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Peninei Halakha > Pesah > 03 – The Mitzva of Eliminating Ḥametz

03 – The Mitzva of Eliminating Ḥametz

01. The Mitzvot Associated with Eliminating Ḥametz

It is a positive Torah commandment to eliminate all ḥametz from our possession before Pesaḥ, as it is written, “Yet on the first day you must remove the se’or from your homes” (Shemot 12:15). The oral tradition teaches that we are to clear out the ḥametz by midday of the 14th of Nisan, Erev Pesaḥ. This ruling is supported by the verse, “You shall not slaughter the blood of My sacrifice over ḥametz” (ibid. 34:25), which is interpreted to mean that one may not slaughter the Paschal sacrifice while there is still ḥametz in his possession, and the time for slaughtering the Paschal sacrifice begins at midday on the 14th of Nisan (see Pesaḥim 4b; MT, Laws of Ḥametz and Matza 2:1). Men and women are equally obligated in this mitzva, as they are concerning all of the mitzvot of Pesaḥ.

Whoever did not remove the ḥametz from his home by midday of the 14th of Nisan is in violation – every single moment that he delays – of the positive commandment of removing the ḥametz (MB 443:1). Furthermore, from the moment the Pesaḥ holiday begins, he is in violation of two prohibitions: bal yimatzei, as it is written, “Seven days there shall be no se’or found in your homes” (Shemot 12:19), and bal yera’eh, as the Torah declares, “Matzot shall be eaten seven days; and no ḥametz of yours shall be seen, and no se’or of yours shall be seen within all your borders” (ibid. 13:7). Thus, by fulfilling the mitzva of eliminating ḥametz, we are saved from two prohibitions: bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei – that ḥametz should be neither seen nor found in our possession.[1]

The mitzva of removing the ḥametz is the first in a series of mitzvot connected with Pesaḥ. As noted, ḥametz on Pesaḥ is a metaphor for the evil inclination, and one has to clear out the ḥametz from the house in order to experience the sanctity of the Pesaḥ sacrifice and the eating of the matza properly. Therefore, the first of the preparations for Pesaḥ is removal of the ḥametz.

[1]. A summary of the opinions regarding the times of the onset of the ḥametz prohibitions: The removal and destruction of the ḥametz must be done by midday of the 14th (perhaps according to Ha-ma’or the mitzva begins at midday, but according to the rest of the Rishonim, on the Torah level the removal and destruction of the ḥametz must be completed by midday). There is a dispute regarding the starting times of the other mitzvot connected to ḥametz. Regarding the prohibition of eating ḥametz, R. Yehuda maintains that the Torah prohibition begins at midday of the 14th, and R. Shimon maintains that it begins at the onset of the Pesaḥ festival. Most Rishonim adopt the view of R. Yehuda, but some adopt the view of R. Shimon. Regarding the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei, most Rishonim maintain that these prohibitions begin at the onset of the festival, while a minority maintains that they begin at midday of the 14th (above, 2:2, n. 2).

One who participated in the Paschal sacrifice (korban Pesaḥ) while he still had at least a kezayit of ḥametz in his possession violated a Torah prohibition, as it says: You shall not slaughter the blood of My sacrifice over ḥametz (Shemot 34:25). If he was warned about this and still did it on purpose, he incurs the penalty of lashes (MT, Laws of Korban Pesaḥ 1:5).

02. The Prohibition against Ḥametz One Owns

The prohibition against ḥametz on Pesaḥ is unique in that it is not only forbidden to eat it, but it is forbidden even to keep; whoever keeps it in his home violates the two prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei.[2]

The Torah’s language, “no ḥametz of yours shall be seen, and no se’or of yours shall be seen within all your borders” (Shemot 13:7), shows that there is no prohibition against a Jew having a gentile’s ḥametz or ownerless ḥametz in his domain. It says “of yours” – you are not allowed to see ḥametz that belongs to you specifically, implying that the ḥametz of gentiles and ḥametz that is ownerless are permissible.

Therefore, if a gentile lives in a Jew’s courtyard, even if the gentile works for the Jew, the Jew does not have to eliminate the gentile’s ḥametz. Likewise, if a gentile deposited ḥametz in a Jew’s house for safekeeping before Pesaḥ, the Jew need not clear it out, as long as he is not responsible for the ḥametz. However, he must erect a partition at least ten tefaḥim (handbreadths) high in front of the ḥametz, to make certain that he does not forget and eat of it (SA 440:2). Alternatively, he may lock it up and hide the key, or close it in a cabinet and tape the doors shut, so that if someone opens them, he will be reminded of the prohibition against ḥametz.

