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The Laws of Pesach - Introduction to Chametz and the Laws of Pesach

  • Rav David Brofsky

the laws of THE FESTIVALS



In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner




by Rav David Brofsky



Lecture #01: The Laws of Pesach

Introduction to Chametz and the Laws of Pesach



The Importance of Studying the Laws of Pesach Prior to Pesach


The gemara (Pesachim 6a-b) teaches that one should begin learning the laws of Pesach thirty days prior to the holiday.


We inquire about and investigate (sho'alin ve-doreshin) the laws of Pesach [beginning] thirty days prior.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Two weeks. What is the reasoning of the first view? Since Moshe rose on Pesach and instructed concerning the Pesach Sheni [which occurs thirty days later], as it says, "The Israelites shall perform the paschal sacrifice in its set time" (Bamidbar 9:2) and then it says [introducing the concept of Pesach Sheni], "There were people who were impure by reason of a corpse" (Bamidbar 9:6).


This enactment may have originally related to the need to properly prepare one’s Paschal sacrifice before Pesach (Avoda Zara 5b), but even after the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis retained this takanna (Tosafot, s.v. ve-hatnan).


The Rishonim investigate the reason behind this halakha and what it entails. They also cite another gemara (Megilla 32a), which records another ancient enactment.


Moshe instituted for Yisrael that they study the laws of Pesach on Pesach, those of Atzeret (Shavuot) on Atzeret, and those of Chag (Sukkot) on Chag.


What is the difference, if any, between these two halakhot, and what is the reason for and the meaning of this second enactment?


            R. Yoel Sirkis (Bayit Chadash [Bach]; 1561-1640) suggests in his commentary on the Tur that these passages actually complement each other. The passage in Megilla does not mean that one should study the laws of each holiday on the day itself, which is clearly, he reports, against common custom. Rather, the gemara intends to teach that one should study the laws of each festival “near” it; in the case of Pesach, according to the gemara in Pesachim, this means beginning thirty days prior.


            Most Rishonim disagree, however, and they explain that each passage refers to a different law.


The Ran (Pesachim 2b), as well as the Rashba (Megilla 4a), Ritva (ibid.) and Meiri (Pesachim 6a), explains that the gemara in Pesachim instructs a teacher regarding the proper manner in which to prioritize questions. The Tosefta (Sanhedrin 7:5) records that when "Two [students] who ask, one on-topic and one off-topic, we deal [first] with the pertinent question." The Ran explains that in our case, if a teacher must choose during the thirty days prior to Pesach whether to address a question relating to the laws of Pesach or another matter, he should relate to the question regarding Pesach (see Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:8).


Most Rishonim, including R. Achai Gaon (She'iltot, Tzav 78), Rashi (Rosh Ha-shana 7a, s.v. atei; Bava Kama 113a., s.v. be-rigla), Tosafot (Megilla 4a., s.v. mai irya), and the Rokeach (244), explain the gemara according to its simple understanding: One should review the laws of Pesach for thirty days prior to Pesach.


The Beit Yosef (429) explains that because the laws of Pesach are so numerous, including the proper grinding of wheat, the baking of matzot, hag’alat keilim, and bi’ur chametz, the Rabbis allowed a full thirty days for one to properly study its laws. The halakhot of Sukkot, he claims, are less cumbersome and can be reviewed in a “day or two.” Rashi disagrees with this view in numerous places (Berakhot 30a, Sukka 9a, Bava Kama 113a, Sanhedrin 7a) and implies that this law applies to Sukkot as well.


Incidentally, the Rambam omits the passage from Pesachim 6a in the Mishnah Torah, although he does cite the obligation to study the laws of the festival on its day (Hilkhot Tefilla 13:8). The Acharonim discuss this issue in depth. Some suggest that since “sho'alin ve-doreshin” is merely preparatory, the Rambam felt no need to codify it as obligatory. Alternatively, some suggest that it is subsumed under the other laws which relate to the thirty days prior to Pesach (see Pesachim 4a, and Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 2:19).


According to the Rishonim who accept the obligation to study the laws of Pesach for thirty days prior at face value, what does the gemara at the end of Megilla, which demands that one study the laws of each festival on the festival day, refer to? The Beit Yosef (ibid.) writes that on the day itself, one should study the reasons why we observe the particular chag. In addition, he suggests that one should learn the laws relating to Yom Tov.


