What’s the difference between bread and matzah?
The first question by the youngest child at the Passover seder is, “Why on other nights do we eat bread or matzah but on this night only matzah?” The question suggests there is an essential distinction between matzah and bread. The Torah says that the matzah didn’t have time to rise before the slaves had to flee Egypt, so traditionally Jews focus on this inflation and all its many symbolisms: inflation of self, of ego, of pride, of valuing inessential objects, of material achievements, Pharaoh’s obstinacy and overweening sense of himself as a deity, and so on.
But this answer begs a question. Why does the seder prescribe an extra prayer over the matzah? Is it or isn’t it really bread? If it isn’t, what’s the difference? What makes bread bread and matzah matzah? Since both matzah and bread are just wheat flour and water, are they just versions of the same thing, or are they essentially different?
The simple answer is yeast. But what does yeast do?Yeast makes flour and water into bread. It also makes grapes into wine. Grape juice is just a soft drink. But wine is literally a spirit. A cracker is a good delivery platform for dip, but bread is the staff of life itself. Wine leavens our spirit. Bread sates. It’s no wonder humans worshiped bread and wine for thousands of years and even now sanctify them and use them to sanctify us. And it’s no wonder the Passover Haggadah calls matzah “the bread of affliction.” Matzah is bread that is dead. Dead bread. Yeast adds life to inert foodstuffs, transforming them magically into something spiritual. By ingesting wine and bread, we take some of that magic into us.
But though humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast even before they learned to write 5000 years ago, we are now just discovering the truly mysterious – even mystical – properties of yeast, and these new scientific discoveries seem to answer our questions about matzah.
The quantum biology of yeast and enzymes: gateway between life and death
Yeast is a single-celled living creature. When we let these creatures feed on their favorite food – sugar or anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates – they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. The process the ancients observed as a result of this action (it’s technical term is catalysis) is bubbling, rising fermentation. In the cooler processing of wine (and beer), the alcohol is retained in the liquid for our pleasure. Carbon dioxide is partly released when wine is moved in barrels. Some winemakers leave some of this carbon dioxide in the wine, and wine with lots of it is called champagne, but most wine is “degassed.” When we bake bread, we don’t get drunk on it because the higher heat evaporates alcohol. Instead, the carbon dioxide gas create bubbles in the sticky dough that expand and burst. This gives bread its texture.
High school chemistry labs often use yeast as an example of enzymatic activity. But what they didn’t teach us, because chemistry isn’t etymology, is that enzyme is just the Greek for “in yeast.” Even pre-literate cultures were in awe of the way yeast brought bread and wine to life and worshiped it as divine. Now, modern biology is coming to grips with this ancient wisdom: yeast, and enzymes generally, are the gateway between the living and the inert. After tens of thousands of years, the new science of quantum biology has finally suggested how yeast performs this magic.
Enzymes are present in all living things. They are incorporated into every living cell on Earth and are essential in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, and so on. They’re not organisms, but no organism or living process survives without them. In short, they’re a good battleground for the eternal philosophical war between materialists and vitalists. Materialists believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. It is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Vitalists argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Human consciousness particularly illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism. Fundamentalist materialists argue that everything can be explained ultimately, by self-consistent systems of reason, like logic or mathematics. Religious vitalists argue that the metaphysical force is divine.
Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes have until recently seemed to be purely chemical machines, although how they added life so efficiently was still mysterious. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been the best proof for the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.
It turns out that yeast is the ur-type of all enzymes, just as its buried etymology suggests, in that enzymes seem to introduce an inexplicable element of life onto the stage of mechanics. Enzymes require quantum effects to do their work, and quantum mechanics defy a strictly materialist view of the cosmos. Quantum physics defies logic, though we’ve learned to use them in MRIs and computer chips, and most scientists and engineers bracket out the way quantum mechanics rattles the foundations of science. In one version of these debates, every quantum process requires an aware being, an observer, to watch it work in order for it to become real, and this might be the essence we invoke when we say the extra prayer over matzah.
