Photo Credit: A. V. Morpurgo
A depiction of an Italian bedikas chametz (1864)

If you’re like me, you’ve had moments when you’ve sworn off all chametz products for the rest of eternity. These moments usually come after digging handfuls of Cheerios out of couch cushions or chipping congealed pretzel bits out of the car’s backseat cup-holders. Wouldn’t life be so much better if we just tossed all our chametz and never looked back?

And if you’re not willing to go that far (after all, pizza…), the reverie changes to become a wish for a “Pesach house.” Instead of a month of backbreaking bedikah, the runup to Pesach would be calm and unharried, full of relaxed cooking and Seder preparations. On Erev Pesach, all you’d have to do was lock your year-round house, walk over to the Pesach house, and enjoy the holiday.


I want to argue, though, that bedikas chametz is not as pragmatic as this daydream assumes. The point may not only be to end up with a chametz-free house; there may be something else at play. If so, the month of cleaning before Pesach could take on a new level of significance which just might alleviate some of the aching in your back. Let’s take a trip into one of the halachic discussions of bedikas chametz and see where it takes us.


‘Cause I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane,
Don’t Know When I’ll be Back Again

The Gemara (Pesachim 6a) discusses a person who heads overseas before Pesach. Does he have an obligation to check for and remove chametz from his home? It depends on two factors: when he’s leaving, and when he’s planning to return. Rava rules that if a person is leaving on a long trip within thirty days of Pesach, he must check his home for chametz – even if he does not plan on returning home before Pesach. If there is more than a month to go before Pesach, though, he must check for chametz only if he plans on returning home either during or close to Pesach.

The latter case makes sense: If I know that I’ll encounter chametz upon returning home, it’s perfectly sensible that I should be responsible to preempt that by removing chametz prior to leaving. But what is the logic of mandating bedikah in the former case?

It is helpful to first clarify what bedikas chametz is meant to prevent in a regular situation. Classically, there are two opinions as to why Chazal instituted a requirement to check for chametz before Pesach. According to Rashi, the goal is to preclude the potential for transgressing the laws against owning and interacting with chametz on Pesach; by finding and removing all the chametz from your house, you ensure that you will not encounter it on the holiday. Tosfos disagrees, instead suggesting that the purpose of bedikas chametz is to avoid encountering chametz over Pesach and eating it out of force of habit.

Neither reason seems to apply to our case, though. Since the person won’t be home, Tosfos’s concern about absentmindedly eating the chametz shouldn’t be relevant. While Rashi’s concern for owning chametz could be an issue, bittul should have been the prescribed solution, not bedikah. Additionally, Rashi himself writes that one only transgresses the prohibition upon actually seeing the chametz; maintaining ownership is not enough.

Thus, neither concern seems to justify making a person check his home for chametz if he is leaving within thirty days of the holiday and won’t return until afterwards.


The Raavya’s Airbnb

A new approach to the question emerges from a surprising halacha recorded in the Tur at the end of his discussion of this topic (siman 436). He quotes (and rejects) a counterintuitive opinion from the early rishon Raavya regarding someone who had been using a non-Jew’s house – like an Airbnb – and is now leaving on a trip overseas within thirty days of Pesach. According to the Raavya, a person in this situation has to check for and remove whatever chametz he would be leaving behind in the non-Jew’s house, even though the non-Jew will subsequently move in and refill the cupboards with all kinds of chametz. However, if the Jew is simply moving from the non-Jew’s house to his own lodgings, he is not required to check the non-Jew’s house, because he’ll be doing bedikah and biur in his own home come Erev Pesach.

The Tur is astonished by such an opinion: What is the point of removing chametz from the non-Jew’s home? No matter what the non-Jew does with it, it shouldn’t be relevant to the Jew anymore – he’s effectively given up any ownership on it – so why should he have to do bedikah and biur?

The Bach and Beis Yosef both explain that the Raavya has a different perspective here. Conventionally, the Tur is correct; bedikah and biur should not be necessary in this case. The Jew gave up ownership (avoiding bal yira’eh/bal yimatzeh – the prohibition against seeing or finding chametz on Pesach), and will not be around this chametz during Pesach, thus avoiding the concern of potentially eating it.

