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Shiur #06: Does Bedikat Chametz Target the Chametz or the House?

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The first mishna in Pesachim presents the Rabbinic mitzva of bedikat chametz, the reason for which is subject to a famous debate between Rashi and Tosafot. Rashi maintains that searching for chametz is part of the effort to avoid the prohibition of bal yeiraeh and bal yimatzei. By contrast, Tosafot believe that the act of bitul – renunciation and nullification of the chametz – should be sufficient to alleviate any bal yeiraeh concerns. Instead, Tosafot claim, the Chakhamim instituted the mitzva of bedikat chametz to avoid any danger of possibly eating the chametz. The prohibition of chametz is unique in that it is not only forbidden to eat chametz, but additionally chametz must be physically eradicated; unlike other prohibited foods, chametz entails an additional prohibition of possession – bal yeiraeh. In the spirit of this Torah-installed chumra, the Chakhamim installed their own “chumra” in the form of bedikat chametz – not only to avoid ownership of chametz in a passive manner and not only to perform bitul, but to actively search for any remnants of chametz.
Tosafot and Rashi debate the reasoning behind the takana of bedikat chametz; they do not address the formulation of the takana of bedikat chametz. Was the obligation formulated around actual chametz or around a different axis?
This distinction emerges in an interesting question posed by the gemara (4a) about a rented house. Should the landlord perform bedikat chametz because it is HIS chametz in the rented house, or should the renter perform it because he currently owns the house through rental? The gemara may be questioning whether the obligation of bedikat chametz applies to the actual CHAMETZ or to the structure or home within which chametz is located. If the obligation applies directly to chametz, the owner of the chametz should presumably be obligated – in this instance, the landlord. However, if the obligation is to search a home for chametz, perhaps that obligation should devolve upon the current resident – in this instance, the renter.
This question of whether the obligation of bedikat chametz is a chovat chametz or a chovat bayit also affects an interesting detail about the syntax of the berakha recited on bedikat chametz. Rabbenu Tam (quoted by the Rosh in his comments to Pesachim 7a) claimed that mitzvot that are immediate actions generate a berakha beginning with the phrase al, such as “al netilat lulav;” The mitzva of lulav which entails a rapid and quickly ending act of lifting the lulav. By contrast, extended mitzvot, such as tefillin – which are worn for a duration of time – generate a berakha beginning with the prefix lam-ed, such as “le-haniach tefillin.” The gemara is clear that the berakha recited on bedikat chametz is “al bedikat chametz.” The Tosafot Rid (Sefer Ha-Makhria) questions this language, given that bedikat chametz may be a repetitive and extended activity. If one discovers chametz after the initial bedika, he must perform an additional act of bedika and removal. As such, bedika should be classified as an extended mitzva and should warrant a berakha beginning with lamed.
Perhaps Rabbenu Tam maintained that bedikat chametz obligates cleaning the HOUSE and not removal of chametz. As such, only one mitzva exists – assuring the house remains empty of chametz. Even though a person might be obligated to perform continual acts of bedika, all activities would be considered one halakhic process of purging the home from chametz and would warrant a berakha beginning with al and not one beginning with lamed.
Perhaps the most stunning question affected by the nature of bedikat chametz is the question of hachra’at ha-sefeikot, how to manage in a situation of doubt. We would expect that, if faced with a safek with regard to this mitzva, we should incline toward kula (leniency), since bedikat chametz is a Rabbinic requirement. Nevertheless, in numerous contexts, the response to a safek about chametz yields a chumra (stringency). The first mishna in Pesachim (2a) obligates bedika in any area in which chametz MIGHT be located. Why can’t a homeowner clean the KNOWN chametz and claim that all other areas of the house are considered safek, and therefore exempt from bedika? This trend resurfaces in the gemara’s discussion (9a-10a), in which several safek cases regarding an already cleaned house are discussed. The gemara raises several solutions but never suggests the overarching principle of safek de-Rabbanan le-kula.