A Jew may also permit a gentile enter his home on Pesaḥ, carrying his ḥametz with him. It is forbidden, though, for the Jew to eat with the gentile at the same table, lest the Jew forget and eat of the gentile’s ḥametz. Even if he puts something on the table to remind himself not to eat from the gentile’s ḥametz, he may not eat with the gentile at one table, lest a crumb of ḥametz may get mixed into the Jew’s food. Once the gentile has finished heating, the Jew may clean the table thoroughly of all the ḥametz crumbs and then eat there (SA 440:3; MB ad loc. 18).

[2]. According to Rosh (Pesaḥim 1:9), any ḥametz that can be seen, even if in reality it is not seen, would cause a violation of bal yera’eh. It turns out then, that anyone who is in possession of at least an olive-sized piece of ḥametz violates two prohibitions: bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei. However, according to Kessef Mishneh (on MT, Laws of Ḥametz and Matza 1:3), one who keeps any type of ḥametz in his possession violates bal yimatzei, but he would only violate bal yera’eh if he actually sees the ḥametz.

03. Ḥametz That Has Been Guaranteed by a Jew and the Status of Stocks

We have learned that one violates the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei only by possessing ḥametz that is the property of a Jew, as it is written, “no ḥametz of yours shall be seen” (Shemot 13:7). Yet, at first glance, there is a difficulty here, for it is written, “there shall be no se’or found in your homes” (ibid. 12:19), implying that it is forbidden to have ḥametz in a Jewish home under any circumstances. The Sages explained that, indeed, if the ḥametz belongs to a gentile, and the Jew has not undertaken the responsibility of its safekeeping and guaranteeing its return, then it is not forbidden to have it in the Jew’s domain, as it is written, “and no ḥametz of yours shall be seen.” If, however, the Jew accepted responsibility for the item, then it is considered like his own, and the prohibition applies. This is what the Torah intended when commanding: “there shall be no se’or found in your homes” (Pesaḥim 5b).

Therefore, if a Jew guaranteed the return of ḥametz that was deposited with him, it becomes like his, and he is not allowed to keep it in his home or courtyard but must return it to the gentile or clear it out. Be-di’avad, if he cannot return it to the gentile and clearing it out will cause him a loss, he should sell the ḥametz together with the place it is stored, to a different gentile (SA 440:1; MB ad loc. 4). However, if the Jew undertook the protection of a gentile’s ḥametz that remains in the gentile’s possession, then the Jew does not violate any prohibition (MB 440:7). Thus, a Jewish-owned insurance company may insure a gentile’s ḥametz, because it remains in the gentile’s possession.[3]

If a Jew deposited ḥametz with a fellow Jew for safekeeping, they are both obligated to eliminate it: the depositor because he owns it, and the custodian because, by committing to safeguard, it is considered his (SA 440:4). Even if he did not undertake its safekeeping, he is obligated to eliminate it.[4]

If one bought stock in a company that owns ḥametz, and Pesaḥ arrived, if he has the authority to express his view about how to manage the company’s affairs – what to sell and what to buy – then it is considered as if he owns the ḥametz, and he violates bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei on account of it. But if he is not authorized to express an opinion, then he is like everyone who invests in stocks – the company owes him a percentage of its value, but its property is not considered his, and he does not violate any prohibitions on account of its ḥametz holdings. Accordingly, those who invest money in mutual funds or pension funds do not violate any ḥametz prohibitions, even though the managers of the funds may invest part of the money in a company that owns ḥametz, since this ḥametz is not considered the property of the investor. Some rule stringently in this case.[5]

[3]. According to Ri, the ḥametz is considered to be in a person’s possession only if he accepted the responsibilities of a paid custodian. According to Behag, he is considered the owner of the ḥametz – and thus in violation of the halakha – even if he only accepted the responsibilities of an unpaid custodian. SA records Ri’s view laconically and mentions Behag’s view as “some say” (“yesh omrim”). MB (8) states that le-khatḥila one should show concern for Behag’s view. According to Rambam, even if one did not accept any responsibility for the ḥametz, if the gentile is powerful and will forcibly extract compensation for the Jew’s loss of the ḥametz, the ḥametz is considered owned by the Jew, and he would be considered in violation. According to Raavad, he is not in violation, but the predominant view is that of Rambam. In all these cases, if the ḥametz remained over Pesaḥ, one may eat it be-di’avad, since the prohibition of using ḥametz that existed on Pesaḥ is only rabbinic, and in an uncertain situation we are lenient. The status of insurance companies is addressed in She’arim Metzuyanim Be-halakha 114:29.

