Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Oat Matzo: From Scotland to the World

By R. Deutsch

Twenty-two years ago, a little girl approached Rabbi Kestenbaum and she wept. "I will be bas mitzvah in a few years and I won't be able to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzo."

The little girl, who suffered from celiac disease, was the catalyst for the production of gluten-free oat matzos used by thousands of people worldwide.

People afflicted with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein substance contained especially in wheat flour. This disease affects approximately one in 130 people.

Rabbi Ephraim Kestenbaum, who currently resides in London, is a chemist by profession. He decided to research the possibilities of producing gluten-free matzos. He said, "I set about trying to find ways to do this seemingly impossible task."

At the same time in Manchester, Dayan Osher Westheim was also conducting research to produce gluten-free matzos. The two men joined forces and the idea was on its way to becoming reality.

Rabbi Kestenbaum chose to try working with oats, whose gluten level can vary significantly from crop to crop. After personally testing samples from many farms, he found one with a very low gluten level. The Rabbi supervised the harvesting and sent the grain to Dayan Osher Westheim, where it was ground by hand. The people there still remember the terrible dust it generated.

The flour was then taken to a local matzo bakery where, with Rabbi Kestenbaum's assistance, it was painstakingly baked into matzos.

Since gluten is the elastic that holds dough together, baking without it is very complicated, and many things need to be constantly monitored to ensure a workable dough.

"I thought I was baking matzos for one little girl; I had no idea how prevalent celiac disease was. But word spread like wildfire, and soon I was flooded with requests."

Over the next few years, Rabbi Kestenbaum continued testing field after field in search of a lower gluten level in oats. Finally, on a farm near Edinburgh, Scotland, in a small section just ten square feet out of many acres of fields, he found a type of oat that — unbelievably — contained no gluten! This phenomenon is extremely rare and Rabbi Kestenbaum used all the oats from that small field to reseed another part of the farm.

It is from this field that all the matzos are now produced. The oats are constantly monitored to ensure that there has been no contamination from other, gluten-containing grains.

Twenty years ago Rabbi Kestenbaum was strengthened by the support of HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for many years.

"There are certain halachic requirements that apply," says Rabbi Kestenbaum. "First of all, there must be at least five or six days without rain — no simple matter in Scotland — before we can harvest. Second, the grain must be cut in the afternoon, when it is not moist from dew. Another requirement is that it be cut prior to reaching full ripeness."

Two years ago, the plan was to harvest the oats on a Monday, just before the oats would ripen. On Friday morning at 5 a.m. Rabbi Kestenbaum spoke to the farmer who told him: "The skies are totally overcast; it's not raining yet, but it will surely start soon."

"Reserve a room for me in the farmhouse, I am coming on the next train"

"But you can only cut in the afternoon. It is not worth coming. Why don't you come tomorrow?"

"I can't do that, it is our Sabbath tomorrow."

The farmer then placed a call to the Manchester Beis Din.

"All around the farm it was pouring," Rabbi Kestenbaum recalls. "The sky overhead was black. We worked as quickly as possible in the race against time, and as soon as the last of the grain was in the silo, the rain came down. I have experienced siyata deShmaya like this many times," he says.

At this stage in the process the grain — now called groats — is packed into 440-pound (200-kilogram) bags to be sent south to process. The mashgiach of the Manchester beis din, who is there at every stage, seals the sacks, and Rabbi Kestenbaum signs them.

Oats contain a very bitter enzyme that makes them most unpalatable. Ordinarily, steam is injected into the groats to remove the bitterness. This, of course, is not an option for the matzos, as it would render them chometz. So an alternative method had to be devised. For the first few years the matzos did indeed have a very unpleasant taste, but not any more. Through much trial and error Rabbi Kestenbaum came up with an ingenious method involving much pounding and shaking of the groats.

The processed oats are then sent to Suffolk to be milled. Although Rabbi Kestenbaum has been working with this company for over twenty years, he says this year the results were very poor.

In Israel (where the matzos are baked) Rabbi Kestenbaum wanted to remill the oats, but most of the mills could not work with coarse flour. He found one mill in Afula that used a suggestion of his and produced satisfactory results.

The biggest market for the matzos is America, followed closely by Eretz Yisroel. But the matzos are shipped to all corners of the world, including Poland and Russia. Only machine matzos are widely available, baked in Yerushalayim.

The story of gluten-free matzos has been written about in various frum publications in Eretz Yisroel, but when Rabbi Kestenbaum was asked for an interview by an anti- religious paper, he had misgivings. Nevertheless, the interview was scheduled, and as the Rabbi was explaining the processes involved, he relayed the information that eating matzo is a commandment from G-d.

The reporter was skeptical. "You are an intelligent person. Do you really believe that it is a Divine commandment?"

Never one to turn down a chance to bring Jews closer to their Creator, Rabbi Kestenbaum said he had no doubts whatsoever.

"Rabbi," said the irreligious reporter solemnly, "I have never eaten matzos in my life, but this year I think I will."

Following the publication of the very respectfully written article, Rabbi Kestenbaum's daughter in Eretz Yisroel received over two hundred calls, with each caller saying how the article prompted him to eat matzo for the first time ever.

What a Kiddush Hashem had resulted — all because of a crying little girl and a man who would not give up!

These matzos are distributed all over the world. Rabbi Kestenbaum does not do this for a profit. He tries to break even, but some years does not manage even that. For information contact Rabbi Kestenbaum in England: (44-020) 8455 9476, or Fax: (44-020) 8455 3212; or Mrs. Perednik in Israel: 02 930 9652


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.