Monday, March 7, 2011

Why we don't eat Chametz on Pesach

Freshly Baked Multi-Grain Loaves by Sifu Renka, November 8, 2008, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

The prohibition against Chametz on Pesach is one of the most unique in the Torah. The Torah in 3 separate places commands us to search out and destroy Seor (yeast) and Chametz, to not find Seor and Chametz and to not see Seor and Chametz in our homes.

We know that this prohibition also includes an Issur against getting hanaah from Chametz and even the smallest amount (a mashehu) of chametz is forbidden. Why is the Torah so much stricter by Chametz than by other Issurim?

In Parshat Vayikra, we find another prohibition by Chametz that applies throughout the year. The Torah tells us in Chapter 2 Verse 11 that we are forbidden to offer Seor as well as Devash (honey) on the altar as a sacrifice. What is the connection between the prohibition against Chametz on the altar and its proscription on Pesach?

In Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim gives an explanation for the prohibition against offering Chametz and Devash on the altar all year round. He says that the worshippers of idols would sacrifice Chametz and Devash on their altars so we reject their idolatrous practices by refraining from these items in our sacrifices. Furthermore, since idolators prohibited salt on any of their sacrifices we put salt on all of our sacrifices. The Rambam says he knows all of this from reading descriptions of the idolatrous practices.

This Rambam is based on a Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi describes Yeravam Ben Navat’s plan to seduce people to worship idols. Yeravam’s slogan was “Come worship idols. Idol worship is easy!!”

Yeravam lists many examples where idol worship is easier than worshipping God. One example he brings is that while the Torah says that you cannot burn Chametz on the altar, idolatry says that you can burn Chametz on the altar. This is based on verses in Amos chapter 4 which clearly state that the Jews under Yeravam burned Chametz on the altar.

Perhaps one could say that the prohibition against Chametz on Pesach is similarly linked to idolatry. What item does the Torah command you to burn and prohibit you from seeing? If you guessed Chamez on Pesach you are wrong. (Sorry)

The correct answer is idols. Idols are also forbidden even in a masheu like Chametz. One must search for idols (in Israel) to destroy them and one cannot derive benefit from idols. In fact, the prohibitions against idols and Chametz on Pesach are almost identical. Why?

We know that one of the main themes of Pesach is rejecting the gods of Egypt in favor of the one and only God. This is the reason we slaughter the Karban Pesach. The lamb was an Egyptian god. By slaughtering it and offering it to Hashem the Jews actively repudiated the gods of Egypt.

One could argue that in Egypt, Chametz was also treated like a god and by refraining from Chametz we are rejecting Egyptian idolatry.

This Zohar illustrates this idea. He says that anyone who eats Chametz on Pesach it is as if he worships idols. The reverse of this is that by refraining from eating Chametz we are rejecting idols. How can we prove this connection?

In Breishit Chapter 39 Verse 6 the Torah says that when Joseph was a slave in Egypt in Potiphar’s house, Potiphar gave Joseph all that was his except for the bread that he (Potiphar) ate. Why did Potiphar deprive Joseph of his bread? Because Joseph was a slave and a foreigner and foreigners could not eat Egyptian bread.

Later in Breishit Chapter 43 Verse 32, this idea is stated in more detail. Joseph, who is now the prince of Egypt, his 11 brothers, and the Egyptians are feasting. Yet each group is eating separately. Why don’t the Egyptians eat with the Jews? Because it is a Toevah for the Egyptians to eat bread with the Jews. The word Toevea indicates a disgusting thing either for God or gods. (See Shemot Chpater 8 Verse 22 and Devarim Chapter 7 Verse 25-26.) It is a disgrace to the Egyptian gods for a foreigner to eat Egyptian bread.

What was so special about Egyptian bread? Encyclopedia Encarta notes the following:
Although people have been making bread for thousands of years, its exact origins are unknown. During the late Stone Age, nomadic tribes probably made a thick gruel from wild grain and baked it into flat cakes on hot stones in their campfires….

Archaeological evidence suggests that yeast-risen wheat breads were developed in Egypt around 4000 years ago. The Egyptians are also believed to be the first to grind wheat flour in a process analogous to modern milling.

Technical advances continued to improve bread-making techniques, among them the use of the yeast-containing residue of the brewing process as a leavening agent. Bread bakers no longer had to rely on wild airborne yeast or sourdough starters, and by the 3rd century BC, yeast was manufactured commercially in Egypt.

The Egyptians invented yeast (Seor in Hebrew) that allows bread to rise. They guarded this secret formula from all foreigners. They considered yeast-risen bread to be a gift from the gods if not a god itself. This might be one reason that we refrain from Seor on Pesach. By destroying all Chametz, we reject the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians. Simultaneously, we eat Matza the same poor man’s bread our forefathers ate as foreigners enslaved in Egypt.

A funerary model of a bakery and brewery in Ancient Egypt, dating the 11th dynasty, circa 2009-1998 B.C. Painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. Source:

A Sefaria source sheet for this post appears below.

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