Five weird things about quantum mechanics
To most, even sophisticated scientists, quantum mechanics seems just weird. There’s no way to explain quantum processes without over-simplifying or resorting to analogies which exaggerate or distort its actual, full-on weirdness. But here are a few of the facts that you will need to know as we continue with our discussion of matzah. I leave it to you to decide how, or even if, you want to grapple any of it yourself:
- Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
- A sub-atomic entity isn’t in any one specific place until you observe it. Then it seems to settle on one. (Called “the Uncertainty Principle”)
- A single sub-atomic particle can be in two places at once. But if you affect one, its other self will react, even if they are separated by millions of miles. (Called “Superposition”)
- They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers and travel faster than the speed of light, and both backwards and forwards in time. (Called “Quantum Tunneling”)
- A subatomic particle holds multiple possible logically exclusive properties at the same time. When it is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. I.e,. it stops behaving quantumly and starts behaving classically. (Called “Measurement”)
Quantum tunneling in yeast
To understand the quantum theology of matzah, the last aspect is the most important. Until now, biologists have been content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world among physicists because they thought they were immune to it. They assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology, which conveniently remained obedient to classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) subatomic monkey business had already disappeared when it poked its head up into an organism, because the complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong. It’s awkward.
Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast works enzymatically to ferment the sugars in flour. It explodes the flat mound of dough and makes it rise as little bubbles of alcohol explode inside. It adds tastes by creating new molecules. But what was once thought to be a classical, if incompletely understood, mechanical process, we now know requires quantum tunneling.
Here’s the technical explanation: an enzyme in yeast takes a positively charged sub-atomic particle, the proton from the alcohol it has created, and transfers it to another molecule. This new molecule, with the addition of its extra proton, now has a positive charge. Like a magnet, it now attracts molecules carrying a negatively charged particle, the electron. So the new molecule that the yeast created (called nicotinamide alcohol dehydrase or NADH) becomes a very effective carrier and releasor of electrons. With NADH, the ingredients can now perform their actions very quickly, hundreds of times more efficiently. It’s like the brew now has an electric current running through it, with electrons able to hitch a ride and jump off when a chemical reaction needs an extra jolt of energy to make it happen.
So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry.
As it turns out, though, the speed at which electrons get transferred from alcohol to NAD+ to make NADH cannot be explained by classical chemistry. Quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above, can. Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, a subatomic particle like an electron can travel across barriers instantaneously by using its superpower of quantum tunneling. As this effect occurs among millions of molecules in the dough, it speeds up the process enough for biologists to conclude it must be involved. Since quantum tunneling have been confirmed in the activities of other enzymes, this is more than a guess.
This neat explanation of the quantum role in enzymatic action leaves one huge mystery, though: In order for the transport of the electron to occur, it can’t be just a probability, and in order for it to be more than a probability, it has to be observed or measured. The quantum Uncertainty – the electron can be here or there and therefore nowhere at all, really – has to become classical behavior: I see it now. Until now, biologists, scientists and other materialists have maintained that the sheer bulk and realism of the organism in which the quantum action occurs somehow collapses any quantum craziness, that the fact of the organism as a macroscopic entity itself performs the “observing.” But that argument no longer holds water and even seems like a tautology, fabulous circular reasoning, because enzymes drag quantum action and weirdness into the scene of the organism at every level. Enzymes, and the quantum, is ubiquitous in every process of every cell in an organism. In fact, it seems to be the essence of life itself.
“Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.”
– Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016) p. 97
There’s simply too much quantum funny business going on everywhere in a living being to say one part of the organism is classical and collapses the other part that is quantum.
Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis
Scientists have resolved the measurement problem another way. When the wave of quantum possibilities collapses into an actuality, the information contained in those probabilities has to go somewhere. Information, like energy, has its own law of conservation in the universe. Some quantum physicists have popularly suggested that instead of collapsing the quantum into the classical through observation, every time a quantum event collapses into a classical one, other universes are spawned. All the other probabilities that didn’t occur here do occur there, in these new universes.
This hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But there are a virtually infinite set of quantum events occurring everywhere at every instant everywhere in an organism, let alone the whole universe. Each of them would create an incalculable set of alternate universes. When I do the dizzying visualization of this scenario, it leads me to ask: Which is the more ridiculous vision of the cosmos, the one where there are unlimited infinities of universes or there is a Single Entity observing everything? In my opinion, the Multiverse Hypothesis creates an even crazier and more incomprehensible cosmos than the one we have.
But who knows? That’s what they said about quantum theory in the twentieth century. And that’s what most well-educated, postmodern, rational, sophisticated people say about God.
Quantum theology of matzah: Where is He?
Quantum theology is a term used by a few but growing number of theologians and mystics. On the other side of this philosophical tug of war, they are eager to seize on quantum theory to prove the existence of God. Many of their essays and speculations are plagued by vagueness, weak understanding of science, and an over-heated, optimistic leap into the irrational analogies between quantum science and the mystical. Their “proofs” often require taking analogous-sounding mysteries as literal equivalents. Quantum theology is largely the provenance of well-educated but reductionist fundamentalists.
The case of yeast is different. In this dance between the material and the vital, between science and faith, science leads us to conclude something strange is happening in bread that doesn’t occur in matzah. The new science of quantum biology shows quite specifically how the process of life itself depends on quantum action. In every possible process where life is created or sustained, enzymatic action is involved. And with quantum action comes the requirement that someone or something is observing the process. The nose of the quantum camel, and the problem of a conscious observer, has entered the tent of biology, but they were summoned by the biology. In fact, the tent is the camel. Something or someone has to be observing quantum events in enzymes to make them operative in life. Someone or something has to be operating life. Omnisciently.
Couple biophysics with the metaphysics of matzah and we get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without attention, perhaps without the attention of a Cosmic Consciousness. It represents enslavement to inert material. It is both literally the bread of affliction, the food of slaves, and symbolically life without redemption from our inner Egypt, the body without a soul. Matzah invokes a God who redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery more than three thousand years ago (3330 to be exact) and Who continues to operate the universe today by attending to its every quantum event. He is an incomprehensibly vast God Who observes every infinitesimal event, all the infinite infinitesimal events that occur every instant to sustain each living cell of each living organism. This is a God that watches everything actively. This God expands and unfolds His Cognizance as vastly, but more comprehensibly, than the universes imagined by the Many Worlds Hypothesis, where every quantum event creates disconnected alternatives, This God gives the universe an elegant unity. His watchfulness also makes life possible. It’s hard not to like this God and this idea of Him. Unless of course you find the very idea of anything not mechanical offensive to reason.
Sermon on Matzah
One of the sermons on matzah is a kabbalistic one. Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, explains that the three matzahs on the seder plate represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Matzah invites us to stretch our scientific wisdom to its fullest extent beyond enslavement to our preconceptions. It suggests the liberation of science from its prejudices. Is it really harder to believe in God than in the Multiverse Hypothesis? I don’t think so. The benefits of embracing both the intrinsic beauty of the metaphysical explanation and the elegance of its logic make a pretty persuasive case against atheism. From the outside looking in, all the attempts to bracket out a Universal Observer from the quantum situation look like contortions by science to avoid the obvious, the result of a fundamentalist-like commitment to a belief that there must not be a God in the universe.
This message in the matzah makes it the twin of Elijah’s cup, its secret sharer and, perhaps, the answer to the question it poses. One seder decades ago, when my children they saw Elijah’s cup was always empty at the end of the seder, they asked, “Where is he?” The matzah asks the same question about God: “Where is He?” and answers, “Not in this poor, dead bread that we eat because we are slaves. But in everything that lives.”
 Prof. Judith Klinman of UC Berkeley first suggested that quantum processes were involved in the enzymatic action in 1987. She has more recently found experimental evidence for it. See, for instance, Judith P. Klinman and Amnon Kohen, “Hydrogen Tunneling Links Protein Dynamics to Enzyme Catalysis,” Annual Rev Biochem. 2013; 82: 471-496.