A talk by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs on 23rd March 1983 summarised by Michael Rose.
Many Jews who are not particularly observant all the year round feel that Pesach is the one time when they should be strict; hence the need for a talk on this vast and complex subject. Rabbi Jacobs spoke about a number of topics where people tend to be unaware of, or confused about the reasons for laws and practices of this festival.
What is Shemura Matzah?
This is not, as is sometimes assumed, a form of “glatt kosher” matzah, or religious “one-upmanship.”
According to Rabbinic interpretation, the eating of matzah is only a special mitzvah (commandment) of the first night of Pesach: this is deduced from “Ba-erev tochlu matzot” “On the evening (of the Seder) you shall eat Matzot” (Ex. 12:14). For the rest of Pesach, the only obligation is not to eat Chametz; the eating of Matzah is voluntary.
The term “Shemura matzah” is derived from Ex. 12:17 – “Ushemartem et hamatzot.” The Rabbis interpreted this to mean “you must watch over the matzot”, so that it should not become leaven; it must not be subjected to moisture and the rule was, that if the grain was left for a period of about eighteen minutes, it became chametz. (The plain meaning of the biblical verse was probably that you must keep the festival of Matzot, i.e. Pesach).
The obligation to watch over the matzah applied to the matzah which it was obligatory to eat – namely, the matzah for the first evening. Even though matzah contained no chametz, it would not qualify as matzah for the first night unless it had been “watched over”, with special intention.
The Talmud laid down that wheat while growing cannot become chametz and shemira (watching) is only required from the moment of reaping ketzirah. Many argued that this was not necessary, and that watching was only required from the time of kneading the dough lisha. But, as some took the stricter view, and though the law does not demand this, Shemura matzot are watched over from the time of reaping. They are not more kosher, or less chametz than ordinary matzot.
In the 19th century there was a controversy about machine-made matzoth. Those who sought to ban them argued that machines could not form the necessary intention to watch over the matzoth. The prevailing view, as might be expected, was that the intention of the person who fed the ingredients into the machine was sufficient.
There was also a difference of opinion about the minimum quantity – “ke-zayit” (as much as an olive) of matzah that has to be eaten to satisfy the mitzvah on the first night. The Chazon Ish worked out that this was quite a large quantity. Rabbi Jacobs told the story of a group of ultra-orthodox youths in Ramot, engaged in their favourite occupation of throwing stones at care on Shabbat. One young man was seen to be throwing a particularly large stone and, when asked why, replied: “I follow the Chazon Ish!”
May rice be eaten on Pesach?
The rule that rice may not be eaten on Pesach applies only to Ashkenazim: Sefardim permit it.
There is no question that rice may be eaten on Pesach according to Talmudic law. Only five types of grain are capable of becoming chametz – wheat, barley, rue, oats and spelt. The idea of prohibiting rice originated among German Jews in the Middle Ages, who went out of their way to introduce special precautions out of chibub mitzvah, love of the mitzvah. They thought there was a danger that rice might be confused with the forbidden types of grain and similarly banned peas and beans because of a custom at that time of mixing them with flour from which bread was made.
This is how the practice grew up among Ashkenazi Jews, and the reason why it is binding on us today, is the principle that, if the community in which you were brought up follows a rule to forbid something which would otherwise be permitted, you must follow the rule of your community. “Al titosh torat imecha” – “Do not forsake the teaching of your mother” (Prov. 1:8) was interpreted by the Rabbis as the basis for this rule, “mother” being equated with “community”.
Hence, if an Ashkenazi Jew eats rice on Pesach, he is not offending against the laws of Pesach at all, but against the principle of following the rule of your community. A Sefardi who refuses, on religious grounds, to eat rice on Pesach is committing a similar offence! If a Sefardi marries an Ashkenazi, the practice of the husband prevails (murmurs of “Shame” were heard at this point.)
Is there any justification for the sale of Chametz?
The basic rule is that, during the eight days of Pesach, “lo yereah lecha chametz” (x. 13:7) – interpreted as meaning that you must not see your own chametz in your home. There is no ban on keep chametz in your hour home, provided it does not belong to you or to other Jews. Chametz which is the legal property of non-Jews is permitted – and the same applied, in Temple times, to chametz “belonging to God” – i.e. the property of the Temple. Such chametz is permitted for use after Pesach (otherwise it would be forbidden permanently).
In the Talmudic era, it was rare to have chametz in the home over Pesach: normally it would be eaten, or destroyed before the Festival. References to the chametz of non-Jews were to special situations, such as the food supplies of gentile soliders stationed in Jewish houses. But the Talmud discusses the case of a Jew on a long sea journey, with Pesach approaching. He may give his chametz to his fentile fellow-passengers, on the understanding that they will give it back to him after Pesach. Provided the legal transfer by gift has taken place, the Jew has observed the rule against having chametz in his possession.
Sale of chametz developed to the full extent that we know it today in 18th century Poland. The practice developed out of necessity, to avoid financial hardship for e.g. merchants with large stores of alcohol made from grain. The Rabbi undertook the role of an agent acting on behalf of the whole community, and entered into a carefully drafted contract of sale of the collective inventories of chametz to a non-Jew, leaving the price outstanding and with a provision for repurchase after the Festival. In this way, everyone was assured that the legal machinery had been properly carried out and that he had observed the requirements of the Law.
Although the sale of chametz is a kind of legal fiction, that does not make it automatically reprehensible. This, Rabbi Jacobs argued, was not to be compared with “skating within the Law” on ethical matters. We were concerned here with a religious law and, since the requirement was that your chametz only was forbidden in your home, why should it be wrong to arrange matters so that no chametz on the premises remained in your ownership? In religious matters, as opposed to ethical matters, there was no virtue in being more particular than the strict law demands.