Some Acharonim explain that while the thirty days prior to the festival are dedicated to preparing for the festival, learning about the festival on the day itself fulfills a different and independent obligation – the obligation to relate to the day through limud ha-Torah. Indeed, the gemara (Beitza 15b) derives that one should divide one’s time on Yom Tov between physical and spiritual enjoyment. As the Rambam (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:19) writes:


Even though eating and drinking on Yom Tov is a positive commandment, one should not spend the entire day eating and drinking. Everyone must rise early to batei kenesiyot and to batei midrash, where they learn and read Yom Tov portions in the Torah, and then return home to eat. They then return to batei midrashot and learn until midday. After midday, they recite Mincha and return home to eat and drink until nightfall.


Apparently, the proper celebration of a festival entails physical enjoyment, fulfilled through eating and drinking, and spiritual enjoyment, fulfilled through prayer and learning Torah. That learning, the gemara suggests, should relate specifically to the day, thereby elevating one’s spiritual connection to the festival.


The Laws of Pesach


As noted above, the laws of Pesach are numerous and complicated. Over the next few months, we will, iy”H, study the following topics:


1) The definition of chametz, including chametz, se’or, and chametz nukshe (including egg matza).

2) Chametz that has been spoiled, including chametz she-nifsal me-ackhilat kelev, medicines, and cosmetics on Pesach.

3) Mixtures of chametz, including the unique stringencies of chametz, and kitniyot.

4) The legal relationship to chametz, including the prohibition of bal yeira’e u-bal yimatzei, the disposal of chametz, including the mitzva of tashbitu, bittul and bi’ur chametz, as well as bedikat chametz and mechirat chametz.

5) Kashering utensils for Pesach, including hag’alat keilim, libun, etc.

6) The laws of Erev Pesach.

7) Mitzvot leil ha-seder:

8) Sippur Yetziat Mitzraim.

9) Matzah, maror, the Four Cups, and the seder.



The Prohibitions of Chametz


The prohibition of chametz, as we will demonstrate, is unique. Chametz is different from other prohibited foods both quantitatively and qualitatively.


The Rambam enumerates the various mitzvot and prohibitions relevant to Pesach in the Mishnah Torah. Aside from the sixteen mitzvot associated with the Korban Pesach (see the introduction to Hilkhot Korban Pesach), he lists another six commandments that relate to chametz:


1) The prohibition of eating chametz from midday of the fourteenth of Nissan (Devarim 16:3).

2) The prohibition of eating chametz for all seven days of Pesach (Shemot 13:3).

3) The prohibition of eating a mixture (ta’arovet) containing chametz for all seven days of Pesach (Shemot 12:20). (The Ramban, in his comments on the Rambam’s Sefer Ha-mitzvot [negative commandment 198], disagrees, arguing that there is no separate prohibition of a ta’arovet chametz).

4) The prohibition of “seeing” chametz in one’s possession during the seven days of Pesach (Shemot 13:7).

5) The prohibition of having chametz “found” in one’s procession during the seven days of Pesach (Shemot 12:19). The Rabbis understand this and the previous prohibition as referring to owning chametz during Pesach.


In addition, the Rambam lists a related negative commandment:


1) The obligation to dispose of (tashbitu) leaven (se’or) on the fourteenth of Nissan.


Unlike other prohibited foods, the Torah not only forbids eating chametz, it prohibits owning it. This is articulated by two separate prohibitions, known as “bal yeira’e” and “bal yimatzei.” Furthermore, unlike other prohibited foods, regarding which a mixture (ta’arovet) of the issur with heter may not be forbidden by the original prohibition, the Torah explicitly prohibits a mixture containing chametz (according to the Rambam). In addition, we are commanded to dispose (tashbitu) of our chametz: to search our houses (bedikat chametz), locate and destroy any chametz left in our houses (bi’ur chametz), and even declare null (bitul chametz) any chametz we may not have found.  


Moreover, the Talmud (Pesachim 21b) teaches that in addition to the prohibition to eat chametz, it is also prohibited to derive benefit from it (issur hana’ah). The Amoraim argue regarding the source of this prohibition.


