Eating matzo on Passover is a mitzvah. But it’s not easy for everyone: People who suffer from celiac disease or other ailments that render them unable to eat gluten—found in wheat and other grains, and their derivatives—can’t eat matzo.
Enter Yehuda Gluten Free Matzo, made with tapioca starch, potato starch, potato flour, pressed palm oil, natural vinegar, egg yolks, honey, and salt. It’s a significant development for the gluten-free set, since it carries the seal of the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, the leading program of its kind. It’s kosher for Passover, too. But that doesn’t mean it qualifies as a mitzvah: The Yehuda matzo is clearly marked “Not for Sacramental Purposes,” both on the box and the website. Why?
According to the Orthodox Union, an authority on certifying kosher food: “Regretfully, because one can only perform the mitzvah of eating matzot at the Seder with a matzo that is made from one of the five varieties of grain (barley, wheat, rye, oats, and spelt), eating matzot using any of the other flours that are gluten-free would still not enable one to fulfill the mitzvah.” Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley.
Susan Cohen, the filmmaker behind the 2010 documentary Generation Gluten-Free, says GFCO certification is “major for a matzo brand.” She tried Yehuda matzo after seeing it at Whole Foods, and she approves. “It has a solid crack and a nice feel, and it tastes good with things on it.” She’s right; the toasted onion-flavored variety of gluten-free matzo-style squares aren’t half bad, and the salty flavoring (120 mg of sodium in each piece of matzo) makes them taste more like a flatbread than matzo.
But Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and CEO of the O.U., says that the gluten-free products made with tapioca aren’t really matzo at all, since the unleavened bread emblematic of Passover has to be made from one of the five grains. “You couldn’t make hamotzi on it,” he explained. There are two alternatives that can fulfill the matzo mitzvah in the eyes of the O.U.: Spelt matzo, which has a lower gluten content, can be substituted for regular matzo, as can oat matzo.
Cohen says that neither of those options is ideal. Even though it has lower gluten content than wheat, spelt is still a no-no for people with celiac disease, because it’s related to wheat. And while oats, by themselves, can be fine for celiacs, in practice, oats are easily cross-contaminated with wheat during the manufacturing process. “Hypothetically, if the matzo maker was buying certified gluten-free oats and had either a gluten-free manufacturing facility or tested the final product—if from start to finish, you had a gluten-free environment—then it would be fine,” she said. “[But] I don’t know if the people who are making the oat matzo are using certified oats.”
Genack allowed that different people have different sensitivities—and while unleavened bread made from anything other than the five grains wouldn’t qualify as a mitzvah, celiacs and others with gluten-sensitivities need not make themselves sick by eating halachically ordained matzo. “If someone can’t eat the matzo and it’s harmful to them, they’re not obligated to,” he concluded. “It really depends on what the condition is and how serious it is.”
Cohen is hardly deterred. “I have a very positive attitude as a celiac,” she explained. “I’ve learned that participation is always more important than whether I can eat something, so for me, participating and being at the Seder is what’s important.”
This year, Cohen will stick with the Yehuda matzo, and let another person at her Seder make the mitzvah with ordinary matzo. “Someone else will break the matzo,” she explained. “No big deal.”
Matzo and mitzvahs aside, recent years have seen an increasing range of gluten-free products for Passover, serving people with gluten-intolerance and allergies, as well as the one out of every 133 Americans afflicted with celiac disease—a genetic autoimmune disorder that causes antibodies to attack the intestine when gluten enters the system, a condition that some suggest affects Jews disproportionately.
The Manischewitz website has a ”health corner” that lists the company’s gluten-free kosher-for-Passover products—which include grape juice, apple butter, chocolate and vanilla cake mixes, and spiral-shaped noodles. Streit’s—long the go-to for Passover products, with their pink-wrapped boxes of matzo symbolizing the arrival of Passover in many grocery stores—now offers gluten-free kosher coconut macaroons. Though they don’t have the GFCO certification, they are made with sulfite-free coconut, invert sugar, sugar, potato starch, and egg whites, and contain eggs and nuts. Also available in the Whole Foods Passover section are Lilly’s Bake Shoppe gluten-free, lactose-free kosher-for-Passover chocolate-dipped chocolate macaroons, which are almost chocolaty enough to make you forget about all the stuff that’s not in them. Almost.
Thankfully, the traditional Passover meal is usually friendly ground for celiacs. “You’re still doing a meal heavy on protein, fruits, and vegetables,” Cohen explained. And, given the prohibition on bread products during Passover, meat isn’t prepared with flour the way it might otherwise be. At Cohen’s family’s Seder, where four attendees have gluten restrictions, they’ll serve protein, salad, and potatoes, which are “a gluten-intolerant person’s best friend”—potato starch is gluten-free. (Rice is another gluten-free gem, which is helpful for Sephardic Jews, who typically don’t refrain from eating kitniyot, which include rice, beans, and lentils, during Passover.)
Cohen says the holiday isn’t such a challenge for her anymore, thanks in part to the Yehuda matzo, which she calls a game changer. Besides, everyone who observes Passover pays a great deal of attention to everything they eat during the holiday, reading ingredients and checking for certifications; for celiacs, that’s business as usual. “You’re used to being in situations where you are paying attention to what you’re eating,” she said, “and making it work.”
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.