Search and Destroy Mission: Getting Rid of our Chametz
Shabbat Hagadol, 5774
As a young boy the search for chametz (bedikat chametz) was one of the highlights of the year. We would hide the ten pieces of chametz and my father would look for the chametz by the light of the candle. Whenever my father actually found some chametz that we had not even hidden it would make us even happier. My father would actually make a big show of the search for chametz. Every time he found any piece of chametz it was cause for a big celebration. We always had a feather and a spoon and a candle and he would intentionally make a huge show out of the search. Three decades later I still remember those evenings fondly.
I also remember fondly the burning of the chametz (biur chametz). We would always burn the chametz in our front yard on the eve of Pesach. Usually that went off without an incident. We always put the chametz in a brown paper bag on top of our refrigerator and burned it the next day. One time a certain member in my family brought out the brown paper bag to burn our chametz. Unfortunately, that year there were actually two brown paper bags on top of our refrigerator: one containing the chametz and the other containing my mother’s jewelry. My mother thought a good place to hide the jewelry was in a brown paper bag. Anyway, instead of burning the chametz we burned the jewelry. That too is an image that is seared my mind.
Bedikat chametz and biur chametz are unique mitzvoth that are unlike any other mitzvoth that we do today. Where else do we search for something throughout our homes and then destroy it by burning it in the streets?
As a little boy, I was impressed by the pageantry and the fire, but as adults we must search for deeper meaning and symbolism and above all we must search for the lessons that we should incorporate into our Pesach holiday.
The message of bedikat chametz and biur chametz is very simple. The more we understand what bedikat chametz and biur chametz is all about the more we realize that the physicality behind these rituals is not only about ridding our homes of the bread products inside them but rather the purpose of our elaborate searches for chametz and the burning of our chametz is to rid ourselves of our spiritual faults in preparation for the holiday of Pesach, the holiday of our redemption.
According to most authorities there are three positive biblical commandments for Pesach and four negative commandments. (Rambam however lists a total of eight biblical commandments.)
The three positive commandments are to eat matzah, tell the Exodus story, and to destroy chametz on the 14th of Nissan.
The four negative commandments are do not eat chametz on Pesach, do not eat a mixture of chametz on Pesach, and there are two prohibitions against owning chametz.
We will focus on three of these biblical mitzvot that are most relevant to bedikat chametz and biur chametz.
First, there are the two prohibitions against owning chametz on Pesach.
There is a prohibition of ba’al yeira’eh.
According to the Torah (Exodus 13:17): “Unleavened cakes shall be eaten during the seven days, and no leaven shall be seen of yours [in your possession] (ve-lo yeiraeh lekhah chametz), and no leavening shall be seen of yours throughout all of your borders.
There is a second biblical prohibition called ba’al yimatzeh. According to Exodus 12:19, “For seven days, no leaven shall not be found (se’or lo yimatzei) in your houses.”
Finally, there is a positive biblical commandment to destroy our chametz on the eve of Pesach. This is known as the mitzvah of tashbitu.
The Torah states (Exodus 12:15) “For seven days you shall eat unleavened cakes, but on the preceding day you shall clear away all leaven from your houses (akh bayom harishon tashbitu se’or mibateichem), for whoever eats leaven from the first day until the seventh day that soul shall be cut off from Israel.”
In a religion where there is a prohibition against unnecessary destruction it is noteworthy that there is a commandment to destroy perfectly good food. In this respect, in many ways this is a unique commandment.
There is a dispute in the Talmud as to what is the proper way (Pesachim, 21a) to destroy the chametz. According the rabbis, there is no specific way to destroy the chametz, and so, one can even crush it up and throw it into the wind. However, R. Yehudah rules, “ein biur chametz elah sereifah, the only way to destroy chametz is by burning it.”
What is the reason behind R. Yehudah’s requirement to burn the chametz? And what are the implications of this ruling for our own observance of Pesach?