[4]. Regarding a Jew who deposited his ḥametz with another person, SA 440:4 rules in accordance with R. Yona that even if the custodian accepts responsibility over the ḥametz, since the ḥametz still belongs to the owner, it is the owner’s responsibility to destroy it. This is the opinion of other poskim as well. According to Ramban and Ran, since the ḥametz is not in the owner’s possession and the custodian accepted responsibility for it, the owner of the ḥametz does not transgress any prohibition. As for the custodian, SA 443:2 states that if the owner of the ḥametz did not come to collect it before Pesaḥ, the custodian should preferably sell the ḥametz to a gentile in order to preserve its value. If he did not do so, the custodian is obligated to destroy the ḥametz. MB ad loc. (14) explains that according to Baḥ and MA, the reason for this obligation is that every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew (“kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh”). Gra’s opinion on the matter is that even if the custodian did not accept responsibility for the ḥametz, he still has a Torah obligation to destroy it, as it is forbidden to harbor a Jew’s ḥametz in one’s home. This is also the opinion of Tzlaḥ and Beit Meir.

[5]. So states She’arim Metzuyanim Be-halakha 114:28. Some are strict and sell their shares of ḥametz-owning companies and companies that insure ḥametz. So states Sidur Pesaḥ Ke-hilkhato 11:5. Many ḥametz-sale documents include provisions to address this (see Piskei Teshuvot 440:1).

04. How One Fulfills the Mitzva of Eliminating Ḥametz

We clear the ḥametz out of our homes in two ways: in thought and in deed, that is, spiritually and in practice. The removal in thought is done through nullification (bitul) of the ḥametz, declaring it ownerless and considered as mere dust. We do this nullification because we violate the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei only with ḥametz that belongs to us and that we consider valuable. One who nullifies his ḥametz and considers it to be as dust does not violate any prohibitions on its account. Similarly, if he declares it ownerless, he commits no violation on its account.

In addition to bitul, we also eliminate our ḥametz in fact. The evening of the 14th, we search the entire house for ḥametz, and on the day of the 14th we eliminate it from our homes.

Although each method independently is sufficient to fulfill the requirements of Torah law, the Sages required that we remove the ḥametz using both methods, to be on the safe side. Thus, we annul the ḥametz verbally and clear it out of the house physically.[6]

On one hand, the Sages did not want to rely on the nullification alone, lest some Jews not annul the ḥametz wholeheartedly and subsequently keep it in their homes to eat after Pesaḥ. Since they did not annul the ḥametz wholeheartedly, they violate bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei by keeping it at home (Rashi, Pesaḥim 2a). Moreover, the Sages were concerned lest, if ḥametz remained in the house, people might eat it by mistake. Therefore, they also required its physical removal from the home (Tosafot ad loc.).

Similarly, the Sages did not want to rely on the search alone, lest some Jews not manage to find all the ḥametz in their homes but then find it on Pesaḥ. In that event, there is a chance that they might wait briefly before burning it – because they would feel badly for a moment about losing their ḥametz – and, in that moment, they would violate the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei. By nullifying the ḥametz before Pesaḥ, however, they would not violate the prohibitions, even if they hesitated a little before burning it (MB 434:6).[7]

[6]. According to most poskim, on the Torah level, one method of destroying the ḥametz is sufficient: either by nullifying the ḥametz or by searching for and destroying the ḥametz. The Sages decreed that one must use both methods, as I wrote above (1:1), in the name of Ran and as cited in Beit Yosef §432. However, it seems that according to Tur, the Torah’s primary method is bitul, and the Sages added that one must also search for and destroy all ḥametz, because of the reasons presented above.

[7]. According to MA 434:5, citing Tur, if one thoroughly checks his house and yet still an olive-sized piece of ḥametz remains, he violates the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei. (This is why, in his view, the primary elimination of ḥametz at the Torah level is bitul.) However, according to Rambam, Rosh, and the other Rishonim, anyone who checks his house properly, even if he does not manage to find every last bit of ḥametz, does not violate any prohibitions for unintentionally having ḥametz in his house, since he did a proper and thorough inspection. Only if he finds ḥametz in his house on Pesaḥ and intentionally leaves it in his house because he wants the ḥametz, would he violate any prohibition. Moreover, according to Taz, even Tur is of this opinion, as I have written above.

05. The Essence of the Mitzva

A fundamental question arose concerning the essence of the mitzva of removing the ḥametz: is the mitzva essentially to eliminate the ḥametz actively or is the main principle that no ḥametz remains in a Jew’s possession?

