The mussar of chametz


According to the Rambam’s list of Taryag Mitzvot (613 Commandments) found in his Sefer HaMitzvot, there are four distinct commandments that focus on the prohibition of chametz. The first two discuss the Torah’s ban on the ownership of chametz during Passover:

• The 200th prohibition is that we are forbidden to have chametz be seen (lo yay’ra’eh) in our dwellings all seven days [of Pesach]. The source of this commandment is G-d’s statement, “None of your chametz may be seen, and none of your s’or (that which facilitates leavening) may be seen in all your territories.” (Shemot 13:7)

• The 201st prohibition is that we are forbidden to have chametz found (lo yimatzeh) in our dwellings, even if it is not visible, or if it is left as a deposit. The source of this commandment is the Torah’s statement, “For seven days, no chametz may be found in your homes.” (Shemot 12:19) 

The second set of mitzvot referring to chametz, as discussed in the Sefer HaMitzvot, emphasizes the proscription of eating this forbidden substance, and the positive commandment to remove it from our homes and storage places:

• The 199th prohibition is that we are forbidden to eat chametz on the 14th [of Nissan] after noon. The source of this commandment is G-d’s statement, “Do not eat any chametz with it [the korban Pesach].” (Devarim 16:3)

• The 156th mitzvah is that we are commanded to remove chametz [leaven] from our possession on the 14th of Nissan. This is the mitzvah of “removing the leaven.” The source of this commandment is G-d’s statement, “On the day before [Pesach] you must remove the leaven from your homes.” (Shemot 12:15)

One is struck by the multiple mitzvot associated with the issur (prohibition) of chametz. This is not the case in regard to many other issurim that the Torah enjoins. By way of illustration, the injunction against wearing a garment comprised of linen and wool threads (sha’atnez) is found but twice (Vayikra 19:19 and Devarim 22:11) – yet, it is the self-same forbidden act, rather than two distinct commandments. Why, then, does the Torah place such pronounced emphasis upon the prohibition of chametz?

One early source that informs our question is the Talmud Yerushalmi:

• Rabbi Tanchum bar Isbalustika prayed in the following manner: “May it be Your will before You Hashem my G-d and the G-d of my fathers, that You destroy and remove the yoke of the evil inclination (yetzer hara) from our hearts. For You have created us to perform Your will, and we are obligated to perform Your will, You desire this, and we desire this. Who [what], however, prevents us from [doing so?] — the leavening agent in the dough (s’or she’b’isah). (Berachot 4:2)

The Talmud Yerushalmi clearly identifies the yetzer hara with the s’or she’b’isah — i.e., chametz. This conceptual nexus is even more explicit in a prayer found in Rav Amram Gaon’s (810-875) celebrated work, “Seder Rav Amram Gaon”—

Master of the Cosmos, it is revealed and well-known before You that I desire to perform your will — yet, the s’or she’b’isah is preventing me from doing so. May it be Your will before You Hashem, my G-d, that You will destroy, bring low and distance the yetzer hara from before me; and may You bring it low, humble it and distance it from the 148 limbs that are within me; moreover, may it not trip me and force me away from your good paths. Instead, place the yetzer tov (good inclination) within my heart, along with a good “friend” to keep Your precepts, to serve You and to perform Your will in a whole-hearted manner. (Nefilat Apayim v’Kedushah d’Sidra)

Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340) builds upon our earlier cited sources and takes them to a new level of understanding. In his estimation, the prohibition of chametz “incorporates all of the commandments.” (Sefer Kad HaKemach, Pesach I) This notion is crucial, since “chametz metaphorically represents the yetzer hara. As such, we have the allusion of the idea that just as the Torah obligates us to nullify the chametz in our hearts, so, too, we are duty-bound to expunge the yetzer hara from our hearts (min halev) — in order that it should not rule over us. This is what the Torah intimates when it commands us, “remove it [the chametz]” (‘tashbitu’). [Little wonder] our Sages of blessed memory declared that tashbitu was [accomplished, even] b’lev (through a cognitive gesture).”

At this juncture, Rabbeinu Bachya presents us with an intellectual tour de force regarding the underlying spiritual and ethical meaning of chametz. In so doing, he answers our original question, “Why, does the Torah place such pronounced emphasis upon the prohibition of chametz?”

“And just as Rabbinic tradition teaches us that we must [physically] remove the chametz, and we must check our home in all of its crevices and cracks [to see if we can discover it], so, too, are we obligated to diligently search and check in the innermost portion of our being … and in our thoughts for all manner of evil opinions. Moreover, just like the search for chametz may neither be conducted by the light of the sun, nor by the light of the moon — nor by a torch, but rather only by a candle, so, too, the search for the yetzer hara must only be done with the light of the soul. As we find in the text, “Man’s soul is Hashem’s light, which searches out the depths of his being.” (Sefer Mishle 20:27)

May we be zocheh (merit) this Pesach to have souls that serve as Hashem’s light, so that we may search for, and remove, the chametz that may reside in the innermost recesses of our being. If we can accomplish this lofty goal, hopefully this will be our final Pesach in galut. “Next in year in Jerusalem!” V’chane yihi ratzon.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach.