Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol
For more teachings, both about Pesah and on this week’s parsha, see the archives of this blog at April 2006.
ON THE ELIMINATION OF HAMETZ
During the study last year at this time, in the context of the Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud), of Masekhet Pesahim, I was struck by the emphasis placed on the mitzvah of bi’ur hametz, the removal and elimination of leavened foodstuffs from our homes prior to the onset of Pesah. The first two chapters of the Talmudic tractate dealing with this holiday are devoted primarily, if not exclusively, to the mitzvah of biur hametz; only thereafter does it turn to the rules of Passover itself, suggesting that this is an act of central importance to the festival week as a whole.
In what follows, I shall present and analyze several Talmudic debates relating to bi’ur hametz, in an attempt to determine whether there is some common motif that repeats itself in all of them. My approach here will be somewhat in the spirit of the late French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who constantly sought the philosophical underpinnings of even seemingly trivial or technical discussions of the Sages. “Beneath questions of ‘acts to do’ and ‘acts not to do’… they are arguing about fundamental ideas without appearing to do so.” Hence, after surveying the sugyot per se, I will attempt to derive certain philosophical conclusions.
1. Biur Hametz as “Fence” or as Essence?
First, a general question, not discussed in quite these terms in the Talmud: namely, what kind of a mitzvah is bi’ur hametz? There is a tendency to think of it as somehow ancillary or preparatory to the main mitzvot of the holiday: the dramatic ceremonial and extended conversation of the Seder night, the eating of matzah during the following seven (or, abroad, eight) days of the festival, and the numerous special kashrut rules and restrictions that apply. It is possible to view the elimination of hametz as a preventive measure, a kind of “fence around the Torah”: because the eating of hametz, even in the smallest quantity, and even when mixed with other foodstuffs, is strictly forbidden and described as a serious violation (indeed, it is one of the few dietary laws that carries the severe sanction of karet), the Torah prohibits us from even having it in our possession (bal yara’eh u-val yimatzei, a phrase taken from Exod 13:7), and specifically commands that it be destroyed and/or removed prior to the beginning of the festival.
Alternatively, it may be viewed as a mitzvah in its own right, not only in terms of its being counted among the 613 in its own right (a point on which all the “counters of the mitzvot” agree), but on some conceptual level as well. This idea would seem to be reinforced by the sheer effort invested in this mitzvah: the thorough cleaning of every corner of the house, which some housewives begin a month or more before the holiday; the scouring of year-round utensils in a caldron of boiling water or by fire; and, finally, the candlelight search for hametz the night before Seder, and the burning by fire of the last remnants of hametz the following morning. No other Jewish festival even approaches Pesah in he intense investment of time and energy in its physical preparations. (The Days of Awe entail intense inner preparation, in which some may invest many hours, but that is a different story entirely.)
It is interesting to compare this mitzvah to other “fences” around the Torah: e.g., shevut, those forms of labor that are Rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat, described by Rambam as “things that are similar to melakhot [forbidden labor] or that are an edict, lest they lead to the performance of melakhot” (Hilkhot Shabbat 21.1). Rambam goes on to say that these restrictions are in fact anchored in the language of the Torah—tishbot, “you shall rest” (Exod 23:12). Another example of a law structurally homologous to bi’ur hametz is kiruv basar—the law prohibiting erotically-charged intimacy with individuals, full sexual relations with whom would be forbidden by Torah by dint of incest or adultery. This rule is classified by Rambam as in itself a Torah law, while Ramban and others demure (see Issurei Biah 21.1; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, lo ta’aseh 353, and Ramban’s Hasagot ad loc.); at least according to the former, it is an interesting example of a Torah law that is at one and the same time a preventive measure, a “fence around the Torah,” as well as prohibiting the derivation of pleasure from such acts as more than improper in their own right (there are subtle differences of wording in Rambam between Yad and Sefer ha-Mitzvot which suggest this—but I shall discuss these another time).
