Photo Credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski / Pixabay
Challah bread. (illustrative)

One might think the answer to the question in the title is obvious. But that would be a mistake. True, if one equates wrong and forbidden, the answer is obviously no. However, that equation is far from being a given. To understand why we need to first discuss the logical problem posed by chametz. 



At the center of the problem is that a substance be forbidden only part of the year. This is not exactly the same problem as certain activities being proscribed on Shabbat or holidays, though there are similarities. It is more of a problem because a substance would seem to have objective properties that make it either helpful or destructive. Although this is based on our observations of the physical world, it makes sense to apply this to the spiritual world as well. Given that both are the handiwork of the same Creator, many religious minds have found similar principles involved in these two realms. Accordingly, foods that are non-kosher can be understood as the spiritual equivalent of poison. So how could chametz only be “poisonous” seven days of the year?  


Part of the problem is the binary way in which we think of halakha. Meaning we think of halakha as setting up two clear categories. If it is not a, it is b. As I have highlighted in a recent article, Maharal completely rejects such an understanding of halakha; and it seems to me that we should too. But even with the complexity that Maharal gives to halakha, we still need to know why the context – in this case, the time of year – defines whether a substance such as chametz should be permissible or not. 


A helpful place to start is Netziv’s suggestion about Shabbat observance in the building of the mishkan: Based on an anomaly in the text (Shemot 35:2), he posits that the laws of Shabbat were stricter when it came to the construction of the mishkan. In this context, even work done passively on Shabbat would be forbidden. Hence all cooking for this purpose would have to have been completed before Shabbat. Likewise, had Shabbat timers been around, they could not have been used. Netziv refers to this situation as desecration of Shabbat that does not involve a sin. Given the special sanctity of the mishkan, he continues, it would be inappropriate to allow this in its construction. Presumably the ideal would then be that there be no desecration of Shabbat anytime, and not just in the building of the mishkan. However, because passive work on Shabbat is less of a desecration than actively doing work, and not doing it would entail a great deal of discomfort, the Torah did not prohibit it.    


What that tells us is that normative halakha does not always represent the ideal, but rather only partially overlaps with the Torah’s values. Though many examples of this could be shown, chametz would certainly be one of them, especially since – besides being forbidden on Pesach – it too is forbidden in the sanctified realm of the altar. In fact, Netziv says something very similar regarding chametz, explaining why it is permissible in most places the rest of the year but forbidden on Pesach and on the altar.   


The specifics of this are not my interest here. Rather, I want to convey the importance of distinguishing between the halakha and the Torah’s ideals. It is only from such a perspective that we can understand Rabbi Y. D. Soloveitchik’s contention that the halakha is only the floor and not the ceiling. That is to say, it is not the maximum that is expected of us, but only the minimum!  


Rabbi Soloveitchik’s idea need not be translated as an imperative to always look for stringencies (though taking on reasonable and productive stringencies should certainly be understood this way). Rather it is a call to try to understand the Torah’s ideals and see what else we can do to articulate and reinforce their place in our lives and in the world more generally. In that sense, taking a stroll and admiring God’s world in a nearby park or woods may be just as, or even more, productive than praying at sunrise (ke’vatikin). 


If the above is correct, asking whether something is permitted or not can only be the first question we ask. We must then ask, what else we can do (or not do) to enhance the Torah’s values. If this is the only thing we learn from chametz this year, I think it would be fair to say, dayenu! 


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.