As we learned in the previous chapter, one who possesses ḥametz on Pesaḥ transgresses two prohibitions: “no ḥametz of yours shall be seen” (Shemot 13:7), and “there shall be no se’or found in your homes” (ibid. 12:19). In order not to violate these Torah prohibitions, one must eliminate all ḥametz from his possession. According to the Torah, it is possible to dispose of the ḥametz by nullifying it verbally, because when one nullifies the ḥametz in his possession, it becomes like dust, no longer belonging to him, and consequently, it does not cause him to transgress the prohibition of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei.
Nonetheless, the Sages ruled that we must not rely on this nullification (bitul) alone; rather, one must also physically remove ḥametz from his possession, for two reasons: First, they feared that people would nullify ḥametz insincerely, intending to benefit from it after Pesaḥ, and this would result in their transgressing the prohibition of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzei. Second, they feared that after nullifying his ḥametz, one might see an enticing piece of pastry and eat it, forgetting that it is Pesaḥ. The Sages therefore ordained that, in addition to bitul ḥametz, one must search out ḥametz in order to eliminate it from his possession.
At first glance, the appropriate time for bedikat ḥametz should be just before midday on the day of the 14th of Nisan, the deadline for removing ḥametz. However, the Sages ordained that we search for ḥametz at nightfall of the 14th, because during the day people are busy with their affairs, and if one waits until the day of the 14th to do bedikat ḥametz he is liable to forget it altogether. Furthermore, candlelight is especially effective for checking the cracks and crevices of the house. But during the day, candles do not illuminate well, since sunlight prevents the eye from focusing on the weaker light of the candle. Therefore, the Sages instituted bedikat ḥametz at nightfall of the 14th, because at night, people are usually at home and candlelight is effective at this time (SAH 431:5).
Since people normally pray Ma’ariv at the beginning of the night, they should do so prior to the bedika, as a more frequent mitzva takes precedence. They should then proceed quickly to bedikat ḥametz (MB 431:8). One who is accustomed to praying with a minyan later in the evening should search for ḥametz at tzeit ha-kokhavim (the appearance of three distinct stars) and then pray at his usual hour.
The obligation to search for ḥametz rests upon the male head of the household, but if it is difficult for him to do so because he is weak or does not see well, he should appoint his wife or another adult family member to search in his stead. Regarding this mitzva there is no difference between men and women, and one should choose someone reliable to perform a bedika properly and responsibly (see AHS 437:7). If the head of household is capable of performing a proper bedika but is compelled to come home late that evening, he should appoint someone to perform the bedika in his stead at the regular time at the beginning of the night. If there is no one to perform the bedika in his home at the set time, then be-di’avad he should perform the search himself when he gets home.