The Raavya, though, was introducing a third facet of bedikah and biur to the conversation: Within thirty days of Pesach, there exists a standalone obligation to do bedikah. This responsibility is not purely pragmatic, focused on ensuring a clean house come Pesach-time; instead, it has an intrinsic component to it, obligating the individual to engage in the acts of bedikah and biur. In lomdus language, the Raavya is introducing a chovas hagavra, a personal obligation, even without a totzaah (outcome) of a chametz-less house for Pesach. Therefore, if the only house I have access to within thirty days of Pesach is the non-Jew’s house that I’m about to take leave of, I need to fulfill my bedikah obligations before leaving. If, though, I’ll have access to another house to do bedikah in and fulfill my intrinsic obligation, there would be no pragmatic, outcome-oriented reason to check the house of the non-Jew.

Rav Yaakov Emden (Mor U’ketzia 436) adduces support for this surprising opinion from our original question. What justifies the obligation to check my house for chametz when leaving within thirty days of Pesach if I’m not planning on returning until Pesach has passed? The best explanation for this surprising chovas bedikah u’biur is a personal obligation to check, disconnected from encountering chametz on Pesach. In fact, the surprising opinion of the Raavya is simply an extension of this case in our Gemara!

There are a number of additional situations that highlight these two elements of bedikas chametz, the intrinsic and the pragmatic, such as: what to do if a person forgot to check in such a scenario (Tur vs. Magen Avraham); what if family members remained at home (Bach, Elya Rabba); and whether a beracha is made on this early bedikah (Ritva, Raah, Meiri).


The Meaning Behind the Mitzvah

What is the significance of the counterintuitive approach advanced by the Raavya? What is gained by making bedikas and biur chametz intrinsically important within thirty days of Pesach, rather than simply ways to avoid problems once Pesach begins? The answer is based on the broader implications of chametz and matzah to Pesach. Rav Samson Rephael Hirsch develops the idea that on a number of levels, matzah symbolizes slavery while chametz represents independence. Matzah is the food served to slaves, as described in the opening lines of Maggid on the Seder night: “Ha lachma anya di achalu avasana b’ara d’Mitzrayim” – This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in Egypt. It is simple and quick to prepare, made by a person who knows he will quickly be called back to work and has no time to spare. Bread, on the other hand, is the food of the free; it demands time to leisurely rise and swell until it is ready to be eaten.

The moment of the Exodus and everything it represented for the Jewish people could well have been misunderstood as a time of transition from the matzah of Mitzrayim to the chametz of a newly emancipated, free people. No longer would we have to suffer the indignities of being beholden to anyone besides ourselves; we could finally control our own destiny. That, Hashem teaches us every year on the anniversary of our leaving Egypt, is the exactly wrong perspective to take. You remain slaves – My slaves! As you danced through the gates of Mitzrayim on the way to Israel, you ate not freshly risen bread, but matzah! Pesach does not signal complete independence, but our transformation from avdei Pharoah to avdei Hashem (see Megillah 14a).

To avoid this error which would completely overturn the entire message of Pesach, Hashem made chametz verboten for the entire period of Pesach. No one can eat chametz, for sure, but nor can one even see or own chametz over Pesach, to reinforce the message of the matzah.

But the intrinsic approach teaches that the message is not limited to Pesach. In advance of Pesach, every single person, whether they have a house to clean or not, needs to spend time meditating and reflecting on this fundamental idea which lies at the heart of our status as a nation: We do not serve ourselves, we are avdei HaMakom. That message – and the opportunity to reinforce it – is the point of an intrinsic obligation of bedikas and biur chametz, over and above the pragmatic one.


A Cleaning Meditation

The matzah vs. chametz idea is an incredibly fundamental one, as highlighted by the severity and number of halachos relating to chametz before, during, and after Pesach. It cuts to the core of how we see ourselves as a nation, and by extension as individuals: Am I here enjoy myself as much as possible, or am I here to contribute to the national cause in response to the Divine charge? It’s the difference between living for a higher purpose and living for my own purposes. It’s difficult to pinpoint examples of what that affects, because it is meant to affect everything; it should be the foundation and starting point for every decision.

Think about that when you’re on your hands and knees, sweeping bowlfuls of cereal out from behind the stove and refrigerator and emptying entire bags of pretzels from car seats. Hopefully it adds some meaning to the mess.


This article is an adaptation of a chapter in the author’s sefer recently published by Mosaica Press: Halachic Worldviews, exploring a number of topics in halacha and extracting values and ideals from the development of the sugyah.

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