But I find it difficult to see the prohibition against owning hametz as merely a harhakah, a preventive measure; rather, it in fact lies at the very heart of the laws of Pesah. On Pesah, bread, the most common of all foodstuffs (which in ancient times was universally seen as The Food par excellence, the flesh-based diet so common in Western society being unknown), is set apart as being forbidden in every possible way. Moreover, unlike the cases mentioned above, its period of being forbidden is ushered in by a positive act: a comprehensive purgation of the home of all hametz, the removal of any trace of this common foodstuff, the burning by fire of its final remnants, and then starting the food cycle with a new, fresh, differently- and rapidly-made flatbread—the matzot, rich in historical associations, that today stands at the center of the Seder night.
Or, to couch it is halakhic terms: at the center of Pesah lies issur hametz, the definition of all leavened substance as prohibited, with a series of different levels, both on the dimension of action—eating, benefit, and even passive ownership—and that of time—the prohibition coming into effect half a day before the actual beginning of the festival, and another hour before that, and extending beyond the festival week in the prohibition against using eating or using hametz that was owned by Jews during Pesah. This prohibition is ushered in, towards the end of the morning of Erev Pesah, by the concrete act of destroying/removing all the hametz in ones possession, whose nature we shall attempt to define in what follows.
2. Why From Midday?
One of the first sugyot dealing with bi’ur hametz concerns the rather peculiar halakhah, unparalleled for any other festival, that hametz is forbidden in use, possession and eating from mid-day of the 14th of Nissan. (NB: halakhic practice requires that the elimination of hametz be completed a full hour before mid-day, and that one desist from eating it yet another hour prior to that time—further “fences” around the Torah, to “keep one far” from possible violation.) The Talmud at Pesahim 4b-6a asks why this is done, not at nightfall just before the Seder, nor at dawn of the day concerned, but at mid-day—the day being divided precisely in half, high noon marking the line of demarcation, so to speak, between the realm of hametz and that of Pesah. The sugya is somewhat lengthy and rather meandering but, eliminating the various side discussions, the following is the gist, the halakhic core, of the debate:
... In any event, hametz is prohibited from the sixth hour of the day onwards. From whence do we know this? Abbaye said: From [comparison of] two Scriptural verses. One says, “Seven days leaven shall not be found in your homes” (Exod 12:19), while the other says, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your homes” (ibid., v. 15). How so? To include the fourteenth [of Nissan] for eliminating hametz. But might one not say that [this phrase] alludes to the night of the fifteenth?… Or might one not say that it applies from daybreak? The word akh (“but”) comes to divide [this day]… Ravva said: From this verse: “You shall not slaughter the blood of my sacrifice upon hametz” (Exod 34:25). Do not slaughter the Pesah offering so long as hametz still exists…
After stripping away all the side issues brought in this sugya (fascinating and important as these may be in their own right), we are left with two basic approaches: Abbaye derives this rule from a turn of phrase, the use of the word akh, a word traditionally understood as being used by the Torah (along with such words as rak and pen) to indicate diminution (mi’ut), that something less than the whole is indicated; that the Torah indeed adds an extra time period, anticipatory to Pesah, during which the laws against hametz apply, but that this is not a full unit of time, a full day or even a full daylight period, but only a partial, fragmented, divided one. Hence, this rule stands by itself, a priori, as something unconnected to any other law or aspect of Pesah.
The second approach, that of Ravva, associates the prohibition of hametz with the Paschal sacrifice, offered from mid-day on. The time for korban pesah is itself based on the phrase bein ha-arbayim (Exod 12:6): lit., “between the evenings,” interpreted, interestingly, as that period between the moment the sun begins to decline towards the west, just after its zenith, until sundown. Moreover, Ravva’s proof text is interpreted in the broadest, most all-encompassing sense imaginable: not only may one not offer fermented bread as part of any offering in the Temple (a rule applying year-round to meal offerings in the Temple; see Lev 2:11); not only is no hametz to be allowed in the vicinity of “my sacrifice,” assuming that this refers specifically to the Paschal offering (a claim that, while it may seem far-fetched, may be defended by saying that the Pesah is the zevah par excellence: a kind of paradigm for korban shelamim, those “peace-offerings” eaten by their owners in a festive manner); but that the individual must be free of possession of any hametz, even in his/her own private domain, even in a locked storeroom far away from the Temple courtyards. Moreover: all this applies, not only at the time the paschal lamb is slaughtered in actuality—which may occur at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon (“between 8½ and 9½”), but from the beginning of the time period theoretically allotted to it—i.e., high noon. (For that reason Rambam grants a special status of a semi-festival to the afternoon of Nissan 14th, beyond that of other festival eves; see Hil. Yom Tov 8.17-18.)
