Chametz 101

In the dark of night, guided only by a slight illumination, we search the house. Carefully, we stride from room to room, investigating corners, checking furniture, examining windowsills. Finally, the search is complete: ‘Tis the night before Pesach, and all the chametz (leavened food) has been swept away.

Swept away, yes, and set aside, but not fully eliminated. That happens the next morning, in the bright light of day. Traditionally, we search for chametz the night before seder, and we destroy it the following morning (this year, on Wed., March 27). The destruction is called bi’ur chametz — the burning of the leavened food — and actually involves setting a small fire and turning our last bits of bread into ashes.

Why the search-and-destroy mission? Why does the Jewish tradition promote such complete obliteration of leavened food products before Pesach? Chametz is forbidden not just for consumption during the holiday; we are taught not to eat it, not to own it and not even to have it in our possession for the days of Pesach. It’s got to be expelled and eliminated.

What’s so bad about chametz?

Over the generations, scholars and commentators have wondered about this, too. Maimonides, the classical Medieval philosopher, notes that leavened bread is not only prohibited on Pesach; it also was forbidden on the desert tabernacle altar and in the Jerusalem Temple. In ancient times, the surrounding non-Jewish cultures used leavened bread for their idolatrous practices — and so Jews should avoid it in their holiest places. The mystical text, the Zohar, actually compares any Jew who eats chametz on Pesach to an idol worshiper. In other words, chametz symbolizes lack of full faith in God.

Other thinkers understand chametz in more interpersonal ways. Talmudic rabbis suggest that chametz symbolizes arrogance and ego. "What prevents us from doing the moral thing? It is the ‘yeast in the dough,’" says one teacher. Just as yeast causes the bread to rise and be full, our inflated egos cause us to be haughty and self-important.

Why are we permitted to eat chametz at all? Or, at least, why don’t we eschew it during the High Holy Day season, when our entire focus is on cheshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of the soul)?

Perhaps the chametz means something else. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, a Russian 19th-century rabbi, suggests that leaven represents man’s intervention in God’s world; while matzah, in its simplicity, utilizes no more than the basic elements of flour and water. Chametz represents human technological ingenuity and creativity, allowing us to raise the dough beyond its simple state. This time of year, we focus on God’s unassisted deeds.

Pesach tells the tale of a people who (literally) walked, unscathed, from slavery to freedom — due completely to divine intervention. Just this one week a year, we give God all the credit. The exodus story is all about God’s miracles. So, we step away from our own powers and stand in awe of God, contemplating the ways that God intervened in the lives of our ancestors — and how God plays a role in our own lives as well.

So why not avoid bread all year? Shouldn’t we celebrate God’s "strong hand and outstretched arm" every day? Does not God’s spirit lead us from slavery to freedom each day in every generation?

It does, but for only one week a year should we remove ourselves from the equation. God has a role to play, but so do we. During Pesach, we give God all the credit but also contemplate our own intervention. God is not alone in making the world a better place for freedom, mitzvot and healing: We are God’s partners — we are the yeast in the dough.