Shiur #12: Defending the Rambam's Position Regarding Bittul Chametz

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Talmudic Methodology
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #12: Defending the Rambam's Position Regarding Bittul Chametz

By Rav Moshe Taragin



A previous shiur addressed the efficacy of bittul chametz in resolving the issue of "Bal yeira'eh."  Conceptually, the prohibition to possess chametz on Pesach should only be solved by actual physical removal.  Yet the Gemara (Pesachim 4b) asserts that from a biblical standpoint a mere verbal declaration of disinterest, known as bittul, is sufficient.  The rabbis require actual bedika and subsequent physical destruction for a range of different reasons and concerns; however, fundamentally, bittul is sufficient to evade any issur of possession. 


Tosafot adopt a monetary view of bittul, rendering it a form of hefker, a legal repudiation of ownership.  After bittul, the chametz is no longer in one's possession, and therefore no prohibition applies.  Many other Rishonim – most notably the Rambam — believe that a bittul declaration subjectively reconfigures chametz as 'dust' or as inconsequential.  Halakha empowers a person to create a virtual reality concerning chametz.  Though objectively the food may be edible or even tasty, if the owner's perspective is one of disinterest, the food loses its status of chametz. 


Unlike Tosafot, who define bittul in classical hefker terminology, the Rambam expounds an entirely new category: that chametz and its identity is not just a matter of ingredients and edibility, but of context and personal perspective.  From where did he draw this novel idea?


Rashi (4a) appears to agree with the Rambam and in a subsequent comment traces the notion of bittul as “the degradation of chametz” to an actual verse.  When describing the prohibition of possessing chametz and the manner of disposal, the Torah employs an unconventional and almost flimsy verb.  Instead of instructing us to burn or destroy (teva'aru or tashmidu) the Torah demands that we abate the chametz: "tashbitu".  This unorthodox articulation indicates that the status of chametz is flexible and that subjective demotion can diminish its status as chametz.  In fact, in the second chapter of Hilkhot Chametz U-matza, when the Rambam describes his 'demotion theory' of bittul he alludes to the syntax of "Tashbitu" as a possible source for his theory.


In truth, the “demotion theory” of bittul may already be latent in several gemarot in Pesachim.  For example Pesachim 31b allows that chametz trapped underneath the rubble of a collapsed building does not require actual removal.  Even if the chametz per se is preserved, encased in some impermeable container, its 'context' - compromised by its location underneath rubble — may render it “demoted chametz”, which poses no "Bal yeira'eh" problem.  To be sure, the ensuing gemara does demand bittul even for this chametz, suggesting that the demoted status of this chametz may not be sufficient to avoid "Bal yeira'eh."  However, many positions see this bittul as secondary, implemented to solve peripheral concerns; fundamentally, the collapsed state of the building covering the chametz renders it insignificant and innocuous. 


An even more tantalizing possibility emerges from a gemara (21b) which asserts that chametz which has been burnt before Pesach may be utilized on Pesach proper.  Tosafot claim that the chametz was entirely burnt to coal, and therefore it is no longer physically or chemically considered bread.  However, some Rishonim disagree, questioning the need for the Gemara to reveal an idea which should seem obvious.  Instead, these Rishonim describe a scenario in which the chametz is singed by inserting it momentarily into a fire, thereby scorching the outer layers.  This charred chametz, though completely edible on the inside, poses no "Bal yeira'eh" threat.  Perhaps the same demotion process in underway; by inserting chametz into a flame, its owner displays dismissiveness toward the chametz, resolving any "Bal yeira'eh" issue despite its objective edibility.  These two gemarot elucidate the theory of the Rambam.  Indeed, in these two instances, actual physical conditions contribute to the trivialization of the chametz (rubble or scorching), but the model of edible chametz which has been demoted certainly underlies these two scenarios. 


A third possible precedent for the Rambam's theory may stem from another fascinating gemara (45b).  This gemara first asserts that moldy bread must still be attended to, as it constitutes a "Bal yeira'eh" threat.  As it can be utilized to leaven other fresh bread, it must be reckoned as chametz.  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar discriminates between typical stale bread and a large mass of hardened yeast which a person designated as a chair or other seating item.  As this person renders this block of yeast a chair, it loses its status as chametz and can be ignored.  Once again, chametz is depicted as more than just chemical ingredients; once again, context and personal perspective demote the chametz and evade "Bal yeira'eh."  Of course, this situation is far less novel than the Rambam's innovation; the gemara refers to stale bread or hardened yeast blocks, and as these substances are only marginal chametz, they may be redirected and reconfigured as alternate substances.  Can the same be said about intact and edible chametz, which was not redirected for alternate utility but verbally demoted?  Indeed, Rabbeinu Yonatan of Lunel, in his commentary to this gemara, does associate bittul with this precedent, perhaps justifying the possibility that the Rambam employed this gemara as his model as well. 


Though the Rambam's bittul theory appears unique, it may have textual sources and may already possess ample precedent in several situations already found in the gemara.  The status of chametz may be dependent on context and attitude, not just chemical composition. 

Chag kasher ve-sameach!