In brief, whereas the first approach sees the time limit on hametz as a rule standing in its own right, in the second view there is an intimate link between the Paschal offering and the prohibition, one might even say the banned status, of hametz. Thus, unlike the sharp line drawn by some contemporary Bible scholars between Hag ha-Pesah and Hag ha-Matzot, the Talmud clearly sees the two as interrelated: the rules of hametz and matzah clearly apply to the time of slaughtering the Pesah as well. Could our sugya have been polemicizing with sects or schools who thought along such lines?
3. The Blessing: “to eradicate” or “concerning the eradication”?
R. Judah said: One who searches [for hametz] must recite a blessing. What blessing does he recite? Rav Pappi said in the name of Ravva: “to eradicate hametz.” Rav Pappa said in the name of Ravva: “concerning the eradication of hametz..” (Pesahim 7a, at the bottom of the page)
Like any other mitzvah, one recites a blessing over bi’ur hametz, and the time for this, interestingly, is not when one completes the process with the burning of the hametz and the recitation of kol hamira on the day of Erev Pesah, but the evening before, when one begins the candlelight search for hametz. The amoraim Rav Pappi and Rav Pappa argued whether the formula to be used in this case is to be couched in verbal terms, beginning with the infinitive (le-va’er) or refer to the mitzvah in the nounal form (‘al biur hametz).
While the halakhah quickly resolves the specific dispute in favor of the latter position, the issue itself—why the blessings for some mitzvot are phrased in the infinitive, beginning with “l…,” while others take the nounal form, designating the title of the mitzvah act, ‘… ‘al…” is a knotty one. The answers suggested are as numerous as the great halakhic thinkers who have tackled this issue. A whole group of rishonim—most notably Rosh, Ran on the Rif, , Rambam, and Tosafot—have attempted to construct orderly, consistent rules to explain when one or the other is used, and it is difficult to say that any of them has succeeded entirely in explaining every last case.
A common–sense reading of the words suggests that the use of the infinitive suggests action by the person, while use of the noun places the emphasis on object, or on the mitzvah as an entity in itself. Or, to phrase it slightly differently: the one relates to the action of the self, while the other is applied primarily to the external, material world, of the object or heftza.
4. Bi’ur or Bittul: Destruction or Dissociation?
All of the above has been, in a certain sense, by way of introduction. The central question, to my mind, which is discussed in several different Talmudic passages, is quite simply: what is the essence of this mitzvah?
R Judah says: Eradication of hametz is only through destruction by fire. But the Sages say: even crumbling and casting it to the wind or throwing it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesahim 2.1 = Bavli 21a)
We are presented here with two basic views: R. Judah sees bi’ur hametz as requiring physical destruction, the literal obliteration of hametz, its total removal from the world. The Sages, by contrast, say that it suffices to perform some action such that it no longer maintains its identity as a foodstuff, or at least not one which the normal person would be tempted to eat: crumbling, and casting it to the wind or the sea, are enough. We are not concerned with whether the hametz as such exists, only with whether it is in our possession as a recognizable foodstuff.
A brief exchange, that appears in the course of discussion of the above, considers the possibility of selling the hametz to a Gentile, drawing astonishingly strict conclusions regarding this possibility:
“And he sells it to a Gentile.” Is that not obvious?! To exclude that which was taught in a beraita, as they taught: Beit Shammai said: A person should not sell his hametz to a non-Jew unless he knows that he will consume it before Pesah. And Beit Hillel said: So long as one is permitted to eat hametz one is permitted to sell it [to a Gentile]. R. Judah ben Betaira said: Kutah [a kind of whey pudding with bread crumbs] and all kinds of kutah one is forbidden to sell to a Gentile thirty days before Pesah.
