Why is Chametz forbidden on Passover?

Rabbi Sungolowsky

Passover is a holiday celebrated in the month of Nissan. This is the time of the year that the Jews, thousands of years ago, were freed from hundreds of years of slavery in Mitzrayim. The torah states that it is forbidden to eat chametz during the week of the holiday of Passover (Shemos 12:15). The torah further commands us to search out and destroy any chametz in our possession before Passover (ibid). This positive commandment compliments the prohibition of “בל יראה” ( Devarim 16:4) which forbids a Jew to own Chametz during Passover. “Chametz” is dough that has come in contact with water and has been allowed to sit in that state for more then eighteen minutes until being baked. Another form of forbidden chametz is called “Seorשאור  -”, which means sourdough. Sourdough is chametz that has aged and is no longer edible. The function of sourdough in ancient times was to cause dough to rise (today we use yeast instead).

The most common reason given as to why the torah forbade consumption and ownership of chametz on Passover is in order to commemorate the redemption of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt (as we will see, even this “simple” explanation-פשוט פשט - has a important depth to it). However, in this paper I would like to demonstrate that there is another way to understand why the torah forbade us from eating chametz. Moreover this other approach resolves questions about the Halacha of forbidden chametz which the simple understanding does not seem to explain.

The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 12) takes the position that chametz was forbidden by the torah in order for the Jews to remember the miracles that Hashem performed for them at the time of the exodus. The way chametz reminds of these miracles, explains the Chinuch, is by reminding us that the Jews did not have enough time, when they left Egypt, to bake their dough fully into leavened bread. Rather, they were in such a rush to leave mitzrayim that their dough baked on their shoulders and ended up as the crackers that we refer to as matzos. However, the goal of the mitzvoth is not simply to remember the historical event that freed the Jews from their bondage in Mitzrayim. The Chinuch proceeds to show that there is a more profound significance to commemorating the exodus. The fact that the Jews were allowed to hastily leave mitzrayim after so many years of Pharoh stubbornly forbidding them to leave was only due to the many miracles that Hashem performed for them. These miracles manifested themselves as ten plagues, culminating in the plague of the first-born, during which all first-born Egyptians suddenly died. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the reason it is important to the torah that we remember the miracles leading up to the Exodus, is because doing so strengthens our faith in the existence of Hashem. Since only a Creator G-d can make miracles, the fact that miracles occurred at the time of the Exodus proves to us the existence of G-d. Furthermore, miracles show that Hashem is constantly involved in what transpires in the world and intervenes as He wishes. The fact that Hashem chose to make miracles to save the Jewish people from the Egyptians who were enslaving them, demonstrates that Hashem does care about current events and does intervene to influence the course of history. These ideas are the basics of Judaism and come in sharp contrast to the views of gentile philosophers who held that the world was either not created by G-d or that G-d does not intervene in or care about human endeavors.

The explanation that the Sefer Hachinuch provides about the prohibition of eating and owning Chametz (particularly in its simplified form), is probably the most widespread reason that is taught to Jews worldwide. However, there is seemingly a difficulty with this explanation. As stated above, the torah imposes the punishment of Karetכרת   (ex- communication from Gan Eden after death) for someone who intentionally eats chametz on Passover. By contrast, the mitzvah of eating matzah, as well as the mitzvah of recounting the story of the exodus (both of which are performed on the first night of Passover known as the leil hasederליל הסדר ), do not carry a penalty of Karet for failure to perform them. Yet the Sefer Hachinuch states that the reason why we eat Matzos, as well as the reason why we recount the story of the exodus, is the same concept as why we refrain from eating chametz. He says that the purpose of all three commandments is to recall the miracles of the exodus and thereby strengthen our belief in Hashem and his divine providence. If the reasons for all three mitzvos are identical, why should the punishment for the prohibition of eating Chametz be so much more severe than the mitzvos of eating matzo and recounting the story of the exodus?

The Maharal (in his sefer Gevuros Hashem chapter 51) finds symbolic meaning in the prohibition against Chametz. The Maharal points out that the process of making Chametz requires time. In order for flour that comes in contact with water to become Chametz, eighteen minutes must pass before baking. This is the opposite of the matzo baking process, which puts a premium on the element of speed. The faster the matzo is baked, the better it is from a Halachic perspective. The Maharal explains that the factor of time symbolizes “Tevaטבע ”, meaning the forces of nature. All physical processes require time to occur. Likewise the lifespan of all physical things is limited by time. Therefore, time is a symbol of physicality and nature. By contrast, the process of making Matzo, during which we try as much as we can to avoid time, represents the spiritual dimension. The spiritual dimension is characterized by the fact that it is not limited by time. By avoiding Chametz on Passover, we are making a statement that we do not believe that the world runs purely by nature without divide guidance. By eating Matzos, we seek to strengthen within ourselves the belief that there is a spiritual force, G-d, which created and continues to run the world. The reason we do this on Passover, is because (as we saw above in the explanation of the Sefer Hachinuch) the exodus was the time when G-d revealed His existence and providence to the world through the miracles that he brought against the Egyptians.