Practically speaking one must go through a three-step process in order to remove chametz from one’s possession.
i. bedikat chametz – searching for chametz
ii. bittul chametz – nullifying the chametz
iii. biur chametz -- burning the chametz
The opening line in tractate Pesachim teaches us about the requirement to search our homes for chametz with a proper bedikah.
On the evening of the fourteenth a search (bedikah) is made for leaven by the light of a lamp. (Pesachim 2a, Mishnah)
What is the reason why the Talmud requires a bedikah for the chametz. Rashi (2a) writes that the reason is so that one does “not violate bal yireah u-baal yimatzeh.”
Rashi’s great-grandson, the Ri, questions his approach.
Ri is bothered by two other Talmudic passages.
First, there is a passage in Pesachim 4b that implies that a bedikah is not really required:
In truth I may tell you [that generally] it does stand in the presumption of having been searched; but what we discuss here is a case where we know for certain that he [the owner] did not search, but these affirm: We searched it. You might say, Let not the Rabbis believe them. Therefore it informs us [that] since the search for leaven is [required only] by Rabbinical law, for by Scriptural law mere nullification suffices for it, the Rabbis gave them credence in [respect to] a Rabbinical [enactment].
And second there is a passage in Pesachim 6b, which implies that bedikah does not accomplish that much from a legal perspective:
He who searches [for leaven] must [also] declare it null. What is the reason? Shall we say [it is] because of crumbs — but they are of no value? … Said Raba: It is a preventive measure, lest he find a tasty loaf and [set] his mind upon it. Then let him annul it when he finds it? — He may find it after the interdict [commences], and then it does not stand in his ownership and [so] he cannot annul it. For R. Eleazar said: Two things are not in a man's ownership, yet the Writ regarded them as though they were in his ownership. And these are they: a pit in public ground and leaven from six hours and onwards.
Thus the Ri asks [regarding Rashi’s approach]: Since nullification (bittul) of our leaven is anyways required—as it states later on in the Talmud, “the one who checks for chametz must also do bittul”—and since biblically speaking all that is required is bittul—then why do we require a search for leaven at all? All we should need to do is nullify our chametz prior to Pesach and that will be sufficient!
Therefore, Ri explains:
Even though biblically speaking bittul suffices the rabbis were stringent and require a bedikah for chametz and also require us to burn the chametz so that one does not come to eat it.
In other words, bedikat chametz is a rabbinic law to prevent us from violating a biblical commandment.
Ri offers two reasons why the rabbis are stricter by chametz than other comparable dietary prohibitions where we do not require a search for their removal from our homes. The reasons are:
1)chametz is permitted the whole year and is only prohibited on Pesach and thus people will not instinctively withdraw from the chametz. And,
2)chametz is different because the Torah is stricter about chametz, since one violates two prohibitions by owning chametz (bal yirah u-bal yimatzeh) and thus the rabbis were stricter and required bedikah and bittul so that we don’t come to eat the chametz. (Tosafot, 2a, s.v. or le-arba’ah asar)
An alternative approach is taken by Rabbenu Nissim in his commentary to Pesachim (2a).
Rashi explains that we search for chametz so as not to violate bal yirah u-bal yimatzeh. Tosafot is bothered by this because we state that from the perspective of biblical law it suffices to simply nullify the chametz. And in the end we know that the Talmud does require nullification as well as it states on 6b that one checks for chametz must also nullify it. And since this is the case how can we claim that the purpose of bedikah is in order not to violate bal yirah u-bal yimatzeh? Indeed a person is not exempt on this matter until one does a bittul and if that is the case a bittul alone should suffice?
We can answer that biblically speaking it suffices to have either a bedikah or a bittul. We know that a bedikah itself suffices biblically since the source for searching for chametz by the light of a candle is based upon the biblical verse. This tells us that bedikah is sufficient biblically.
