The Meaning of Chametz

  • Rav Alex Israel








by Rav Alex Israel





            Our parasha continues the theme of the sacrifices (korbanot), begun last week, with more details and regulations concerning the sacrificial procedure.  To give the parasha some shape and meaning, we will begin by outlining the general "headings" of its content.  We will demonstrate how the parasha contains two distinct sections and we will explain the objective of each section.


            Our parasha divides into two topics:


I. ch. 6-7: A delineation of the procedures for the five main types of sacrifice.

II. ch. 8: The "milu'im" - the seven day ceremonial inauguration of the tabernacle.




            When approaching the first section of our parasha, we need to understand why we are detailing the sacrifices for a second time.  Let us explain.  Last week in parashat Vayikra, the Torah outlined, in great detail, the appropriate animals, procedures, and restrictions of the five archetypes of korban (sacrifice).  All the legal requirements were spelled out.  Now, as we read through parashat Tzav this week, we read about those same korbanot.  Why the repetition?


            This question lies at the root of understanding the purpose of the listing in our parasha, for in essence, what we see here are two lists.  If you pay close attention to structure, you will note that in both lists, all five classic sacrifices appear, only that the order of the five has been altered.  Here are the two listings:


VAYIKRA (Lev. ch. 1-5):

TZAV (Lev. ch. 6-7)

ola (burnt)


mincha (flour)


shelamim (peace)


chatat (sin)


asham (guilt)



            We need to understand two things.  First, why the repetition of all five sacrifices?  Even if the details are divided between Vayikra and Tzav, why could they not have been included in a single text?  And second, why are the orders of the lists switched?  To begin searching for an answer we turn to the HEADINGS given to each "listing."


PARASHAT VAYIKRA opens with the following introduction.


"The Lord called to Moses ... saying: 'Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When any of you presents an offering to God ...'" (1:1-2)


            Note that the introduction addresses a particular group.  Moses is talking to the people, the Children of Israel.  This is in contrast to the opening line of PARASHAT TZAV.  There God instructs Moses to talk to a more specific grouping:


"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying 'Command Aaron and his children ...'" (6:1)


            Parashat VAYIKRA talks to the person, the common individual who, motivated by religious stirrings, offers a sacrifice.  Parashat TZAV is addressed to the officiaries of the Temple, Aaron and his sons, who must bring the sacrifices themselves.  This is the key to understanding all the differences between the two "lists" and the two parshiot.


            In VAYIKRA, the ordering begins with sacrifices which are self-motivated (ola, mincha, shelamim) and then continues with obligatory sacrifices (chatat, asham).  Why?  Because the focus is the individual.  We begin with a human motivation to come closer to God.  Only after that do we move "down" to the person who is forced to bring a korban by virtue of his sin.  And in TZAV, the order is fixed differently.  There we talk to the officiaries of the Temple.  The first four classifications (ola, mincha, chatat, asham) are all grouped together in that they have a degree of sanctity which precludes taking the food of the sacrifice from the precincts of the Temple.  They are "kodshei kodshim" - highly sanctified.  But the shelamim sacrifice can be eaten by a non-priest anywhere in Jerusalem.  It is "kodshim kalim" - lightly sanctified.  Thus, the order reflects the group being addressed.  In both listings we move from higher levels to lower levels, but the lists have very different agendas.  For the Israelites we talk about human motivation.  For the priests we talk about what they are responsible for, degrees of sanctity, and what they will allow to leave the Temple grounds.


            If you check the two lists, you will discern that the details mentioned in VAYIKRA concern the procedure of the korban as regards the person who brings it (and the acts of the priests on behalf of the owners) whereas the details in TZAV are concerned far more with matters which would fall under the jurisdiction of the priesthood.  One example is that parashat TZAV delineates the sections of each sacrifice which the priests may use for their own purposes.  These details are noticeably absent in the VAYIKRA listing.


            TO SUMMARIZE: Parashat TZAV returns to the five classifications of korban described last week; however, this time the focus is different.  In Vayikra the laws of sacrifices are outlined as regards the individual Israelite.  Now they are described as regards internal Temple procedures.