The Maharal’s explanation seems to present the same difficulty as the explanation of the sefer Hachinuch. According to the Maharal, Chametz symbolizes a belief that we are trying to rid ourselves of. Matzo represents a belief that we are trying to reinforce in ourselves. They are two sides of the same coin. Consequently, why should the punishment for eating Chametz be so much more severe then the punishment for failure to eat matzo? In order to answer these questions, we need to explore a different theory concerning why the torah forbade Chametz on Passover.

The gemarah in Brachosברכות  (17a), tells us that a righteous rabbi during the time of the Talmud would add a prayer at the conclusion of his shmona esrey amida. The rabbi would say as follows: “Master of the universe, it is known and revealed before you that our will is to do your will. What holds us back is only “Seor Shebeyisa -שאור שבעיסה ” (the sourdough in the dough) and our subjugation to foreign nationsשיעבוד מלכיות ”. Rashi comments on this gemarah saying that Seor Shebeyisa is a reference to the יצר הרע  yetzer harah, the evil inclination that incites a person to sin.

An initial point to clarify about this gemarah is- what is the purpose and intent of the metaphor comparing chametz to sourdough (yeast)? I heard the following explanation from Rabbi Benny Malkin of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. He noted that what Seorשאור  does to dough, is to inflate the dough and make it rise, thereby giving it the appearance of containing a large quantity. However, the truth is that when dough rises, the actual quantity of dough has not in fact increased at all. The same amount of dough that was there at the start remains after the process of fermentation has been completed. What the sourdough has done is to give an exaggerated appearance of how much dough there really is. This is the technique that the yetzer harah also uses in order to convince us to sin. He inflates and exaggerates the amount of pleasure that a person stands to gain by doing sins or refraining from performing mitzvos. At the same time, the yetzer harah also exaggerates the difficulty involved in meticulously observing all of the mitzvos. Thus what yeast does to dough is what the yetzer harah says to us in order to convince us to sin.

 Based on the aforementioned metaphor of Seorשאור  representing the yetzer harah, the Radvaz (in volume 3, responsum number 546, as well as in Metzudos Dovid #107) suggests a different reason for the prohibition of Chametz on Passover. The Radvaz explains that by physically destroying and then refraining from Chametz, we symbolically show our desire to eradicate the yetzer harah from within us. This symbolic act is designed to inspire us to actually rescue ourselves from the yetzer harah’s control. Since removing the yetzer harah from our decision making process is a crucial component of a Jew’s avodas Hashemעבודת השם , the Torah was very stringent about this matter and imposed the punishment of Kares for one who fails to perform this symbolic act and instead eats chametz on Passover. Furthermore, given that the prohibition of eating Chametz is intended to achieve a different goal then the commands of eating matzos and recounting the story of the exodus, it is not difficult to understand that the former mitzvah bears a different punishment than the latter two Mitzvos.

The Pele Yoetzפלא יועץ  (topic of חמץ ) works with the same concept as the Radvaz, namely that the idea behind refraining from chametz during Passover is to symbolically eradicate the yetzer harah from within us. Again, this is based on the metaphor of the gemarah in Brachos, which compares the yetzer harah to the sourdough in the dough. The Pele Yoetz goes beyond the Radvaz and makes the astonishing statement that “the pshat פשט(i.e. simple understanding) of the mitzvah of destroying Chametz, is the metaphorרמז  that this mitzvah alludes to, namely the idea of removing the yetzer harah from inside us”. Using this idea, the Pele Yoetz explains another interesting statement that we find regarding chametz. The Arizal says that one who is extremely careful regarding the prohibition of chametz, and adds as many stringencies on himself in this matter as he can, is guaranteed not to sin the entire year.  The Arizal’s statement requires explanation. What is the connection between total avoidance of chametz and the assurance that one will not sin at all for the rest of the year? According to the Sefer Hachinuch’s understanding of Chametz, there would seem to be no cause and effect relationship between avoiding the specific sin of Chametz, and not sinning at all for the remainder of the year. However, the Pele Yoetz explains that since the ultimate goal of eliminating chametz is to serve as a catalyst for us to eliminate the yetzer harah from within ourselves, the connection between avoiding chametz and avoiding sin is apparent. If a person totally disposes of all of his chametz, then on a symbolic level he has totally rid himself of the yetzer harah. Without the yetzer harah, a person will not sin.

The Pele Yoetz tells us that because the point of destroying chametz is really to inspire us to uproot our yetzer harah, it is obviously not sufficient for a person to just destroy his physical chametz. Rather, while the person is searching for and destroying his chametz, he must simultaneously be involved in a process of introspection and repentance. The Pele Yoetz goes so far as to say that this process of repentance and introspection must begin thirty days before Passover in order for a person to realistically be able to arrive at the seder night “free” from his yetzer harah.