Ran is unwilling to say that bedikat chametz is merely rabbinic. In his opinion it is biblical. In other words, biblically one must do either a bedikah or a bittul. This is based upon the fact that the Talmud cites scripture to prove that one must search for the chametz by the light of flame
BY THE LIGHT OF A LAMP, etc. How do we know this? — Said R. Hisda: By deriving [the meaning of] ‘finding’ from ‘finding’ and ‘finding’ from ‘searching’, and ‘searching’ from ‘searching’, and ‘searching’ from ‘lamps’, and ‘lamps’ from ‘lamp’: And ‘searching’ from ‘lamps’, as it is written, And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps. And ‘lamps’ from ‘lamp’, for it is written, The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of the belly.
The School of R. Ishmael taught: In the evening of the fourteenth leaven is searched for by the light of a lamp. Though there is no proof of this, there is an allusion to it, because it is said, ‘seven days shall there be no leaven [in your houses]’; and it is said, ‘and he searched, and began at the eldest, and left at the youngest: and the cup was found [in Benjamin's sack]’; and it is said, ‘And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps’. and it is said, ‘The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching [all the innermost parts of the belly]’. What is the purpose of the additional quotations? And should you answer, this ‘at that time’ is a statement of lenient treatment by the Merciful One, [viz.,] ‘I will not search Jerusalem with the light of a torch, which gives much light, but only with the light of a lamp, the light of which is much smaller, so that great wrongdoing will be found out but petty wrongdoing will not be found out,— then come and hear! ‘The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord, [searching. etc.]’.
Our Rabbis taught: one may not search either by the light of the sun or by the light of the moon, or by the light of a torch, save by the light of a lamp. (Pesachim, 7b.)
Before analyzing some of deeper ideas in bedikat chametz it is important to first review some of the basic laws of searching for chametz as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch.
On the beginning of the night of the 14th one must check for chametz by the light of the candle in holes and cracks and every place that one enters with chametz.
Before beginning the search for chametz one says the blessing, “al biur chametz.” [The blessing is not to search for chametz, but to destroy the chametz.] One should be careful not to speak between the bracha and the beginning of the search. It is good not to speak about unrelated matters until the search has been completed in order to concentrate on checking all places….
Rema There is a custom to place small pieces of chametz in a place where the searcher will find them in order that the blessing not be in vain. However, if this wasn’t done, the mitzvah to search is still fulfilled because everyone’s intention when saying the blessing is to destroy chametz if any is found.
1- The search must be done by candlelight and not by moonlight.
2- One may not search with the light of a torch, but only with a candle.
3- One must check all places that we can suspect that someone entered with chametz. Therefore, every room in the house and the attic must be searched because these are places where sometimes a person enters with chametz in hand.
[Possible leniency regarding a bedikah from the writings of Shaarei Teshuvah (19th c.), end of 433.]
“Therefore many people are lenient and check casually without searching properly in holes and cracks, since first they sweep and clean everything very well.’
What is the deeper meaning behind the search for and destruction of chametz?
It is rare that the Torah requires us to search for a prohibited item, destroy that item, and then forbids us from even owning it.
For example, we are not forbidden to own a piece of non-kosher meat. Even though we are forbidden to derive benefit from a food item that contains meat and milk, there is no prohibition against owning the meat and milk together.
Rav Menachem Kasher (d. 1983) raises this question and offers a novel approach to understanding the prohibitions of owning or even seeing chametz. (M. Kasher, Haggadah Sheleimah, Appendix 7.)
R. Kasher writes (221):
“Nowhere is it explained why the Torah prohibits chametz with the added prohibitions of not seeing it and now owning it. Why is chametz different from all other prohibitions in the Torah which do not have these added restrictions?”
He suggests that we do not know the reasons for the super strict prohibitions of chametz.