Should we continue to observe this practice? Rabbi Jacobs thought that, since this was a recent innovation and some were not happy about it, we should not use it for “real” chametz like cake and bread, but might do so for, say, whisky, (which although classified as chametz is not “primary” in character and does not come under the full prohibition). Rabbii Jacobs did not understand the approach of some Reform Rabbis who ridiculed the sale of chametz as a legal fiction, and at the same time praised Hillel for introducing the legal fiction of the Prosbul to circumvent the release of debts in the Shemittah year!
Why do we search for Chametz?
All chametz must be removed from the home before Pesach. Why is it not the same with other prohibitions, such as trefa food? (In fact, we may keep trefa food in the house, for example, as food for a non-Jewish servant.)
The rule about chametz is that it must not be seen in your home, and this is fulfilled by two acts – searching for and removing chametz and nullifying chametz by the declaration that all chametz in your possession including any that has escaped your notice, is to be deemed null and void (Bittul Chametz).
According to some authorities, ownership is relinquished by the making of this declaration. So why search, and why remove the chametz? Food is not removed from the home at the beginning of Yom Kippur! The answer is that, in the case of chametz, you have become accustomed to having it around and you might forget the prohibition and eat it. (Removal is, however, not necessary if the chametz has been sold).
Rabbi Jacobs referred to the custom of putting out ten pieces of bread around the house so as to make sure that some chametz is found and removed, and the beracha preceding the search is thus not said in vain. Though this practice has, inevitably, attracted Cabbalistic interpretations based on the Ten Sefirot, it is questionable: you say the beracha for the mitzvah of searching for chametz but there is no law that you have to find any!
Why do we need “kosher lepesach” labels?
To answer this question, we need to understand the principle behind the laws about mixtures containing chametz.
First we have to take the ordinary rule governing trefa good which is mixed with kosher. These are:
- Where we are concerned only with dry food, as opposed to food cooked in the same pot (yavesh beyavesh) the rule is that if there is twice as much kosher food as trefa, i.e. a proportion of two to one, the trefa food is neutralised. For example, if there are three pieces of meat, one of which is trefa (but you do not know which), then all three may be eaten, because the trefa meat loses its identity.
- Where kosher and trefa, or meat and milk, are cooked in the same pot, one is concerned with the question of whether, according to the Rabbinic rules, the trefa is treated as having given its taste to the kosher. For this purpose, the volume of kosher has to be at least 60 times as much as the trefa (batel bashishim).
A stricter rule than this is applied for Pesach, according to some authorities, for whom even a sixtieth part of chametz would be enough to render the mixture forbidden for Pesach and the “smallest amount” of chametz will have this effect. But this stringent rule only applies where the mixture was prepared during Pesach. If the mixture was prepared before Pesach, the same rules apply as for mixtures of kosher and trefa food, i.e. at least 2:1 if the foodstuffs are dry and not cooked together, and not more than one-sixtieth part trefa in other cases.
It follows that there is no reason why you need a special kosher le-Pesach label for tea or coffee bought for Pesach and prepared before the festival. Even if, in defiance of all the food manufacturing regulations, a workman had been eating sandwiches over the production line, a few crumbs would not produce the necessary proportions of chametz. If you raise this kind of objection – (and you should not be “more righteous than the Din”, because the above rules mean that the end product is unquestionably kosher) then you should never drink tea or coffee all the year round, because the workman might have been eating a ham sandwich!
Kosher le-Pesach labelling has become a pioneer industry and, with the higher prices and hardship to the less well-off this brings, the trend should be resisted where there is no reasonable possibility that the product could be chametz.
What are the basic rules for the koshering of utensils?
If trefa food has been cooked in a utensil or has come in contact with it, and if one cooks in that utensil for at least 24 hours, the trefa food is treated as having left behind a “taste”. After 24 hours have passed, the taste is deemed ‘spoilt’ or dulled and food cooked in the vessel may be eaten but in the first instance one must not cook food in the utensil.
For Pesach, a stricter rule applies. Regardless of how much time has passed since the vessel was in contact with chametz, the food is forbidden. Vessels have to be “koshered” to make them fit for use during the festival.
The process to be used for koshering follows the principles “as it absorbs, so it exudes” – to get rid of the “taste” the vessel has to be subjected to the same process as that by which it acquired the taste in the first place. So, for example, a spit used for roasting meat would have to be made red hot with fire, while a saucepan used for boiling would require purging with “scalding hot” water.
Earthenware vessels cannot be koshered because the material is deemed to be too absorbent (there is a difference of opinion as to whether modern glazing overcomes this but it should be assumed that glazed china should not be used). These rules apply only to vessels in which hot chametz has been used. So, for example, a plate used only for cold food, such as biscuits, could be used for Pesach and would not require ‘kashering’. However, the more usual practice today is to have a complete change of dishes, which eliminates any doubt.
There are two opinions about glass – one that it is “like earthenware” and cannot be koshered, and the other that it is not “absorbent” and needs no treatment. The compromise practice has grown up of soaking glass in water for three days, which is treated as removing whatever taste there may be.
Pyrex may be used on Pesach and (notwithstanding some controversy) an enamel saucepan.
Following his talk, Rabbi Jacobs went on to answer a great number of practical aspects of the laws of Pesach. His clear explanations and humorous anecdotes set the seal on an exceptionally informative evening.