Ha Lachma Anya – The Bread of Affliction/Poverty

“This is the bread of affliction/poverty.” It is with these words that the Haggadah begins the main part of Seder night – the telling of the exodus story. What does matzah symbolize and why does the Haggadah begin specifically with a discussion of it?  

Resource Ages: 12-14


This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors  in Egypt ate. 

Everyone who is hungry should come and eat. 

Everyone who needs something, should come and participate in the Passover meal. 

This year we are here; next year, we will be in Israel. 

This year we are slaves; next year, we will be free. 

From the Passover Haggadah

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

כָּל דִכְפִין – יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ – יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

הָשַׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל.

הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין.

מתוך ההגדה של פסח

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do family traditions play an important role in our lives?
  • What can we learn from different generations?
  •  How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • What are the Jewish values (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, respect of diversity etc.) that should be honored in an ideal society?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How does matzah connect us to previous generations? 
  • How does remembering events of the past influence our present behavior?
  • How do the customs of Seder night teach us about the importance of helping others? 
  • What is the power of symbols in conveying emotions, ideas and values?

Background for Teacher

Ha lachama anya is the opening paragraph of the Maggid (storytelling) section of the Passover seder, the part in which the exodus story is told.  The text first appeared in haggadot dating from the Geonic period (circa 9th century) and is written in the...

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Ha lachama anya is the opening paragraph of the Maggid (storytelling) section of the Passover seder, the part in which the exodus story is told. 

The text first appeared in haggadot dating from the Geonic period (circa 9th century) and is written in the Aramaic language. Matzah symbolizes both slavery (in that it is a thin flatbread)  and freedom (since the Israelites left quickly, before their bread had time to rise). 

The passage presents matzah as a symbol of slavery and poverty, and indicates that those who have matzah should distribute to those in need. Just as we too were once impoverished and enslaved, we are obligated today – as people who are free and have all we need –  to care for those in need and invite them to our own table. 

Aramaic was the most commonly spoken language amongst Jews during the period that ha lachma anya was written. The decision to write the text in a language known by all is an indication of its importance.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • The Maggid section of the Haggadah tells the story of our enslavement in and exodus from Egypt. Ask the students: How would you choose to begin this section? What topic/idea/quotation do you think would be most appropriate? Now teach ha lachama anya, and ask the students what they think about this choice of opening words. What do we learn from it?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Why are we obligated to remember that we were once slaves specifically on the holiday of freedom? 
  2. Why do you think matzah is called “the bread of poverty”? 
  3. Why do we mention “the bread of poverty” specifically at the beginning of the Seder? 
  4. What is the connection between freedom and poverty? Can a poor person be completely free? 
  5. Can a person who has all they need be considered poor? Can you think of different types of poverty that are not necessarily economic? Give examples. 
  6. What does remembering our ancestors’ poverty teach us about our behavior in the present? 
  7. Why was a certain food – matzah – chosen to symbolize poverty? Why isn’t it sufficient to just talk about poverty?
  • Divide into small groups. Each group should think of a situation in which a person is limited in basic human activity because of poverty. The students should act out the situation and ask the others to suggest ways in which society can help solve this problem – not just by giving money, but rather a long-term solution.
  • An ancient Passover custom is kimcha depsacha (literally: Passover flour) – collecting food and tzedaka for those who do not have the means to observe the holiday. Organize a group tzedaka campaign for Passover. Have the students make a card to attach to the packages, explaining the kimcha depascha custom and the messages conveyed in ha lachama anya.
  • You can show the students this movie about ha lachama anya, which uses sand drawings to illustrate the connection between the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and supporting those in need.
  • Chazal (Our Sages) interpret the words chametz and matzah according to their sounds in Hebrew: Chametz – similar to the word l’hachmitz (to miss out), and matzot – similar to the word mitzvah (commandment), as well as l’matzot (to make the most of something). Chazal point to the Jewish law dictating that matzah shouldn’t be made into chametz to teach us a new idea: Don’t miss out on doing a mitzvah – “a mitzvah that falls into your lap should not be missed” (Mechilta Shemot 12, 7). How can we avoid missing out on an opportunity to do good deeds?
    An additional lesson that may be learned is to not to miss out on opportunities, and to make the most of them.
    Discuss: When did you miss out on an opportunity? How could you have made the most of it?
  • According to commentators, chametz – which rises and expands – symbolizes pride, while the thin and simple matzah symbolizes humility. Discuss: When do we behave like chametz, and how could we behave like matzah in that same situation? Are there instances where chametz, pride, is advantageous?