“Thus we must say that the prohibition of bal yiraeh u-val yimatzeh is a chok. And indeed the entire prohibition of chametz we must say is a chok. For about the mitzvah of matzah the Torah gives a reason, ‘for it did not leaven, for they were driven from Egypt and they were unable to wait’ (Exodus 12:39). And this is the explanation that we read about in the Haggadah. But what is the reason for the prohibition of chametz that the Torah is so strict even about bal yiraeh u-val yimatzeh and that it is even prohibited to derive any benefit from it, and that it needs to be burnt, and that it is even prohibited to own in a miniscule amount? All of these things are not in any way connected to the reason why we eat matzah, for on Pesach Sheni one is permitted to have chametz alongside one’s matzah.”
R. Kasher argues that the closest comparison to the way we treat and react to the prohibition of chametz is the prohibition of idolatry (avodah zarah.)
There are many sources that R. Kasher cites to support this argument of a relationship between chametz and avodah zarah.
First, there is a text from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah, 1:1) which indicates that there is in fact a connection between chametz and avodah zarah: “Avodah zarah teases the worshippers. The Torah states, ‘do not bring an offering of chametz on the altar,’ and avodah zarah states (Amos 4:5), ‘And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened.’”
Second, the Zohar specifically states that one who eats chametz on Pesach is like one who worships idolatry:
“It states, ‘Thou shalt make thee no molten gods’ (Exodus 34:17). And immediately following that it states: ‘The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep’ (Exodus 34:18). This is what it means: one who eats chametz on Pesach is like one who worships idolatry. Come and see, when Israel left Egypt, Israel left the domain of the Other, the domain of the one called Chametz. And this is also called Avodah Zarah. This is for sure the secret of the evil inclination. (Zohar II, 182.)
This theme is echoed in the writings of many of our rishonim:
Here are two examples:
Baal Haturim: “Why is chametz placed next to avodah zarah in the Torah? To tell us that just like avodah zarah is prohibited for us to have any benefit and in any miniscule amount, so too chametz.”
Rambam, Guide (III:46): “The reason that the Torah prohibits an offering of chametz…is because the idolaters used to bring an offering of leaven on the altar.”
R. Kasher continues this theme by noting six similarities between the prohibitions of chametz and avodah zarah.
1) They are both prohibited to own.
2) They both need to be burnt.
3) They are both prohibited with respect to deriving any benefit.
4) They both have a prohibition even with respect to a miniscule amount.
5) Nullification works in both cases.
6) Both prohibitions require a bedikah.
He also finds a source for this connection in the biblical story of Yoshiyahu (2 Kings 23:22-24) where the celebration of Pesach is placed next to the story of wiping out idolatry.
[21 And the king commanded all the people, saying: `Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.' 22 For there was not kept such a Passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of king Josiah was this passover kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. 24 Moreover them that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit, and the teraphim, and the idols, and all the detestable things that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem…]
R. Kasher thus concludes (222): “According to this approach it is clear why the Torah prohibits chametz with a decree against owning it or even seeing it, as it is comparable to idolatry. With respect to idolatry we are told: ‘Do not bring this abomination into your home.’ And also with respect to idolatry there is a law requiring us to burn it. As it states, ‘the idols of their gods you shall burn in fire.’ So too, according to R. Yehudah, ‘ein biur chametz elah sereifah, the only way to destroy the chametz is through burning’ (Pesachim 21a).
Thus, there is a strong between the prohibitions of chametz and avodah zarah. It is clear that our obligation to burn our chametz arises not simply from a need to physically eradicate the presence of chametz from our lives but also from a need to metaphysically eradicate sins from within us.
The connection of chametz to avodah zarah teaches us that the removal of the physical chametz from our domain is also supposed to inspire us to perform a spiritual purging of the chametz in our soul.
Bedikat chametz is not only supposed to entail a physical searching of our homes but also a teshuvah like search of our souls. Just as we do this before Yom Kippur, we should do this before Pesach. The physicality of the search for chametz must inspire us to perform a spiritual search us well.
