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An 1859 fight over how to make matzah has lessons about the threat of AI today



(JTA) — In the last few months the world has been dazzled by an astonishing sequence of AI systems capable of performing all kinds of difficult tasks — writing code, composing poetry, generating artwork, passing exams — with a level of competence that rivals or exceeds what humans can do. The existence of these AIs has prompted all manner of soul-searching about the nature of humanity. It has also made many people wonder which human tasks are about to be taken over by machines.

The capabilities of these AIs are new and revolutionary, but the story of machines taking over human jobs is not. In Jewish history the most important story of that transition has to do with matzah, and it’s a story that carries important lessons for the present day.

Starting 164 years ago, dozens of European rabbis engaged in a furious debate that would not be fully resolved until the beginning of the 20th century. Matzah, which for millennia had been made by human hands in accordance with the narrow constraints of Jewish law, could now be processed with a series of machines that promised huge savings of time and money. As town after town adopted these machines, opposition began to rise, until it exploded in 1859 with the publication of “An Alert for Israel,” a collection of letters from prestigious rabbis, who adamantly argued that for anyone interested in following the laws of Passover a matzah made with a machine was no better than a loaf of bread.

The arguments for this position were many, but all will sound familiar to anyone following the AI conversation. Like today, some objected to the machines just because they were new and different, but most had more specific concerns. First, there was the matter of lost jobs. In many parts of Europe matzah was made by the poorest members of society, who were given the job as a way to help them raise money before one of the most cost-intensive holidays of the year. Ceding this job to machines would take work from those who could least afford it.

It takes about 20 seconds in a 1,300-degree, coal-and-wood-fired oven to bake shmurah matzah to perfection. (Uriel Heilman)

Beyond economics, there was concern that the machines just weren’t as reliable as people, especially given the rules around matzah-making outlined in Jewish law. What if bits of dough got trapped in the gears, quietly leavening for hours and unknowingly ruining whole batches of matzah in the process? What if the trays warmed the dough too fast? Without proper oversight, how could you trust your own food?

Finally, some objected to the loss of a literal human touch. Jewish law stated that matzah was supposed to be made by people who knew they were baking matzah. A machine, no matter how sophisticated, didn’t “know” anything. How could you eat matzah on Passover knowing that this most important food was made by a mindless machine?

The responses didn’t take long to arrive. “A Cancellation of the Alert,” a collection published the very same yearr, forcefully argued that machine matzah was perfectly fine — and possibly even better than the human product. No, inventions aren’t inherently bad. No, the machines wouldn’t harm the poor, because the machines made matzah less expensive for everyone. No, the machines weren’t prone to error — and they certainly weren’t more error-prone than lazy, careless humans. No, the machines didn’t know what they were doing — but the people who built them did, and wasn’t that enough?

The machines eventually won, but then something happened that I don’t think either side anticipated. With Manichewitz’s machine matzahs claiming most of the American market by the early 20th century, it was now the handmade matzah makers who were on the back foot; it was they and not the machines who needed to demonstrate that they were up to the difficult task of preparing this food with the efficiency and reliability of the machines.

The result is more than a little tragic. Matzah is the Jewish food with the deepest origins of all — deeper than brisket, deeper than latkes, deeper even than challah — and yet it is the ritual food most likely to be picked up at the supermarket and least likely to be made at home. While there are still communities today that exclusively eat handmade matzah, even this job is now largely outsourced to just a few companies that resemble their machine-driven counterparts in scale. While teachers will sometimes demonstrate how to make matzah for educational purposes, across the religious spectrum the era of locally made matzah is over.

Despite the fact that it’s hard to imagine a simpler baked good — matzah is just flour and water, and it’s literally illegal to spend more than 18 minutes making it — its production is treated as though it is only slightly less complicated than constructing a jet engine, and people are worried about shortages as though matzah were a natural resource or an advanced microchip. The transition has been so complete that we barely remember there was a transition at all.

Baked matzah coming out of the oven at Streit’s Matzo factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, date unknown. (Courtesy Streit’s Matzo)

Did the rabbis pushing for machine matzah know this was going to happen? Almost certainly not. The economic impact of machine labor is relatively easy to predict, but the psychological and cultural effects are a lot harder. There was probably no way of knowing how machines would change the way we thought about matzah in the long run, but today it’s clear that automating this ancient task has changed our own relationship to Passover’s central food — and because the change has resulted in a lot of alienation from matzah production, I’m not so sure it was a change for the better. Making matzah locally could have been a way to feel connected to the ancient Israelites, who left Egypt so fast that they didn’t have time to make anything else. Instead of emulating this ad-hoc food, we optimized it for cost and efficiency, in the process turning matzah into just another specialty cracker on the grocery store shelf. Was it really worth it?

It’s probably a bit much to say that OpenAI is just a modern Manischewitz, but the parallels between the debate about machine-generated matzah and the present debate about machine-generated everything are useful for considering how short-term policy choices around AI won’t necessarily capture all of the technology’s long-term effects on how human beings want to spend their time. When we relinquish an activity to an AI for economic reasons, we may eventually come to believe that humans are no longer qualified to do the task at all.

Then as now we must balance our economic needs against our ideas about what kinds of activities make for a good and fulfilling life.

The post An 1859 fight over how to make matzah has lessons about the threat of AI today appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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