            The final chapter of our parasha gives the process whereby the Temple was dedicated.  For seven days, a special order of sacrifices were offered.  The priests were restricted from leaving the sanctuary for the entire seven days (8:33).  This was all a lead up to the eighth day (next week's parasha) which was the day when "God will appear" (9:6) to the entire nation.




            We often wonder why the Torah goes into such detailed descriptions of the sacrifices.  Even if we identify fully with the korbanot and what they do for the I-Thou connection between man and God, we frequently read through all the detail wondering why the Torah could not have been more concise.  This same is true for the detailed instructions of the Tabernacle - the mishkan - which take up 12 chapters in Shemot (Exodus).  Why the extensive "coverage?"


            Let me strengthen my question with a comparison to another fundamental area of Judaism: Shabbat.  Shabbat gets only a few lines in the Torah.  It never receives detailed treatment, no more than a few verses at a time are devoted to it; yet, its laws are incredibly complex and massive in their scope.  The Rabbis pictured the Laws of Shabbat as "a mountain suspended by a thread" (Chagiga 1:8).  The "thread" is the minimal space devoted to Shabbat in the Torah.  The "mountain" is the enormous volume of legal material which describes the obligations and restrictions of Shabbat.  Why did the Torah choose to present Shabbat in such minimal terms and to become so verbose when talking about Temple and sacrifice?


            An answer that I heard from my teacher in Tanakh, David Nativ, goes something like this.  The Torah, despite its divine nature, was not born in a vacuum.  Its messages are eternal, there are lessons for all time, but we must all agree that the written law was given over, at a particular point in history to a particular people who lived in a world with a strong, firmly established way in religious expression.  At the time of the birth of Judaism, all cultures had temples and all religions were practiced through sacrifices of one type or another.  This is the religious reality, the cultural background that Judaism had to contend with.


            Judaism arrived and introduced a revolution in many areas: the dignity of man, human freedom, ethical monotheism.  Judaism introduced many new ideas.  For the Jews, there were laws and regulations to follow, 613 commands which would shape the new way of life that God was introducing into the world.  Certain ideas were unique to the new religion: do not mix milk and meat, Shabbat, etc.  These could be mentioned in a sentence.  There was no danger that any of the contemporary culture would pollute these ideas because only the Jews were practicing them.  But if God told them to build a temple, to bring sacrifices, they would have simply followed the contemporary pagan way!


            Instead, God had to spell it all out.  To prevent possible osmosis from other cultures, the infiltration of alien ideas into the sanctum of the monotheistic mindset, the Torah had to define these spiritual tools in the most minuscule detail.  A Jewish temple was to be exactly this way.  Nothing was to be left to interpretation.  But the Shabbat.  There was no danger from the outside to that institution.  Whoever Moses defined it would become its shape and form.


            And so, the detail in which the sacrifices are described was vital in ensuring a uniquely monotheistic, Jewish way of serving God.





            If we can offer one issue for deeper thought this week, we shall choose to discuss a topic which unites our parasha and the upcoming festival of Pesach (Passover).  The Torah describes the meal offering (mincha).  It was usually an offering of flour, which was mixed with oil.  The flour could be brought in its regular state, or it could be offered baked as matzot, or even a pancake (for details, see Lev. chapter 2).


            Within the context of this flour offering, the Torah issues an instruction:


"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." (2:11)


It appears again in our parasha:


"... its remainder (of the meal offering) shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cake (matzot) in the sacred precinct ...  It shall not be baked with leaven ..." (6:9-10)


            We can see that the prohibition of chametz is not simply limited to the festival of Pesach.  It has a wider application than that, and its application to the Temple - no leaven may be offered on the Temple altar - begs the question; what is it that disqualifies leaven?  Why is it under ban?




            Maimonides in his famous work, the Guide to the Perplexed (3:46) suggests that the Torah forbids the offering of chametz on the Temple altar because it is too similar to the pagan idolatrous practices of the time.


"Due to the fact that the idolaters would sacrifice only leaven 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 this, the sole objection to chametz lies in the fact that chametz is associated with the pagan and God wishes to distance these practices and ideas from His service.