Both the Ra’avad and Rabbenu Dovid claim that unlike most halakhic laws, which were instituted about CERTAINTIES, bedikat chametz was instituted specifically to address UNCERTAINTIES. The Torah prohibits ingesting ACTUAL neveila meat. Facing meat of uncertain identity, we either rule stringently or leniently depending on whether it is a de-oraita neveila or de-Rabbanan neveila. By contrast, bedikat chametz was instituted to remove UNCERTAINTIES regarding the presence of chametz. Hence, a situation of uncertainty – a case in which we are not sure about the presence of chametz – cannot be simply dismissed based on the principle of safek de-Rabbanan le-kula. The principle of ruling leniently about a safek de-Rabbanan doesn’t apply to a safek about chametz.
Chametz may be different from regular issurim because we are more inflexible about this issur in general due to the stringencies of the Torah itself – the punishment of karet and the unique prohibition of bal yeiraeh. This inspires the Chakhamim to be equally stringent about bedikat chametz and instruct us to not simply eliminate certain chametz, but also to attend to possibilities of chametz. Once the obligation is defined as addressing even a “possible” chametz situation, we cannot dismiss the specter of possible chametz based on the de-Rabbanan principle of safek de-Rabbanan le-kula.
From the wording of Rabbenu Dovid (and less explicitly from that of the Ra’avad), it appears that the reason that this bedikat chametz obligation is different and addresses “possibilities” rather than certainties is due to the fact that it is a house-based obligation. Had the obligation been defined as eliminating chametz, it would have targeted the object known as chametz, and in cases in which we are uncertain about the existence of chametz, we would have ruled leniently. Since, however, the obligation concerns cleaning a house, it inherently addresses cases of POSSIBLE chametz. A house ALWAYS has possible chametz (perhaps in addition to CERTAIN chametz in the kitchen). Once the bedika obligation was imposed upon a house, it was inherently defined as an obligation to search for possible chametz.
The question of whether bedikat chametz targets chametz or targets a home with potential chametz may also affect the reason that certain locations are excluded from bedikat chametz. The gemara (8a) exempts an exposed courtyard from bedikat chametz, since the birds will inevitably consume the chametz there. Would this apply to any situation in which animals can be counted on to remove remaining chametz? Indeed, the Beit Yosef cites an opinion in the name of Rabbenu Yerucham that a kitchen would be exempt from bedikat chametz if the number of chickens freely circulating would assure certain removal of the chametz. The exemption thus is not limited to a courtyard. However, if this were true and the exemption applied universally to all animal-congested areas, why was the rule articulated about a courtyard, rather than in a more general fashion regarding ANY area where animals roam?
Perhaps bedikat chametz entails a dual obligation – both to eliminate chametz as well as to clean the home. Typically, these two components overlap, but they do entail two very different obligations. Since the obligation is dual, bedikat chametz can only be exempted in the face of dual exemptions. A courtyard is exempt because in addition to the presence of birds, it is also not an integral part of the home. Birds will likely remove chametz, and their presence eliminates one element of bedika – chasing down potential chametz. However, in an actual home environment, the second element of bedika is binding – cleaning the home. The exemption from bedikat chametz only applies to a chatzer, in which two elements exist: birds who will likely consume chametz and the absence of a house-based obligation that would have been obligatory even in the likelihood of the animals consuming the chametz.
Rashi appears to adopt this perspective. The gemara exempts a roof of an attached balcony (a yetzia) from bedikat chametz. Rashi claims that this exemption only relates to a heavily slanted roof, upon which no chametz remains because it will definitely slide off. Several Rishonim question Rashi’s limitation of the bedika exemption to a heavily sloped roof; even a flat roof should be exempt, since the birds can easily access the chametz - just as in a chatzer. Evidently, Rashi believed that a chatzer is only exempt because the birds will likely eat chametz, as well as the fact that it does not structurally belong to the home, which eliminates the second element of bedika. Unlike a chatzer, the roof of a balcony is integrated into the home. Even though birds will likely access chametz there, the possibility of chametz still triggers the obligation to thoroughly search the home and its affiliated balconies.