The halakhah is “one must check for chametz by the light of the candle in holes and cracks and every place that one enters with chametz.” So too, one must check every part of our soul –in the cracks and the crevices—by the spiritual light of the candle.
If we go back and look at all of the laws of bedikat chametz, we will notice that they can all be read in two ways: in a literal, physical manner, and in a deeper, spiritual manner as referring to a search of our own souls and our own spiritual progress.
And simply doing a search is not sufficient. After we search for the chametz of our souls we must nullify and declare non-existent any sinful habits.
Following that we go through a physical process of burning our chametz. This too, is intended to help us physically act out our desire of destroying our sinful habits.
These three steps of bedikah, bittul, and biur are all understood in both a literal and symbolic fashion by our rabbis. Too often, we focus on their literal meaning and forget about the symbolism behind the act.
The idea that chametz represents yetzer harah is based upon a Talmudic text which states:
R. Alexandri on concluding his prayer used to add the following: Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to Thee that our will is to perform Thy will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjection to the foreign Powers. May it be Thy will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Thy will with a perfect heart. (Berachot, 17a)
So too, the idea that the search for chametz is actually a spiritual activity intended to search for the sins of our souls is also seen in a Talmudic text.
Tosefta Pesachim (1:1) teaches:
“On the night (or) of the 14th we search for chametz by the light of the flame. We do not check by the light of the sun, now by the light of the moon, but only by the light of the flame for the searching by the light of the flame is the best. Even though there is no proof of this there is a hint to this as it states, “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps” (Zephania 1:12). And it states, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, searching all the inward parts” (Mishlei 20:27).”
The question before the Tosefta is why should we use a light of a flame to search for chametz. The proof texts of the Tosefta indicate that what we are doing is a spiritual search, “searching all the inward parts (chofes kol chadrei vaten) and in order to do that we need to open up the flame of our neshama (ner Hashem nishmat adam).”
So too, the first lines of the tractate Pesachim remind us that all of Pesach is about a spiritual search for chametz.
The tractate begins with the words, “Or le’arba’ah asar.” The Talmud wonders why the word or is used here to mean, “night,” as opposed to using the word, “leil.”
Here too, we assume that the purpose is to provide a spiritual meaning to a physical ritual. The goal is to search our homes with the light of the Torah. Every single aspect of our lives must be searched, not just for chametz, but also for sins.
Thus, the Yismach Moshe of Alexander Rebbe (1853-1910) states (in his commentary to Parashat Shemini):
“That which it states ‘on the night (or) of the 14th we search for chametz by the light of the candle’: This is like a minor of 13 years old that is becoming a bar mitzvah. And or means light, as our sages teach. And what does or mean? To teach. For one needs through the search for chametz to reach the level of repentance from love! And one should search at night for this refers to the sins which are called ‘night.’“
Not only is the bedikah assumed to have spiritual meaning but also the biur is a spiritual act and not simply a physical ritual.
For this reason, our rabbis stress that we must totally eradicate the sin from within ourselves, lest the sin grow back quickly and continue to provide spiritual harm.
This is a common theme amongst our rabbis that we especially see arising amongst the mystics of the 16th century.
Most well known is the Arizal who is reported to have taught:
“One who is careful about a miniscule amount of chametz on Pesach can be assured not to sin the entire year.”
The explanation of this is that the yetzer harah always starts with a miniscule amount, with a strand of hair. Therefore, we must entirely wipe out all of the chametz.
So too, the Radvaz (16th c. Spain, Turkey, and Safed) writes:
“Why is chametz so stringent that even a miniscule amount is not nullified? Chametz is a symbol of the evil inclination and thus the Torah wants to teach us that we need to entirely destroy the evil inclination.”
The Shelah Hakadosh (d. 1630) states: “It is known that the yetzer harah is the disgusting chametz, the yeast of the dough. The only way to destroy the chametz is burning it. If you encounter this horrible creature drag him to the Beit Midrash.”
The search for and destruction of chametz has a higher purpose beyond the mere ritual. It is to help us destroy the yetzer harah inside us.