            [This equation of chametz with idolatry becomes even more fascinating when we apply it to the prohibition of chametz on Pesach.


            We know that matza symbolizes the speed of the exodus (Ex. 12:39) but why should all leaven be outlawed on Pesach?  The Zohar (2:182) equates chametz and idolatry: "Whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol."  Many commentators have suggested that the ceremony of the Paschal Lamb in Egypt was a public rejection of the Egyptian worship of sheep.  Rashi (Exodus 12:20) sees the command to take the lamb as a rejection of pagan worship.  Maybe the corollary for future generations is the prohibition of chametz.  See Haggada Shelema by R. Menachem Kasher - Appendix #7 - where he draws a series of halakhic parallels between the laws of idolatry and the laws of chametz: 1. The prohibition of even seeing it.  2. The requirement to burn it, to eradicate its existence. 3. The prohibition not only of eating but of any manner of benefit from it. 4. The prohibition of even the most minuscule particle.  This is true for idolatry and chametz.  It is not true for any other prohibition in Jewish law.  See his analysis there.]




            Chametz has been given a wider theological application by preachers throughout the ages by drawing a comparison between leaven and the "yetzer ha-ra," the evil inclination, the driving force to sin.


"Rabbi 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...'" (Talmud, Berakhot 17a)


            In the Torah, two terms are used to designate leaven.  One term is "se'or," the other is called "chametz."  What is the difference between them?  Se'or is a leavening agent.  It is a piece of old dough which has been allowed to reach a high level of fermentation.  This is sometimes known as sourdough (or yeast).  This substance is quite inedible but when a piece of sourdough (se'or) is kneaded together with a mixture of flour and water, it accelerates the rising process and creates "chametz."


            Rabbi Alexandri sees 'se'or' as a metaphor for the powerful drives and inflammatory passions that lurk within us all.  Our mind has the ability to distort the reality of our vision, inflate our desires and draw us in directions that we would never take if we were to follow only our cold rational side.  The impulse to evil ferments and corrupts.  It makes flour and water appear as soft warm enticing bread.  Chametz is the evil inclination!  It is the "yeast in the dough" which allows us to lose full control, which makes us irrational and leads us to impropriety.


            This powerful metaphor explains well the impropriety of chametz on God's altar - for we stand before God in truth and sobriety - but it doesn't exactly explain the prohibition of chametz on Pesach.  Maybe we should ban chametz during the Ten Days of Penitence when we focus on repentance and self-betterment!




            The Netziv - Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (Russia: Volozhin 1817-1893) - in his commentary HA'EMEK DAVAR takes the theology of chametz in almost a completely reverse direction.  He suggests that significance of chametz lies in the exercise of human control rather than the loss of it.  He also explains why this law applies specifically to the sacrificial altar and to the holiday of Passover. 


"Scripture calls all substances which have a sweetening effect 'honey' because honey is the classic sweetener.  As for leaven, "se'or" is a human manipulation of natural state of God's universe.  It is an exercise of human machination.  God warns us not to use these in the Temple, as the nearer one finds oneself to God, the less room there is for human ingenuity."


            He refers us to his commentary to Exodus 13:3 where he states:


"LEAVEN MAY NOT BE EATEN (on Passover) ... matza takes no advantage of the human technological ingenuity and creativity which allows man to raise the dough more than simple flour and water which are created by God.  Chametz is the epitome of human involvement in nature.  Thus, unleaven is the symbol of the survival and ongoing existence of the Jewish People as they survive solely through the spirit of God."


            The Netziv sees the raising agent (se'or) and its product chametz as an expression of human interference in nature.  Conversely, matza is an expression of the world controlled exclusively by God.  Man's discovery that sourdough could cause bread to rise was a technological breakthrough in food technology, a classic human manipulation of the elements of nature.  Most of the time, the advancement of civilization in this manner is welcomed by the Torah.  This creativity and ingenuity is depicted as the "divine" in man, his "image of God."  Not only God, but man too, can create! 


