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The Prohibitions of Chametz

Rav David Brofsky
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The prohibition of chametz is unique. Chametz is different from other prohibited foods both quantitatively and qualitatively.


The Rambam enumerates the various mitzvot and prohibitions relevant to Pesach in the Mishneh Torah. Aside from the sixteen mitzvot associated with the Korban Pesach (see the introduction to Hilkhot Korban Pesach), he lists another six commandments that relate to chametz:


1) The prohibition of eating chametz from midday of the fourteenth of Nissan (Devarim 16:3);

2) The prohibition of eating chametz for all seven days of Pesach (Shemot 13:3);

3) The prohibition of eating a mixture (ta’arovet) containing chametz for all seven days of Pesach (Shemot 12:20) [the Ramban, in his comments on the Rambams Sefer Ha-mitzvot (negative commandment 198), disagrees, arguing that there is no separate prohibition of a ta’arovet chametz];

4) The prohibition of “seeing” chametz in one’s possession during the seven days of Pesach (Shemot 13:7);

5) The prohibition of having chametz “found” in one’s procession during the seven days of Pesach (Shemot 12:19). The Rabbis understand this and the previous prohibition as referring to owning chametz during Pesach.


In addition, the Rambam lists a related negative commandment:


1) the obligation to dispose of (tashbitu) leaven (se’or) on the fourteenth of Nissan.


Unlike other prohibited foods, the Torah not only forbids eating chametz, it prohibits owning it. This is articulated by two separate prohibitions, known as “bal yeira’e” and “bal yimatzei.” Furthermore, unlike other prohibited foods, regarding which a mixture (ta’arovet) of the issur with heter may not be forbidden by the original prohibition, the Torah explicitly prohibits a mixture containing chametz (according to the Rambam). In addition, we are commanded to dispose (tashbitu) of our chametz: to search our houses (bedikat chametz), locate and destroy any chametz left in our houses (bi’ur chametz), and even declare null (bitul chametz) any chametz we may not have found.  


Moreover, the Talmud (Pesachim 21b) teaches that in addition to the prohibition to eat chametz, it is also prohibited to derive benefit from it (issur hana’ah). The Amoraim argue regarding the source of this prohibition.


Chizkiya states: What is the source from which we learn that it is forbidden to derive benefit from chametz? The Torah states (Shemot 13:3): "And chametz should not be eaten;" that is, it is not permitted [to be used to derive benefit that leads to] eating. The reason is because the Torah says, “And chametz should not be eaten,” and not, “And he should not eat chametz.” Had it said that, I might have thought that it is [only] prohibited to eat, but one may derive benefit from it. R. Abahu states: Wherever the Torah states, “He should not eat” or “Do not eat,” a prohibition against eating and deriving benefit is implied, unless the Torah instructs otherwise.


Regarding other prohibited foods, the Rambam (Hilkhot Ma'akhalot Assurot, 8:15) cites the view of R. Abahu, who teaches that whenever the Torah states, “Do not eat,” it includes the prohibition of deriving benefit from prohibited foods unless instructed otherwise. It is therefore curious that in Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza (1:2), the Rambam seems to cite the position of Chizkiya.


On Pesach, it is forbidden to derive any benefit from chametz, as the Torah states (Shemot 13:3) states, "Do not eat chametz;" that is, it is not permitted [to be used to derive benefit that leads to] eating.


            The Acharonim discuss this issue at great depth; it is sufficient to point out that the Rambam felt it necessary to enlist a separate, independent source to prohibit benefiting from chametz.           

           A similar situation is found when the Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 1:7) records the prohibition of eating less than a kezayit of chametz, known as “chatzi shi’ur:”


Eating even the slightest amount of chametz itself on Pesach is forbidden by the Torah, as it states (Shemot 13:3), "Do not eat [leaven]." Nevertheless, [a person who eats chametz] is not liable for karet, nor must he bring a sacrifice for anything less than the specified measure, which is the size of an olive.


Here, too, the Acharonim note that the Rambam did not need to cite an independent source for this prohibition, as R. Yochanan (Yoma 73b) already prohibits eating an amount less than a kezayit of all prohibited foods.


One last distinction between chametz and other prohibited foods is that unlike the latter, the punishment incurred for eating chametz is karet. As the Rambam (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matza 1:1) rules:


Anyone who intentionally eats a kezayit of chametz on Pesach from the beginning of the night of the fifteenth [of Nissan] until the conclusion of the day of the twenty-first [of Nissan] is liable for karet, as the Torah states (Shemot 12:15) states, "Whoever eats leaven... will have his soul cut off."


            Thus, a unique (and stringent) picture of the prohibition of chametz emerges. Apparently, in contrast to other prohibited foods, the Torah demands that one separate completely from and sever all ties to one’s chametz. Chametz is portrayed as an “evil” entity, which one may not eat even in small quantities or in a mixture, nor derive benefit from, nor maintain with it any legal relationship. One must search for it and destroy it.


            What is so evil about chametz? This question has occupied Jewish thinkers for two thousand years.


Interestingly, the prohibition of chametz is not limited to Pesach. The Torah also forbids bringing chametz with one’s korbanot:


No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be with leaven (chametz), for you shall burn no leaven (se'or) or honey in any fire offering to the Lord. (Vayikra 2:11)


And that which is left thereof shall Aharon and his sons eat; it shall be eaten without leaven in a holy place; in the court of the tent of meeting they shall eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it as their portion of My offerings made by fire; it is most holy, as the sin-offering and as the guilt-offering (Vayikra 6:9-10).