This year when we perform the bedikah, bittul and biur, we must do it in a halakhically correct manner but also think about our spiritual goals.
How can we help reach our spiritual goals for Pesach?
First, we should all take a few moments before the bedikah and try to remember the relationship between chametz and idolatry. We should then ask ourselves what is our own personal idolatry? What should we all try to remove from our hearts?
Anything that detracts and distracts us from our focus on God is actually avodah zarah. Avodah Zarah is often not a foreign entity that we get seduced by after a romantic encounter. Instead, it is usually one of the most common elements in our life – e.g. money, ego, power-- that we allow to distract us from our spiritual goals. This is why it is very helpful to compare avodah zarah to chametz. Chametz is one of the most ubiquitous element in the world. This is why bread is called “the staff of life.” The need to destroy our chametz is a reminder to destroy the everpresent avodah zarah in our lives.
We need to ask ourselves this year before we begin bedikat chametz: what chametz will we be removing from our souls as we remove the chametz from our homes?
Just as we do this with bedikat chametz so too we should conduct ourselves in this manner with respect to biur chametz.
Although technically speaking one can destroy the chametz in any fashion, the ideal way is by burning it.
The Kaf Hachayim writes (445:11, Bagdhad, 1870-1939):
“And the custom is to burn it…the reason is because it is customary for us to follow R. Yehudah who says (Pesachim 21a) that we must burn it even though the strict law is not like him…. And so too, chametz is like the evil spirit and thus it is appropriate to burn it as we are trying to eradicate the evil spirit from the world in order to bring about the ultimate redemption. And thus it is a custom to burn it.” [See also: S”A and Rama 445:1, Mishna Brurah 445:1-2, Chazon Ovadia part 1 page 64. Kaf Hachayim 445:3-4; and Gra 445:1.]
The reason we are ideally supposed to burn the chametz and not simply flush it down the toilet is because burning it allows us to see the chametz as symbol of idolatry.
The burning of the chametz also allows us to have a physical ritual and recognition that Pesach is about the turning over of a new leaf.
R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg (d. 1865 Germany) writes in Hakhetav Ve-Hakababbalah about the spiritual destruction necessitated by the Torah’s command to destroy our chametz.
tashbitu: since the Torah does not state teva’aru, like it says elsewhere (biarti hakodesh), it seems that the rabbis derived from here that destruction is in the heart. Thus, the tashbitu of the verse is not a physical act but a mental act! (Exodus 12:15.)
Thus, in his opinion one only fulfills the mitzvah of destroying chametz by mentally destroying our chametz.
We need to do both. We need to destroy our chametz both mentally and physically.
This year when we burn our chametz let’s also try something else. Let’s write down a negative character trait on a piece of paper and drop it into the fire with our bread.
When we burn the chametz we should go all in. We should totally invest ourselves into the burning. This year when we burn the chametz at our shul it will be accompanied by an extra large bonfire and live music (with Chaim Fruchter on guitar). Together by physically burning our chametz we will also be symbolically burning our yetzer harah and we will sing, “Hashem give us a good “yetzer” to do Your will.
And after we burn our chametz to the sounds of uplifting spiritual music we will recite the following prayer:
Yehi Ratzon to be recited after burning of the chametz:
May it be your will, Hashem, our God, and God of our ancestors, that just as I destroy the chametz from my house and from my domain, so too may God destroy all of the external forces and impure spirits from the earth and may God destroy the evil spirit that is within us. And may God give us a strong will! And may the evil influences be burned like smoke and may they be destroyed from the earth in the same way in which You destroyed Egypt and their gods in those days.
The purpose of bedikat chametz and biur chametz is to rid ourself of our spiritual faults. After we have done that we can truly elevate ourselves by taking part in the spiritual benefits of Pesach: the matzah and the seder. This year when sit down and take a nice bite of our matzah we will finally be free—free of our yetzer harah.
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