Chizkiya states: What is the source from which we learn that it is forbidden to derive benefit from chametz? The Torah states (Shemot 13:3): "And chametz should not be eaten;" that is, it is not permitted [to be used to derive benefit that leads to] eating. The reason is because the Torah says, “And chametz should not be eaten,” and not, “And he should not eat chametz.” Had it said that, I might have thought that it is [only] prohibited to eat, but one may derive benefit from it. R. Abahu states: Wherever the Torah states, “He should not eat” or “Do not eat,” a prohibition against eating and deriving benefit is implied, unless the Torah instructs otherwise.


Regarding other prohibited foods, the Rambam (Hilkhot Ma'akhalot Assurot, 8:15) cites the view of R. Abahu, who teaches that whenever the Torah states, “Do not eat,” it includes the prohibition of deriving benefit from prohibited foods unless instructed otherwise. It is therefore curious that in Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza (1:2), the Rambam seems to cite the position of Chizkiya.


On Pesach, it is forbidden to derive any benefit from chametz, as the Torah states (Shemot 13:3) states, "Do not eat chametz;" that is, it is not permitted [to be used to derive benefit that leads to] eating.


            The Acharonim discuss this issue at great depth; it is sufficient to point out that the Rambam felt it necessary to enlist a separate, independent source to prohibit benefiting from chametz.      A similar situation is found when the Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 1:7) records the prohibition of eating less than a kezayit of chametz, known as “chatzi shi’ur:”


Eating even the slightest amount of chametz itself on Pesach is forbidden by the Torah, as it states (Shemot 13:3), "Do not eat [leaven]." Nevertheless, [a person who eats chametz] is not liable for karet, nor must he bring a sacrifice for anything less than the specified measure, which is the size of an olive.


Here, too, the Acharonim note that the Rambam did not need to cite an independent source for this prohibition, as R. Yochanan (Yoma 73b) already prohibits eating an amount less than a kezayit of all prohibited foods.


One last distinction between chametz and other prohibited foods is that unlike the latter, the punishment incurred for eating chametz is karet. As the Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 1:1) rules:


Anyone who intentionally eats a kezayit of chametz on Pesach from the beginning of the night of the fifteenth [of Nissan] until the conclusion of the day of the twenty-first [of Nissan] is liable for karet, as the Torah states (Shemot 12:15) states, "Whoever eats leaven... will have his soul cut off."


            Thus, a unique (and stringent) picture of the prohibition of chametz emerges. Apparently, in contrast to other prohibited foods, the Torah demands that one separate completely from and sever all ties to one’s chametz. Chametz is portrayed as an “evil” entity, which one may not eat even in small quantities or in a mixture, nor derive benefit from, nor maintain with it any legal relationship. One must search for it and destroy it. We will further develop this theme as we discuss bi’ur and bittul chametz.


            What is so evil about chametz? This question has occupied Jewish thinkers for two thousand years.


Interestingly, the prohibition of chametz is not limited to Pesach. The Torah also forbids bringing chametz with one’s korbanot:


No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be with leaven (chametz), for you shall burn no leaven (se'or) or honey in any fire offering to the Lord. (Vayikra 2:11)


And that which is left thereof shall Aharon and his sons eat; it shall be eaten without leaven in a holy place; in the court of the tent of meeting they shall eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it as their portion of My offerings made by fire; it is most holy, as the sin-offering and as the guilt-offering (Vayikra 6:9-10).


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh seems to distinguish between these two prohibitions. Regarding chametz on Pesach, the Chinukh (mitzva 11) insists that all of the mitzvot of Pesach, including the obligation to eat matza and the prohibitions of chametz, serve to remind us of the exodus from Egypt.


In order that we remember forever the miracles which were done for us at the time of the Exodus, as well as what happened to us. Due to the rushed departure, we baked the dough into matza because we could not wait for it to rise.


He views the issurei chametz as corollaries to the hasty manner in which the Jews left Egypt, which we also commemorate through the eating of matzot.


Regarding the prohibition of bringing se’or and chametz as a korban, however, he explains (mitzvah 117) that the rejection of chimutz (leavening), which occurs through a delay in the process of making the dough, emphasizes the centrality of “zerizut” (alacrity or enthusiastic diligence) in the service of God. The mizbei’ach (altar) cannot tolerate anything that symbolizes sluggishness and laziness. 


