "Since matzos are declared by the Zohar to be the 'food of faith,' those of the highest kosher standard should be given to the young women and the yeshivah students, as they are the ones who will usher in the next generation of chassidim. These matzos will feed them with the faith they need so that their belief and confidence in living a life of Torah and Jewish observance will be pure and refined."
Due to our fear of the authorities, we did not want others to know about our special matzos, and only a small number of trustworthy individuals were in on the secret. Most of the community was unaware that there were matzos baked with shmurah wheat that had been ground by hand. Even the boys from the yeshivah who learned in our homes and overheard us talking in Hebrew about our hand-powered mill (reichayim shel yad) in connection with special matzos hadn't a clue what this was about: they assumed we were alluding to the tefillin worn on the arm (shel yad), belonging to a certain Reb Chaim.
In addition to these matzos, we continued to purchase wheat from the local market and grind it in the mill outside the city as a supplement for our families.
The tedious, sluggish output of the coffee grinder troubled me for some time, and I struggled to find a creative solution to solve this predicament. In those days almost everyone had a motorcycle. It was the most convenient means of intercity transportation.
One day, I came up with the notion of connecting the wheel that turns through the motor of the motorcycle to the coffee grinder, which would drastically reduce the labor needed to operate the mill. I exchanged the knob on the grinder for a wheel, and then connected the wheel to a motorcycle motor. This enabled the discs of the grinder to churn very quickly.
I put this mechanism together at the Mishulovin family home, since they had volunteered a room in their house for this cause and were one of the trustworthy families in Samarkand. Moreover, using the grinder with a motor would be rather noisy and would arouse the unwelcomed curiosity of neighbors. The Mishulovins lived at the end of a street, and the walls of their house faced a cemetery. We did not need to be worried about quiet neighbors like those.
I was thrilled My innovation proved successful, and the mill ground the wheat quickly and efficiently. The setback was that the motor began to heat up dramatically, and needed water poured over it to cool off. Of course, we were afraid to try doing so, since the water would come in contact with the wheat and render the entire batch of flour unfit for use: No water could come in contact with it. Instead, we would pause periodically and wait for the motor to cool off by itself. Despite the difficulties, within a short amount of time we were able to grind nearly all the wheat, and we were ecstatic.
Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived. The device was efficient, but the shaft of the motor was rotating too rapidly, and towards the end of the grinding process it suddenly blew out and the grinder malfunctioned. As the engineer of the contraption, I felt terribly guilty. We were relieved that at least we had already ground most of the wheat, but we needed to devise a new and better plan for the following year.