            However, in a place where God's presence manifests itself most intensely - in the Temple - there is no place for man's creative spirit.  In the Temple man is dwarfed by God.  The altar of God is no place for human food technology.  On the altar, we dedicate all the elements of God's world; the animal, vegetable and mineral; recognizing and demonstrating that God is the source of them all.  Chametz - the product of human manufacture - has no place on the altar of God.  It would be presumptuous.


            Similarly, on the festival of the miraculous birth of our nation, when an entire nation walked to their freedom away from a tyrannical regime, without lifting a finger of their own, we commemorate the power of God.  God performed the Ten Plagues and we had no hand in them.  At the Red Sea, the people stood huddled together, frightened, terrified in the face of the imposing Egyptian army.  Moses instructed them:


"Stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you this day; for the Egyptians that you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace." (Ex. 14:13-14)


We stood still and God saved the day.


            Man had no part in the miracles of the Exodus.  We therefore commemorate this momentous event by refraining from contact with chametz.  We refrain from human manipulation of our most basic commodity - bread.  We proclaim that the very essence of our being comes directly and completely from God.




            One final approach comes from a contemporary scholar - Rav Yoel Bin Nun.  He notes that there are occasions when we DO bring leaven to the Temple (although it is not offered up on the altar itself).  On Shavuot - Pentecost - we bring two loaves of bread to the Temple (23:17).  In the thanksgiving offering (a variation of the peace offering - shelamim) three types of loaves are brought to the Temple: Unleavened wafers - like our matzot; unleavened loaves - like pitta; and leavened loaves - like our bread.


            What is the symbolism that leaven and unleaven represent in the Temple?  Leaven represents fulfillment, a process which has gone its due course.  The ultimate supreme form of flour and water is in the form of a leaven loaf.  Unleaven, on the other hand, is "not yet" what it aspires to be; it figuratively represents the beginning of a yet unfulfilled process.  It is presently immature, unripe, not yet fulfilled.  It is in the early stages of a journey.


            The altar of God is not a place for leaven.  Before God, we are all rough round the edges.  We all have a way to go in reaching our own personal destiny.  We have faults, room for improvement.  We cannot express ourselves before God represented by the symbol of leaven.  For we are at the beginning of a journey.  We are the unleavened; still traveling, on the tortuous road that is human and religious betterment.


            So when do we bring leaven to the temple?


            Shavuot is the festival of weeks.  It is also the festival designated as the time to bring first fruits from the new crop in the Land of Israel, to the Temple.  Shavuot is linked to Pesach by the Omer. We count seven cycles of seven from Pesach and then we celebrate Shavuot.  Pesach is the start of a process.  Shavuot is the end.  On Pesach, we remove all leaven and eat only unleavened.  On Shavuot we bring loaves of leaven.  It is a question of a process.


            On Pesach we had our freedom.  One might revel in the euphoria of freedom and imagine that this is it.  We have reached our goal, we have achieved independence.  In response, God tells us to eat only matza, unleavened, unfulfilled bread, for seven days.  Pesach begins a process.  It is a cause for celebration but it is only the start.  The goal comes seven weeks later in a festival which celebrates two things.  First, it celebrates our spiritual challenge.  It is the festival of the giving of the Torah.  The Torah embodies our challenge, our goal and our destiny.  Second, it is the festival of the Land of Israel.  On Shavuot we bring the first fruits and stress the idea that the goal is creating "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  A people in the land of God living the moral law of God.


            On Pesach we mark the beginning, the unleavened.  Shavuot expresses everything that embodies our national goal.  It is marked by the bringing of fully leavened, fulfilled bread.


            Likewise, in the sacrifice where I express my release from a life-threatening situation, when saved from a serious illness or the like, we bring three loaves.  The totally flat matza wafer, the unleavened pitta loaf, and the fully risen loaf of bread.  The offering describes the journey from the depths of desperation to the heights of health and life.  The symbolism of this offering tells of the role that God played in breathing life into a seemingly hopeless, flat situation, granting hope and salvation.  That is the role of leaven and unleaven in the thanksgiving offering.  Unleaven is the beginning of the process and it leads to fulfillment in the form of the leaven.


I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and a happy unleavened Pesach.