Many, however, connect to two prohibitions and suggest overarching reasons for the rejection of chametz. Some, for example, view chametz as a symbol of idolatry (avoda zara), one of the most severe sins of the Torah. R. Menachem Kasher (1895-1983), in his Torah Sheleima (19, appendix 20; see also Hagadda Sheleima, appendix 7) observes that the details of the prohibition of chametz resemble the laws of avoda zara in at least six ways.


1) Both chametz and avoda zara share the unique prohibition against possession.

2) Both chametz and avoda zara must be destroyed.

3) Both chametz and avoda zara are issurei hana’ah (one may not derive benefit from them).

4) Both chametz and avoda zara cannot be nullified in a ta’arovet, a mixture of permissible and prohibited foods.

5) Both chametz and avoda zara (in certain circumstances) may be “nullified” through an oral declaration (bittul).

6) Just as we check our houses for chametz (bedikat chametz) before Pesach, the Jewish People were commanded to search the Land of Israel for remnants of idolatry (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 7:1).  


Some draw a historical connection between chametz and ancient pagan worship. The Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 1:1) derives this from a verse in Amos (4:5). Furthermore, the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46) writes:


Due to the fact that the idolaters would sacrifice only leavened bread and they would offer up all manner of sweet food and would smear their animal sacrifices with honey ... therefore, God warned us not to offer to Him any of these things, leaven or honey.


According to these sources, the Jewish People confirm their absolute rejection of pagan worship as they commemorate leaving Egypt and becoming a nation by not eating, owning, or benefiting from chametz, and even destroying it.


While the Rambam draws a historical connection between ancient pagan worship and chametz, the Zohar (2:182) hints to a spiritual connection: "Whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol.” This may relate to another interpretation of the prohibition of chametz, as we shall see.


Others compare se’or, a leavening agent, to the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. The Talmud (Berakhot 17a) teaches:


R. Alexandri would end his daily prayers with the following supplication: “Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to Your will; but what prevents us from doing so? The yeast in the dough (se’or she-be-issa).


R. Alexandri views “se’or,” a leavening agent added to flour and water that causes the mixture to rise (such as sourdough or yeast) as a metaphor for the evil inclination, which rises within us, similar to the leavening of the dough.


Indeed, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh cited above (mitzva 117) offers a second reason why the Torah prohibits bringing se’or as a korban.


And I heard another reason behind the prohibition of se’or and honey. Since se’or causes [the dough] to rise… therefore, we should distance ourselves from it, alluding to [the verse], “Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord” (Mishlei 16:5). 


Similarly, R. David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (the Radbaz; 1479-1573) discusses the many stringencies of chametz. After attempting to attribute these stringencies to the similarity between chametz and idolatry, he writes:


Therefore, I rely upon that which the Rabbis taught that chametz symbolizes the “evil inclination,” the “se’or she-be-issa.” Therefore, a person should utterly banish it from his midst and search for it in all of the inner chambers of his consciousness, as even the smallest amount is not nullified. And this is true and correct.


            What is the relevance of the evil inclination, as represented by chametz, to Pesach, the festival that commemorates our redemption from the bonds of Egyptian slavery?


            Some suggest that upon attaining freedom from the physical slavery of Egypt, we reject the “fleshpots of Egypt” (Shemot 16:3). We reject the emphasis on physicality, and embrace, as servants of the Lord, a life of simplicity. Our lives are now “theocentric;” God is at the center, and not our own will and desires. We eat, therefore, not chametz, but matza, “lechem oni,” the simple, poor-man’s bread.


            The Torah does not prohibit chametz during the entire year. Only in the presence of God at the altar or as we commemorate our freedom do we shun all traces of chametz. We are well aware that without the yetzer ha-ra, man would not build, procreate, or develop. On Shavu’ot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah, a spiritual event, we are commanded to offer the shetei ha-lechem, two loaves of bread, in the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Shemot 23:17). The Torah is intended to be fulfilled in this world, entailing a lifelong personal and national struggle. We are to incorporate our “self,” including our desires and aspirations, into the fulfillment of the Torah. On Pesach we commemorate freedom from the evil inclination and our ability to worship God; on Shavuot we commemorate the giving of the Torah and the challenge of its fulfillment.


            Next week we will begin our study of the laws of chametz.