Can Chametz Burnt Before Pesach Be Eaten Afterwards

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

            The mishna in the beginning of the second perek of Pesachim states that "any time it is permissible to eat [chametz]... it is permissible to benefit from [chametz]."  The gemara (21b) infers from this that one may benefit from chametz that was "singed/burnt before the issur began" on Pesach itself. Why should this burning permit me to benefit from the bread which remains? On the other hand, if the bread is actually burnt beyond 'edibility' why must the Mishna inform me of the permit to 'benefit.' This article will explore the various ways of interpreting this ambiguous gemara.


            Tosafot offers the simplest explanation for this halakha: the burning rendered the bread unfit to be 'eaten by a dog' - nifsal mei'akhilat kelev. Once an item has spoiled beyond this point it loses its halakhic status as 'food' (Okhel) and is no longer prohibited on Pesach. This principle has universal ramifications. Any item which is not fit for a dog's consumption is not mekabel tum'a (see Rambam Tum'ot Okhlin 2:18), nor must terumot and ma'asrot be separated from it (see Rambam Hilkhot Terumot 2:2 and Hilkhot Ma'aser 1:9).


            Though this approach seems to be the most intuitive approach, one might raise several questions. After burning the bread and rendering it unfit for canine consumption why is only BENEFIT permitted: shouldn't I be allowed to actually EAT the burnt coals?! The Ba'al Hama'or and Rabenu Dovid both address this question and each conclude that in theory one can eat the burnt bread. Since however the bread is now a charcoal we cannot relate to this act as eating. In essence he is allowed to swallow this coal but since this is not considered normal eating the Mishna did not mention it.


            This is not the only question plaguing Tosafot's explanation. If the burning removes the bread's status of food why must the burning take place before the issur begins: in theory one who burns the chametz once Pesach has already begun also removes the status of food and should be allowed to eat and benefit?! The Me'iri responds in the following manner: if the item was never considered 'Okhel' the issur could not apply. If however the issur already applied to this loaf of bread (because it was edible when Pesach began), the prohibition remains even after the food undergoes a chemical change such as burning. The Me'iri establishes an important principle. Once something is prohibited mere chemical changes will not remove the prohibition. In our case only prior burning can render the item 'non-Okhel ' and prevent the issur from ever falling upon the item.



            The simple approach suggested that burning removes the bread's status as food and the issur no longer applies. Special consideration had to be paid as to why only benefit is permitted in the Mishna and why the burning must be performed prior to the onset of the issur chametz.


            One question still remains : Why must this mishna in Pesachim remind us of this general concept? It is a well-known principle throughout Shas that once something is unfit for canine consumption it loose its status as food (Okhel). What is the 'chiddush' of our mishna in informing us of this concept.



            Rashi offers a related but different approach to this gemara. He writes that after the burning the bread has lost its 'taste and appearance.' Rashi does not state that the food is no longer fit for canine consumption but rather that it has lost its original flavor and appearance. Quite possibly, Rashi claims that though the item is still considered food it no longer can be considered bread and hence no longer is chametz. It is quite possible that part of the essential definition of chametz is that it retain some visual semblance to bread.


             The Rambam in Ma'akhalot Assurot 15;31 discusses certain medical bandages fashioned from flour. He claims that the prohibition of Bal Yira'eh (prohibiting ownership of chametz) does not apply since these items bear no resemblance to bread. A similar situation arises in the gemara Berakhot (37b) which discusses the berakha recited before eating several bread-based dishes. The gemara concludes that if the dish still retains the appearance of bread, a berakha of ha-motzi must be recited. Evidently, an essential part of bread's identity stems from its appearance as bread. Burning and blackening it on Erev Pesach changes that appearance and renders it no longer bread.


            Rashi's approach addresses one fundamental question. The mishna is correct in stipulating this halakha since it is a local one rather than a universal one. Our mishna is not informing us that food unfit for canine consumption is no longer okhel but that bread without the appearance of bread is not halakhically recognized as bread and not chametz. Though we located certain parallels to this concept is by no means assumed and our mishna felt the need to establish this notion.


            However Rashi must still address the two questions raised earlier: why isn't the bread permitted to be eaten and why must the burning be performed prior to Pesach? Rashi might rely upon the previously suggested answers - neither of which seemed perfectly satisfactory.


            A third alternative and probably the most novel one - is offered by the Michtam. He claims that the burning referred to in the mishna did not necessarily mean "burnt completely." As long as the outer crust of the bread was singed EVEN IF THE BREAD UNDERNEATH WERE FULLY EDIBLE AND FULLY RESEMBLED BREAD this loaf would be permissible. According to the Michtam the very ACT of singing the bread is a form of bittul - an act to designate the chametz as inconsequential and unimportant. By performing bittul the chametz becomes permissible.


            Of course the Michtam assumes a tremendous chiddush - whether by verbal declaration or through some act, use of fire, which demonstrates my lack of interest - bittul defines the bread as subjectively 'dirt.' (Even though objectively it can still be eaten, subjectively the bread is no longer "bread" and is therefore permissible.) This position is strongly supported by the versions of bittul which include some reference to the chametz being like the dust of the earth (see the Rishonim in Pesachim (6b) for the different versions of the bittul). Interestingly enough, according to the Michtam if the bread were accidentally singed without the knowledge or intent of the owner the bread might be forbidden to eat as no act of bittul was consciously performed.


            According to the Michtam it is quite understandable why the burning must occur before Pesach. The gemara rules that bittul is only effective prior to the chametz becoming assur. Once the chametz is prohibited, since I can no longer benefit from it I lose ownership and my subjective designations are meaningless. As burning is a form of bittul-designation it must be performed before the issur begins.


            In addition it becomes clear why only benefit is permissible. The Rosh already notes the delicate nature of the designation which this burning creates. If after burning it (and symbolically designating the chametz as dust) I pick up the bread to eat I subjectively redefine the item as bread and not as dust. These subjective definitions are very fluid. Indeed the act of burning rendered the bread into 'dust ' and as dust it is permissible to be eaten and one may benefit from it. Eating however would just serve to undo the previous designation. Merely benefiting from the item (using it for household purposes etc.) would in no way challenge my designation as dust. It is logical that this bread-designated-dust should be permissible to be used but prohibited to be eaten.



            We noticed two unique alternatives to Tosafot's initial intuitive understanding. Rashi recommended that the burning compromised the bread's taste and appearance and thereby removed its status as bread. The Michtam suggested that the actual act of burning indicated the bread's lack of significance in the owner's eyes and served as a form of bittul.





1) Sometimes an approach seems logically intuitive but 'suffers' in certain textual areas. Still other times it makes sense in a general sense but doesn't fully adhere to some of the particular components of the local gemara. Sometimes an idea is so obvious that we must ask ourselves "If this is the understanding, what is the chiddush and what is the necessity in iterating the halakha?"