The implication here seems to be that once hametz has belonged to a Jew, it must be physically destroyed. Selling it to a Gentile—even a real sale, in which the Gentile physically removes the hametz from the premises for his own use; not the legal fiction familiar to us—is inadequate. Hametz —even the breaded yogurt known as kutah habavli, which is a kind of mixture—must not exist. This sugya, or more precisely the Shammaite opinions within it, seems to mitigate very strongly for the total destruction of hametz regardless of its ownership. We shall return below to try to understand what this may mean.
Elsewhere in the Mishnah, we are introduced to the concept of bittul, of “negating” hametz. Thus, the mishnah at Pes. 3.7 (=b. 49a) discusses the case of a person who had set out on a journey to perform a mitzvah—perhaps to perform the mitzvah most typically associated with Passover, the slaughtering of the paschal lamb; or any other mitzvah—and, while on the way, on Passover eve, suddenly realized that he had left hametz behind in his home:
One who went to slaughter his Paschal sacrifice, or to circumcise his son, or to participate in a betrothal feast in the house of his father-in-law, and remembered that he has hametz within his home: if he can go back and destroy it and return to his mitzvah, he should return and destroy it; but if not, he may negate it in his heart. [But] to save [another person] from Gentiles, from the river, from bandits, from a fire, or from a landslide, he should negate it in his heart.
“Negation in one’s heart “ is presented here as a court of last resort, a kind of stopgap option available for emergency cases: either if one cannot return to one’s home to destroy it and also perform the mitzvah incumbent upon one, or if there is a situation of actual danger to another’s life. We find this concept further elaborated in other texts. Thus, at 6b:
R Judah said in the name of Rav: One who searches for hametz must [also] negate it. What is the reason? If because of crumbs, they are not considered [as forbidden hametz]. Ravva said: It is a precautionary edict, lest he find a nice pastry and set his mind on it…
Here bittul is not only an emergency option, but part of the normal procedure of searching one’s home to remove all hametz—albeit still as a kind of backup. If one inadvertently missed something before Pesah—a rich cake in a back corner of the freezer? a bottle of fine whiskey?—and suddenly finds it during the middle of the festival, the mental act of bittul saves one from the transgression of owning hametz on Pesah, because legally, as a result of bittul, it is either a non-entity or no longer one’s property.
What then is bittul hametz? From the context here, it would seem to be defined as a mental act of dissociating oneself from hametz, of stating (or possibly merely fixing in one’s mind?) that any hametz inadvertently remaining in one’s possession is as if it does not exist; or, according to some, is hefker, ownerless. This is articulated in a verbal formula, “kol hamira,” in which one states that any hametz located within one’s domain is “like the dust of the earth”; but, in terms of pure halakhic conception, the essence is the mental act, not the verbal articulation. Rambam defines this most clearly of all the major authorities. In Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 2.1-3 we read:
 It is a positive commandment of the Torah to desist from hametz prior to the time that its eating is prohibited, as is said, “On the first day you shall remove leaving from your homes” [Exod 12:15] …  And what is this desisting spoken of in the Torah? That he should nullify it in his heart and consider it as if dust, and to fix in his heart [the thought] that he does not have any hametz at all. And that any hametz which is in his possession is like dust, and like a thing of which there is no need whatsoever.  And from the words of the Sages, that he should search out hametz in all the hidden places and cracks, to search and to remove it entirely from his domain. And also from the words of the Sages, that one must search and nullify hametz on the night of the fourteenth [of Nissan], from the beginning of the night, by candle light….
From Rambam’s words here, it is clear that bittul hametz is not merely a stopgap option or “backup measure,” but that it is the quintessential act of bi’ur hametz. Indeed, for Rambam it is the physical searching for hametz and its elimination that is secondary, a Rabbinic measure introduced to insure that one not inadvertently stumble upon hametz during the festival week.
