From Rabbi Michael Friedland:
We are all aware that on Passover we are commanded not to eat hametz, leavened grain products. This is not the only dietary rule in Judaism. What is different about hametz on Passover and eating other non kosher mixtures, like milk and meat, is there is no corrective. That is, if someone accidently drops some meat into a dairy soup, if the amount of meat was very small, less than 1/60 of the volume of the soup, it is considered to be nullified and you can still eat the soup. Even though there is some meat in it. However with hametz during Passover, the rule is that “Hametz assur b’mashahu” – any amount, one speck of Hametz that enters into a Passover dish disqualifies the entire dish. This seems overly strict, no? Why?
Rashi, the great sage from 11th century France explained the reasoning was because Hametz is only forbidden during Passover. It looks like stuff that is perfectly acceptable to eat the rest of the year. The likelihood of confusion is thus greater and our Rabbinic sages ruled more strictly regarding the possibility of mixing hametz and Kosher for Passover foodstuffs.
A different view was suggested by Maimonides, the leading Jewish authority from the 12th century Egypt. He argues that because the prohibition of hametz is only for the eight days of Passover, that is, there is an definite end to this period of restraint there is no need or justification for modification or leniency. For eight days we can be very very careful and restrictive about improper admixtures.
Not only are we very strict about hametz restrictions on eating, cooking and benefitting but on top of all that, our tradition castigates and denigrates hametz and all it symbolizes during Passover. Hametz is the Yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil, whereas matzah is the Yetzer tov, our desire to do good. Hametz, as a leavened product which is literally “puffed up”, represents arrogance, matzah represents humility, and deference before God.
What did hametz do to deserve such opprobrium? All during the year we eat and enjoy hametz and yet come Pesah time it is demonized.
But like our ancestors of old, I think we American Jews can find symbolic meaning in the connection between the hametz and the matzah. It teaches us a valuable lesson about being different in a society in which we are not so different and in which we are not even looked upon as different.
Hametz and matzah are basically the same foodstuff. The only distinction between the two is matzah is cooked very quickly so that the leavening and fermentation does not begin, otherwise they are the same. Likewise we American Jews are not so distinguishable from our neighbors. For Jews of an earlier generation this was an important goal. Our ability to make the most of our economic and professional opportunities depended on our ability to blend in and be just like everybody else. We shortened our last names, we shortened our noses, some denominations shortened our holidays from two days to one.
But today we live in a very different world. When Harvard University’s Jewish population is almost the same as Brandeis; when leading government officials, senators, Supreme Court Justices are Jews; when the two leading Presidential candidates have Jewish sons-in-law; when the fastest growing niche in the food business is kosher foods, we Jews no longer have to be like everybody else to succeed. Everybody else is becoming more Jewish!
And even in the midst of this latest wave of anti semitic attacks and threats, a recent Pew survey found once again that when Americans are asked which religion other than your own do you have the fond feelings for, Judaism scored 79%, more than any other religion.
And so at Pesah as we consider how our sages encouraged us to take extraordinary steps to uphold the difference between hametz and matzah, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that despite how similar we may seem to our non-Jewish neighbors, we are different and need to take action to preserve our uniqueness from surroundings in which distinctions are not so readily apparent. Because as we have seen in recent weeks, if we do not positively acknowledge our uniqueness, others in society are ready to impose our differentness on us.
This brings us back to Rashi and Rambam.
Rashi taught that because hametz and matzah are so similar and hametz is permissible the rest of the year, without strong efforts to consciously keep the mixing apart we would get confused. The lesson for us in this age of blending is that we should take confident and decisive steps to define our Jewishness.
Keep Shabbat; build a sukkah; make a commitment to daily minyan; volunteer on synagogue projects; study Torah and Jewish subjects.
But like Maimonides who argues that since the prohibition of hametz has a natural end to the restriction of mixing and thus we have no reason for leniency in forbidden mixtures, so too for Jews at the beginning of the 21st century there is no mitigating reason for us to force ourselves to be like everybody else. We have made it and America accepts us whether we walk around with a kipa on our head or if we do not eat pork or if we observe the Sabbath on Saturday and do not work rather than Sunday. We are accepted for who we are in all our diversity and thus unlike our ancestors we do not have to be untrue to our ideals and commitments.
The question for us is why and how. Why should we be different from others? The answer is that our faith and heritage offer a unique and compelling way of engaging the world through faith, theology, and communitarian life style. Only delving more deeply into Jewish study will produce a more profound answer.
But we also must consider how shall we be different? Shall we take an extreme approach like some who close themselves off to all influences and relationships outside of our community, because we are afraid of the cogency of outside ideas and ways? Or because we have no respect or tolerance for those who are different from us? Or is it possible for us to engage non-Jewish culture and maintain our uniqueness? Where shall we be different?
On Pesah we come to terms with Jewish uniqueness. We ask God not to make us more like everyone else nor to close ourselves off from a polluted outside world, but to grant us the wisdom to create our own distinct path, to be an Am Segula, a treasured people worthy of God’s salvation, worthy of all the special unique gifts he has endowed us with.
On the Sale of Hametz
Pesah approaches with it the institution of ‘selling hametz’. Every year I act as agent to sell the hametz of members of our congregation who can’t rid their homes of all the hametz before the holiday and it is worthwhile to spend a moment reviewing what this means.
The Torah prohibits ownership of hametz during Pesah. Hametz is any product of food which contains one of five types of grain – wheat, oat, barley, spelt, or rye – which is mixed with water and allowed to leaven (or has the potential to leaven). Matzah is also composed of these grains BUT baked through before the grain has a chance to leaven.
We are required to clean out all the hametz from our homes. Since we are not allowed to have in our possession even a minute amount, including crumbs, on the night before Passover we check the house, mainly the kitchen and eating areas, for a final sweep (literally). We then recite a formula renouncing possession of anything that we might have missed. On the morning before the Seder we destroy whatever hametz we might have found. A final renunciation is recited and we are ready for Pesah.
But what if we have bottles of alcohol? Or ten boxes of pasta we found on sale two weeks before Pesah? We can’t own it so we sell it to a person who can own hametz during Pesah. That is why we arrange a sale of Hametz to non-Jews. In our community, I act as the agent who takes responsibility to sell any and all hametz in our possession to a non-Jew who agrees to purchase it. Kay Wroblewsky agrees to buy the hametz but does not take possession herself until a fair assessment of the cost can be determined. Immediately after the 8 day holiday, Kay can decide not to carry through on the assessment and the agreement to purchase is terminated. But for the eight days the hametz belongs to her. She has yet to complete the sale.
Hametz to be sold should be placed in a distinct location in the house and sealed off during the week.
Some dismiss this sale as a fiction and think it is silly. Let me offer a spiritual response. During Pesah, hametz represents the negative traits we wish to remove from within ourselves. The rabbis identified the puffed up hametz as arrogance. But it can be seen as any negative trait within us. Passover is liberation from the slavery of our impulses, our bad choices, our negative inclinations. Cleaning the house of hametz is a concretization of our desire to clean ourselves spiritually. But we can never clean every speck out. Selling our hametz is a spiritual exercise of imagining what we would be like if we were cleaned of our negative traits.
It is most appropriate to use this as an opportunity to do tzedakah. A donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary fund of $18 is encouraged, but any amount is acceptable.
After the search for Hametz on the night before Pesah this formula should be recited --
“All hametz in my possession which I have not seen and have not removed shall be nullified and be ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
The next morning after ridding the house of all leftover hametz this version of the formula should be recited--
“All hametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not and whether I have removed it or not, shall be nullified and be ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
Note: If possible, all hametz-food not acceptable during Pesah (Passover), or materials containing such unacceptable food – should be destroyed or given away before the holiday begins. Should this be impossible, the hametz may be stored in such a way that we are sure not to use it during the holiday and its actual ownership is transferred to a non-Jew until the holiday ends.