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh seems to distinguish between these two prohibitions. Regarding chametz on Pesach, the Chinukh (mitzva 11) insists that all of the mitzvot of Pesach, including the obligation to eat matza and the prohibitions of chametz, serve to remind us of the exodus from Egypt.


In order that we remember forever the miracles which were done for us at the time of the Exodus, as well as what happened to us. Due to the rushed departure, we baked the dough into matza because we could not wait for it to rise.


He views the issurei chametz as corollaries to the hasty manner in which the Jews left Egypt, which we also commemorate through the eating of matzot.


Regarding the prohibition of bringing se’or and chametz as a korban, however, he explains (mitzva 117) that the rejection of chimutz (leavening), which occurs through a delay in the process of making the dough, emphasizes the centrality of “zerizut” (alacrity or enthusiastic diligence) in the service of God. The mizbei’ach (altar) cannot tolerate anything that symbolizes sluggishness and laziness. 


Many, however, connect the two prohibitions and suggest overarching reasons for the rejection of chametz. Some, for example, view chametz as a symbol of idolatry (avoda zara), one of the most severe sins of the Torah. R. Menachem Kasher (1895-1983), in his Torah Sheleima (19, appendix 20; see also Hagadda Sheleima, appendix 7), observes that the details of the prohibition of chametz resemble the laws of avoda zara in at least six ways.


1) Both chametz and avoda zara share the unique prohibition against possession.

2) Both chametz and avoda zara must be destroyed.

3) Both chametz and avoda zara are issurei hana’ah (one may not derive benefit from them).

4) Both chametz and avoda zara cannot be nullified in a ta’arovet, a mixture of permissible and prohibited foods.

5) Both chametz and avoda zara (in certain circumstances) may be “nullified” through an oral declaration (bittul).

6) Just as we check our houses for chametz (bedikat chametz) before Pesach, the Jewish People were commanded to search the Land of Israel for remnants of idolatry (Rambam, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 7:1).  


Some draw a historical connection between chametz and ancient pagan worship. The Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 1:1) derives this from a verse in Amos (4:5). Furthermore, the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:46) writes:


Due to the fact that the idolaters would sacrifice only leavened bread and they would offer up all manner of sweet food and would smear their animal sacrifices with honey ... therefore, God warned us not to offer to Him any of these things, leaven or honey.


According to these sources, the Jewish People confirm their absolute rejection of pagan worship as they commemorate leaving Egypt and becoming a nation by not eating, owning, or benefiting from chametz, and even destroying it.


While the Rambam draws a historical connection between ancient pagan worship and chametz, the Zohar (2:182) hints to a spiritual connection: "Whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol.” This may relate to another interpretation of the prohibition of chametz, as we shall see.


Others compare se’or, a leavening agent, to the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. The Talmud (Berakhot 17a) teaches:


R. Alexandri would end his daily prayers with the following supplication: “Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to Your will; but what prevents us from doing so? The yeast in the dough (se’or she-be-issa).


R. Alexandri views “se’or,” a leavening agent added to flour and water that causes the mixture to rise (such as sourdough or yeast) as a metaphor for the evil inclination, which rises within us, similar to the leavening of the dough.


Indeed, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh cited above (mitzva 117) offers a second reason why the Torah prohibits bringing se’or as a korban.


And I heard another reason behind the prohibition of se’or and honey. Since se’or causes [the dough] to rise… therefore, we should distance ourselves from it, alluding to [the verse], “Every haughty person is an abomination to the Lord” (Mishlei 16:5). 


Similarly, R. David ben Solomon ibn Avi Zimra (the Radbaz; 1479-1573) discusses the many stringencies of chametz. After attempting to attribute these stringencies to the similarity between chametz and idolatry, he writes:


Therefore, I rely upon that which the Rabbis taught that chametz symbolizes the “evil inclination,” the “se’or she-be-issa.” Therefore, a person should utterly banish it from his midst and search for it in all of the inner chambers of his consciousness, as even the smallest amount is not nullified. And this is true and correct.


            What is the relevance of the evil inclination, as represented by chametz, to Pesach, the festival that commemorates our redemption from the bonds of Egyptian slavery?


            Some suggest that upon attaining freedom from the physical slavery of Egypt, we reject the “fleshpots of Egypt” (Shemot 16:3). We reject the emphasis on physicality, and embrace, as servants of the Lord, a life of simplicity. Our lives are now “theocentric;” God is at the center, and not our own will and desires. We eat, therefore, not chametz, but matza, “lechem oni,” the simple, poor-man’s bread.


            The Torah does not prohibit chametz during the entire year. Only in the presence of God at the altar or as we commemorate our freedom do we shun all traces of chametz. We are well aware that without the yetzer ha-ra, man would not build, procreate, or develop. On Shavu’ot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah, a spiritual event, we are commanded to offer the shetei ha-lechem, two loaves of bread, in the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Shemot 23:17). The Torah is intended to be fulfilled in this world, entailing a lifelong personal and national struggle. We are to incorporate our “self,” including our desires and aspirations, into the fulfillment of the Torah. On Pesach we commemorate freedom from the evil inclination and our ability to worship God; on Shavuot we commemorate the giving of the Torah and the challenge of its fulfillment.



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