“For seven days leaven may not be found in your homes, for anyone who eats even a mixture of food with the slightest amount of hametz, his soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Ex. 12:19)
Every festival requires preparation but no holiday is approached with the kind of frenzied, frenetic cleaning which marks the approach of Pesach.
Indeed, the usual greeting among observant Jews before Purim is “Have a joyous Purim” (Purim sameah), whereas before Passover it is, “Have a kosher Pessah.” (Hag kasher vesameah)
An astute rabbi once commented that it should be the opposite: on Purim we should wish each other a “kosher” Purim, since we are commanded to drink on Purim, and under the influence of inebriating beverages, there is no limit to the unkosher words a person might express or unkosher deeds they might commit. On Pesach, however, we need to remind each other to be joyous, because the cleaning to rid our homes of hametz (leavened products) can sap the strength of even the most energetic.
There are three biblical verses which command us to remove every trace of hametz before the festival: “…before the first day [of Pesach] you must destroy [or nullify] the leaven from your homes” (Exodus 12:15); “For seven days leaven may not be found in your homes, for anyone who eats even a mixture of food with the slightest amount of hametz, his soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Ex. 12:19); “Since matzot must be eaten for these seven days, no leaven may be seen in your possession; no leaven may be seen in your boundaries” (Ex. 13:7). No wonder Jews become obsessive in preparation for Pesach!
What lies behind this emphasis on eliminating hametz? Interestingly enough, both the rationalists and the mystics, the mitnagdim as well as the hassidim, agree that hametz symbolizes the evil instinct, the spirit of Satan which all too often invades the inner domain of even the best of us.
How so? From a religio-legal (halachic) perspective, hametz is any one of the five grains – wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt – mixed with water for more than 18 minutes, which then rises or ferments. Conversely, matza is any one of those same grains mixed with water for less than 18 minutes, so that the dough will not rise. These grains are known as the staff of life for every human being. Hametz is puffed-up matza, whereas matza is simple hametz.
The inflated nature of hametz symbolizes crass materialism, the kind of self-importance which leaves no room for others, and certainly no room for God. It also symbolizes the swelling connected with the stimulation of the libido outside the context of love and marriage.
Since the dough must be constantly kneaded with one’s hands to prevent fermentation, whereas a mere lack of conscious effort will allow dough to rise automatically, hametz also suggests sloth and bored passivity. Matza, from this perspective, suggests active intervention.
Just as the same grains can produce either hametz or matza, the very etymology of the words is almost identical: hmtz and mtzh – the only difference is the soft or hard “h.” Moreover, matzot and mitzvot (divine commands) are spelled exactly the same way in Hebrew
This moralistic exposition emanates from our Talmudic texts. The first mishna in tractate Pesachim opens: “On the evening of the 14th day of Nisan [this year, Sunday night March 17], we must search for [and eliminate] hametz by the light of a candle.”
The talmudic sages compare this to God’s ferreting out of evil in Jerusalem by the light of a candle before the coming of the Messiah (Zephaniah 1:12), and cite as the proof-text: “The candle of the Lord is the soul of the human being; He searches the innermost recesses” (Proverbs 20:27). Hence our search for hametz is much more than “spring housecleaning”; it is, rather, a cleansing of our inner selves, of our souls.
And how appropriate that this is the way we prepare for Pesach, the festival of our birth as a nation. Tradition has it that Elijah will prepare the world for Redemption before the Passover of universal freedom, and will do so by “turning the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents,” through teshuva – repentance (Malachi 3:23-24).
Our mission as a nation is to bring the world to compassionate righteousness and moral justice – tzedaka and mishpat (Genesis 18:19), the virtues for which God chose Abraham and charged him with bringing the blessing of redemption to all the nations (Gen. 12: 3). We cannot begin to fulfill our mission unless we first extirpate the hametz from our souls!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.