But there are also opposite views to be found among rishonim. Thus, the very first Tosafot of our tractate:
“On the night of the fourteenth one searches for hametz…” Rashi explained, “So that he not violate ‘You shall not see and it shall not be found…’ And this is difficult to R. Yitzhak, for as one is required to perform bittul, as is stated in th Talmud, ‘One who searches must also negate” (6b), and under Torah law mere negation is sufficient, why did the Sages require searching at all? And it seems to R. Yitzhak that, even though negation is in itself is sufficient, the Sages were strict in insisting that one search and remove it, so that one not come to eat it… (Tosafot, at 2a)
Thus, while Rashi seems to think in a simple way, that the essence of the mitzvah is the physical destruction of hametz, both Rambam and Tosafot, in their different ways, each see bittul as the essential thing.
5. Some Tentative Conceptual Conclusions
To summarize, it seems to me that the dispute about bi’ur hametz centers on the issue of the relation of mitzvot to the world of matter. Pesah, in stark contrast to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is strongly focused upon a particular item of physical realty—hametz—and the basic question debated between the rishonim concerns whether the commandment to eradicate it pertains primarily to the physical, practical world (bi’ur in the literal sense) or on the level, of inner mental attitude (bittul).
Yochanan Silman, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University, has written extensively about the philosophy of halakhah, its underlying philosophy, and certain basic lines of dispute which run, like a crimson thread, through almost all of halakhah. He notes that one of the major themes is what, for want of a better term, might be called the dispute between realism and nominalism (as in medieval European philosophy). Regarding a whole range of topics relating to “statuses”—whether the personal status of individuals (e.g., marital status, Jewish identity); the status of objects as tamei and tahor, or as sanctified or secular (e.g., vis-à-vis animals or other objects dedicated to the Temple); property ownership; and a host of other areas—there is a debate as to whether statuses are in some sense an inherent, almost metaphysical property thereof (realism), or simply a formal legal category (nominalism). Thus, for example, in the area of kashrut: there are those who view non-kosher foodstuffs as containing some inherently negative or even demonic property, as in the dictum, oft-quoted in sources influenced by Kabbalah, that such food “stupifies the heart,” even when eaten by mistake; or, alternatively, there are those who interpret the kosher laws in a predominantly educational or psychological light, the discipline of not eating certain things and the consciousness that creates somehow refining the human personality. Or, regarding a larger question: does one see the difference between Jews and non-Jews as something metaphysical, an inherently different quality of their very souls (as in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari or in many Habad writings), or purely in terms of the ideas and ideals with which the former are imbued (see, e.g., Rambam, Avodat Kokhavim Ch. 1). Understood properly, these issues strongly impinge upon some of the central issues confronting Judaism today, such as some of the issues we discussed last week, viz. how rabbis treat such issues as marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism.
It is usual to refer to these approaches as “mystical” and “rational,” and to see the fault line as running, beginning in tannaitic times between R. Akiva and R. Ishmael; in medieval Jewish thought, between Kabbalah and philosophy; and, in a later stage, between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism. But this is not entirely true. Within Jewish mysticism itself, certainly among its contemporary interpreters, there are those who view the Zohar as a kind of guidebook to the supernal realms and the sefirot as representing in some sense literal realities, while others read the Zohar as written in a kind of symbolic language, whose main concern is to awaken religious sentiments of awe, fear, and love of God. And there are philosophers or “pure” halakhists who follow what Silman has called a “realist” approach.
These issues are vast, the hour is late, and I have only been able to touch upon these ideas in the most sketchy and superficial way, for which my apologies. In conclusion, I shall return to bi’ur hametz. A widespread interpretation describes hametz as symbolizing a whole series of negative forces in the world: the Evil Urge, the 49 “gates of impurity” found in Egypt, the traits of pride and arrogance. As we approach the “Zero Hour” for purging our homes of hametz, do we see the “enemy” as the bits of breads and crumbs inadvertently overlooked, or is the true “enemy” our own ego and our true task, as we sit down at the Seder table, to encounter our own personal Egypt?