According to most Rishonim (Ramban, Maharik, and others), the mitzva is primarily that one’s domain be free of ḥametz. One who has ḥametz must clear it out, and one who has no ḥametz in his possession has fulfilled the mitzva by having no ḥametz in his domain.

However, some Rishonim (Tosafot, Ran) imply that only someone who has ḥametz becomes obliged to fulfill the mitzva, and he fulfills it by clearing the ḥametz out of his house. One who has no ḥametz is exempt from the mitzva. Yet even according to this approach, we do not find that the Rishonim recommended acquiring ḥametz in order to fulfill the mitzva of removing the ḥametz. Nevertheless, there are Aḥaronim who wrote that it is appropriate for one who has no ḥametz in his possession before Pesaḥ to go beyond the letter of the law and buy some ḥametz, so that he may fulfill the mitzva of removing the ḥametz according to those who hold that one must actively remove ḥametz.

In practice, Jews are a holy people and strive to enhance the mitzva by making sure they have ḥametz in their possession on the 14th of Nisan, with which they fulfill the mitzva of eliminating ḥametz in a manner that satisfies all views. Moreover, they are so scrupulous as to remove the ḥametz specifically by burning it, for, according to many poskim, burning is the preferred way to destroy the ḥametz (see below, 5:4).[8]

[8]. Minḥat Ḥinukh §9 discusses the different sides of the issue at length and notes that according to Rashi, Rambam, and Sefer Ha-ḥinukh, the mitzva is passive. (This is also the view of Ramban at the beginning of his commentary on Pesaḥim and of Maharik §174.) According to Tosafot and Ran, however, the mitzva is an active one, and in their view one who has no ḥametz should acquire ḥametz in order to fulfill the mitzva of eliminating it. R. Ḥayim Soloveitchik of Brisk offered a novel interpretation, namely, that this dispute hinges upon the dispute between the Sages and R. Yehuda regarding the method of destroying the ḥametz: according to R. Yehuda, the mitzva is specifically to burn the ḥametz, whereas according to the Sages, any form of destruction works. Those who follow R. Yehuda’s opinion, therefore, would hold that one must do a positive action to fulfill the mitzva of destroying the ḥametz. This requires further study (and see below, 5, n. 3). Among Aḥaronim, according to Maharash Engel, Ḥelkat Yo’av, and Mekor Ḥayim, there is a mitzva for every person to own ḥametz in order to destroy it; conversely, SAH (436:21), Divrei Ḥayim (1:9), Ḥavot Ya’ir (§4), and Avnei Nezer (OḤ 318) maintain that there is no mitzva to obtain ḥametz in order to destroy it. As mentioned, the custom is to actively destroy some ḥametz to fulfill this mitzva according to all opinions. Indeed, MB (445:10) states that it is proper to leave a kezayit of ḥametz in order to fulfill the mitzva of destroying the ḥametz.

I wrote that fulfillment of the mitzva requires a kezayit because according to many poskim the requirement to eliminate ḥametz applies to a minimum of a kezayit (see MB 442:33). Even according to those who adopt the stringent view that less than a kezayit must be eliminated, it stands to reason that this is only so that one does not eat it and violate the prohibition of eating ḥametz, which applies even to a piece smaller than a kezayit. According to the overwhelming majority of poskim, however, there is no Torah prohibition of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei on a piece of ḥametz smaller than a kezayit. So state Dagul Me-rvava §442, Ḥakham Tzvi §86, and Sha’agat Aryeh §81. According to many, the mitzva to eliminate ḥametz is linked to the prohibitions of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei. (See below, 5:4, n. 3, which discusses how some are careful not to pour lighter fluid on the ḥametz at the time of burning, whereas others maintain that this is not an enhancement of the mitzva.)

06. When the Prohibitions of Eating and Benefiting from Ḥametz Begin

The mitzva of eliminating ḥametz must be carried out by midday of the 14th of Nisan. Every instant that a Jew keeps his ḥametz after that time he is in violation of the positive commandment to remove the ḥametz. Beginning at midday, the Torah prohibition against eating and gaining benefit from ḥametz begins as well (MT, Laws of Ḥametz and Matza 1:8; above, section 1 of the present chapter).

As discussed above (2:2), in order to distance one further from possibly violating commandments, the Sages added to the prohibitions and forbade gaining benefit from ḥametz for an additional hour. They also forbade eating ḥametz for two extra hours, since on a cloudy day people are likely to err by as much as two hours.

These times are calculated by dividing the day into twelve equal parts, each of which is called “a seasonal hour” (“sha’ah zemanit”). It is forbidden to eat ḥametz from the beginning of the fifth hour; it is forbidden to gain any benefit from the ḥametz from the beginning of the sixth hour; and the Torah prohibition against eating and benefiting from ḥametz begins from the beginning of the seventh hour.

