The Mechanism of Bitul Chametz

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The first mishna in Pesachim portrays bedikat chametz as a method of avoiding the prohibition of bal yeiraeh, but a second option – bitul chametz – provides a simpler solution. A subsequent mishna (Pesachim 49a) indeed mentions the possibility of bitul, and several gemarot (most notably 4b) similarly describe bitul as a comprehensive solution for bal yeiraeh concerns. How does bitul alleviate the prohibition of owning chametz? Bedikat chametz followed by bi’ur (physical destruction) eliminates the chametz; how does a verbal articulation of bitul avoid the strict prohibition of owning chametz on Pesach?
Tosafot (4b) s.v. m’de-oraita assert that bitul is not a new halakhic model, but is rather an adaptation of the already recognized halakhic mechanism of hefker. Halakha allows both transfer of ownership (kinyan) but also divestment of ownership (hefker). By articulating bitul, one is merely renouncing his ownership of the chametz. Since they no longer hold legal title over the chametz, the violation of bal yeiraeh is averted.
Although this logical position appears to solve the bal yeiraeh concern, there are several difficulties with the view of Tosafot. First, bitul chametz is not qualified by the rules that normally govern hefker. Hefker is a public transactional ceremony that must be verbally articulated in front of three people and is forbidden on Shabbat. According to most views, bitul can be rendered without speech and without onlookers, and it can be performed on Shabbat. In addition, the reference to the process as “bitul” implies a different mechanism. Were bitul simply an application of hefker, the gemara should not have generated an entirely new name or category.
Beyond these formal and linguistic concerns, the Ramban (4a) raises a more fundamental issue. Would hefker actually prevent the issur of bal yeiraeh? If the issur of bal yeiraeh is defined as formal ownership, the hefker process of dismantling that ownership would indeed negate any bal yeiraeh concerns. However, since chametz is assur be-hana’ah (forbidden to benefit from), it is highly likely that it isn’t owned even by its presumed owner. Thus, the prohibition of bal yeiraeh is not based on ownership, but rather on some non-monetary connection to the item. If this is true, a hefker renunciation of ownership would not resolve bal yeiraeh concerns.
The Ramban (4b) offers a different view of the mechanism of bitul. Indeed, a person does not enjoy legal ownership over chametz, since it is forbidden for any utility. Rather, the prohibition of bal yeiraeh stems from the attachment to, and engagement with, the chametz – as the Ramban refers to it, “rotzeh be-kiyumo.” It is this non-monetary association with chametz that is forbidden on Pesach. The prohibition of bal yeiraeh is not structured on classic patterns of ownership, since chametz cannot be owned on Pesach. If one cares about the chametz and is personally invested in it, he violates the prohibition of bal yeiraeh. By declaring disinterest through bitul, one has cancelled any interest in the chametz and no violation has been breached.
According to the Ramban, bitul does not formally renounce ownership of chametz in the manner that hefker does. In fact, hefker may be insufficient to avoid bal yeiraeh, since the prohibition isn’t pivoted on ownership. Instead, bitul eliminates any personal interest in chametz.
The primary proof for the Ramban’s position that chametz about which a person is disinterested does not constitute a bal yeiraeh violation stems from an interesting gemara in Pesachim (31b) about chametz upon which a building has collapsed (nafla alav mapolet). The simple reading of the mishna suggests that this chametz does not require any further attention to avoid bal yeiraeh – even though, legally, the chametz has not undergone a process of hefker. Rather, since the chametz is no longer “desirable” and the owner has given up any further interest in this unreachable chametz, no violation has occurred.
Although the Ramban and Tosafot disagree regarding the MECHANISM of bitul chametz, their views share one common element: The bitul process does not affect the actual chametz, but rather merely reconfigures the relationship between the person and the chametz. The Talmud Bavli does not present a text for bitul chametz, but several early Geonim do provide a nusach. Invariably, the term “afar” (dust) appears in the bitul proclamation. According to both Tosafot and the Ramban, however, the term afar is redundant and possibly misleading. Hefker as bitul does not affect the status of the chametz and according to the Ramban, bitul merely severs the personal interest!
This formulation of bitul chametz, as well as other factors, invite a completely different approach toward understanding bitul.
The Rambam (Chametz U-Matza 2:2) and Rashi (4a, sv. chovat ha-dar) endorse the reference to “afar,” explaining that by proclaiming bitul, one renders the chametz as “dust” and no longer prohibited to own. It is not altogether clear, however, how literal to read the term “afar.
A looser interpretation would suggest that bitul eliminates the status of ochel, and bread that is not considered food is not considered chametz. The prohibition of chametz does not apply simply to anything that chemically resembles leavened bread; it must also be considered food. For example, the gemara in Pesachim (45b) discusses the case of a large block of yeast that has been repurposed as a chair. Although this material is classic chametz, it designation as a chair eliminates its status as food and removes any prohibition. Similarly, the gemara in Pesachim (21b) discusses the case of a loaf of bread that has intentionally been singed in an oven but is still edible (at least according to the interpretation of the Michtam and Me’iri). By “charring” the bread, one has indicated that the chametz is no longer considered food, and no violation entails. According to this approach, the term “afar” is not to be taken literally; rather, by declaring that the chametz is “afar,” one has verbally designated the chametz as halakhic non-food, and bal yeiraeh violation therefore does not apply.
A different view of suggests that chametz is only forbidden if it is “important” food, such as bread. Bread is not simply a combination of ingredients prepared in a certain fashion; it is the centerpiece of a meal, with iconic value far beyond the actual ingredients. Without this status, of bread, even if the chametz is chemically identical to bread, it is not forbidden. For this reason, according to some authorities, the prohibition of bal yeiraeh does not apply to a quantity of chametz smaller than a kezayit, even though prohibited items of less than a kezayit are generally biblically forbidden. Chametz is not simply a material, but also an “important” element of a seuda, and less than a kezayit of bread may not be considered significant chametz and is therefore completely permissible. According to this approach, bitul eliminates the importance of the chametz by declassifying it through verbal dismissal, thereby eliminating the status of chametz even without changing its chemical composition.
There are several important differences between the first approaches that we discussed and this final approach that bitul changes the status of the actual chametz (either by eliminating the status of food or by declassifying the chametz and rendering it insignificant). One important difference concerns the possibility of eating chametz after bitul. The Michtam (6b) cites positions that permit consuming chametz after bitul. Although this an extremely bizarre scenario – and one that is roundly rejected – it stems from this final view of bitul. If bitul transforms the chametz into a non-food or into non-significant food, it has removed the chametz status, rather than just unlinking the person from his chametz. Once the status of chametz has been removed, the impact far exceeds the avoidance of bal yeiraeh. The food – which is halakhically viewed as non-chametz – may be ingested!
A second interesting implication is the possible ineffectiveness of bitul on known chametz. This notion – popularized by the Kesef Mishna in his comments on the Rambam (Chametz U-Matza 2:2) – strictly limits bitul to unknown chametz; bitul is ineffective on chametz that one is aware of. If bitul affects the relationship between the owner and his chametz, it is difficult to limit bitul only to unknown chametz. However, if bitul declassifies the chametz by eliminating its importance, perhaps it cannot operate upon known chametz. The virtual reality – that this chametz is “afar” – is contradicted by the actual reality – that despite knowledge of the presence of the chametz, no steps are taken for its removal. This passivity undermines the integrity of the bitul. Chametz of unknown location can be verbally designated as “afar”; were its location known, it would be physically destroyed, but since its location cannot be determined, verbal declassification is sufficient. By contrast, chametz that is “known” cannot be verbally declassified, since the lack of effort at physical removal undermines this definition.