As noted above, the approach put forward by the Radvaz and the Pele Yoetz explains why there is a severe punishment for eating Chametz on Passover, and also why there is a great reward for avoiding Chametz- (as per the Arizal). Nevertheless, this approach concerning Chametz seems to have a big difficulty. Although eliminating the yetzer harah is an important task, how is it related specifically to the holiday of Passover? Why should we put more emphasis on this work at this particular time of the year more than any other time of the year? (Indeed the Radvaz himself notes this problem in Metzudos Dovid) Rabbi Baruch Sungolowsky offers two explanations to resolve this difficulty.

First, the Zohar teaches us that the exodus was not merely emancipation from physical slavery. Rather, the Zohar tells us that the Jews in Egypt had sunken to the forty-ninth level of tumah, spiritual impurityמט' שערי טומאה . This was due to the evil influence of their Egyptian jailers. When Hashem took the Jews out of mitzrayim, He not only liberated them physically, but He also saved them from falling into the fiftieth level of tumah, from which there is no return. After the Jews left mitzrayim, they began a forty-nine day process of elevating themselves from the forty-nine levels of impurity into which they had sunk. This culminated fifty days later in the giving of the torah on Shavuos. It comes out according to the zohar that the freedom of the exodus was not just a physical freedom, but also a freedom from the influence of tumah. In order to commemerate this additional aspect of the exodus, we engage ourselves in a process of removing the tumah, embodied by the yetzer harah, from within us.

A second explanation is based on the gemarah in brachos that I mentioned earlier. The gemarah there stated that there are two factors that prevent a person from actualizing his desire to become close to Hashem. One is the yetzer harah, and the other is the Jewish people’s subjugation to foreign nations. On the holiday of Passover we commemorate our freedom from domination by a foreign power. It is appropriate that we add to this by dealing also with the other factor that distances us from Hashem, namely the yetzer harah. By engaging in the process of eradicating the yetzer harah, the holiday of Passover deals with both of the factors that the gemarah in brachos says distance us from our Creator. We can thereby emerge from the holiday spiritually rejuvenated and inspired to serve Hashem without sin.

The Ramchal (in his sefer Derech Hashem part IV chapter 8), like the Pele Yoetz and the Radvaz, understands the symbolism of the prohibition against Chametz- as eliminating the yetzer harah. However, there seems to be a major difference between the approach of the Ramchal as contrasted with the approaches of the previous two commentators. The latter commentators understand the commandment to destroy and avoid Chametz as a symbolic activity meant to inspire us to conduct introspection, and reign in the real yetzer harah. By contrast, the Ramchal’s approach is that Chametz is not merely a symbolic representation of the yetzer harah, but rather an actual manifestation of the yetzer harah itself. The Ramchal explains that since leavened food is tastier (as well as more attractive in appearance), it is a primary form of  “ta'avahתאוה ”- meaning materialistic desires. A person’s desire for good tasting food is to a large extent focused on Chametz. The goal of the prohibitions regarding Chametz explains the Ramchal, is for a person to make himself more spiritual by overcoming his physical desire for Chametz for seven days. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, in his commentary on Derech Hashem, compares this to a person who goes on a diet to repair his physical heath. In the spiritual realm, abstinence from “ta’avah” indulgence is a way to restore a person’s ruchniyusרוחניות -.

The Ramchal says, without elaborating, that during the rest of the year Chametz is a positive thing. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander explains the Ramchal’s intent. He cites the words of the Rambam (in his introduction to the mishnah) where the Rambam explains that ta'avah is a necessary component of life. Without ta'avah, people would not eat until they get sick, and would not procreate and have children. Therefore, it was not the will of the Torah for us to totally eliminate ta'avah for the whole year. Rather, it was sufficient for a person to refrain from his ta'avah for a one-week period of time and thereby create within himself a state of balance between pursuit of spiritual growth and the necessity to live in the physical world. (The Metzudos  Dovid explains that it would be to physically taxing on the body for chometz to be forbidden the rest of the year also, Pg. 150 )

To explain why we engage in this exercise of self-control over our ta'avah for tasty food specifically on the holiday of Passover, the Ramchal seems to use a general principle that he applies to many mitzvos. The Ramchal posits that whatever events occurred on the actual days of the Jewish holidays thousands of years ago, are an indication that at those times of the year there is a specific type of “spiritual energy” that can be “tapped into”. The way to tap into this spiritual force is by doing mitzvos that are similar to the actions that our forefathers did at the time of these original historic events. With regard to Passover, this entails removing ourselves from spiritual impurity just as our ancestors did back then.

To summarize, there are two types of reasons why Hashem forbade us from eating Chametz on Passover. According to the Chinuch and the Maharal, the point of this prohibition is to fortify our emunah, our faith in the existence in Hashem, and his divine guidance over world events. However the Radvaz, Pele Yoetz, and the Ramchal have a different approach. They contend that the goal of the issur is to get us to work on breaking the yetzer harah’s control over us. According to the Radvaz and the Pele Yoetz, Seor symbolizes the yetzer harah, and by refraining from it we are supposed to become inspired to do internal “surgery” on our own yetzer harah. According to the Ramchal, physical Chametz itself is a major form of yetzer harah- i.e. ta'avah. Abstaining from it for the seven days of Passover creates a healthy spiritual balance within us.


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