Thus, in practice, it is permissible to eat ḥametz throughout the first four hours of the 14th day of Nisan. During the fifth hour, it is forbidden to eat ḥametz by rabbinic decree, but it is still permissible to benefit from the ḥametz – for example, one may feed ḥametz to an animal or sell it to a gentile. With the onset of the sixth hour of the day, it becomes forbidden by rabbinic decree to gain benefit from the ḥametz, and it is consequently no longer considered in his possession, and he can no longer sell it to a gentile or nullify it. The only way to eliminate it is to burn it, crumble it, and throw it into the sea, or scatter it to the wind (SA 443:1).

The poskim disagree about when to calculate the beginning of the day. Magen Avraham maintains that it begins at dawn, that is, from when the first light becomes visible in the east. The Vilna Gaon maintains that it begins at sunrise, that is, from the time when the sun itself becomes visible in the east. The difference between dawn and sunrise is more than an hour; thus, for every halakha contingent on the hours of the day, calendars list two times. The earlier one in the morning is based on the approach of Magen Avraham, and the later one accords with the Vilna Gaon’s approach. This is true concerning the recitation of the morning Shema, which must be done by the end of the first three hours of the day, and it is also true of the Shaḥarit prayer, whose set time is until the end of the fourth hour (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 11:10, n. 14).

In practice, since the final times for eating and benefiting from ḥametz are of rabbinic origin, as are the sale and bitul of ḥametz, the halakha follows the more lenient view, since in cases of doubt on matters of rabbinic origin the halakha follows the lenient view. Nevertheless, it is better to be stringent when possible (MB 443:8).[9]

[9]. A question arises regarding one who is in America and owns ḥametz in Eretz Yisrael: Until when can he annul or sell his ḥametz? The end of the fifth hour where the ḥametz is, or the end of the fifth hour where the owner is, about seven hours after the last time for annulling ḥametz in Eretz Yisrael? According to most poskim, we follow the location of the person, although there are some who maintain that one should follow the location of the ḥametz. Le-khatḥila one should follow the earlier time, but be-di’avad we follow the location of the person. This is the view of Igrot Moshe OḤ 4:94-95. See also Piskei Teshuvot 443:1.

The first opinion is quoted in the name of MA, even though the author himself was unsure. See also Rema 443:1 and MB ad loc. 9, stating that according to Terumat Ha-deshen this particular issue is assessed using fixed hours, not seasonal hours, and in a case of significant loss, one may rely on this view.

07. The Procedure for Eliminating Ḥametz

As we have learned (section 4, above), we eliminate ḥametz from our homes both in deed and in thought. The process of removal consists of four stages: inspection (bedika), nullification (bitul), elimination (bi’ur), and nullification once again. Let us describe this in detail.

The process begins with the bedika on the evening of the 14th. The search is aimed at ensuring that we have no more ḥametz in our home other than the ḥametz that we are keeping to eat and to destroy. Immediately after the search, we nullify the ḥametz for the first time, and in doing so we eliminate the ḥametz in thought. The next morning, we physically destroy the remaining ḥametz in our possession in deed. It is customary to destroy it by burning it. After the burning, one nullifies any ḥametz in his possession for a second time, thus completing the process of eliminating ḥametz in thought.

There are two more possible ways of disposing of ḥametz: selling it to a gentile and declaring it ownerless. As noted, one violates bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei only for ḥametz in his possession, and it is only ḥametz that is in his possession that he is commanded to eliminate. Thus, if he sells the ḥametz to a gentile or declares it ownerless, he does not violate any prohibition on its account.

Thus, search, disposal, and nullification are actions directed against the ḥametz with the aim of eliminating it. In contrast, declaring the ḥametz ownerless and selling are not directed against the ḥametz to destroy it, but rather their aim is to remove the ḥametz from our possession so that we do not violate the ḥametz prohibitions. With the search, the disposal, and the nullification, we wage war against the ḥametz, whereas by selling it or declaring it ownerless, we evade the responsibility it places upon us. These are all ways to remove the ḥametz.

Now that we have learned the principles of the mitzva of removing the ḥametz, in the coming halakhot we will explain the laws of removal of ḥametz in detail. We will begin with the halakhot of the search for ḥametz, with which we begin our campaign against ḥametz. We will then continue on to the halakhot of nullifying and destroying ḥametz. Then we will address the laws of selling ḥametz to a gentile for one who wishes to preserve the value of his ḥametz and free himself from the need to destroy it.

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