Khametz – What, why and How


God commanded the Jews that they were not to have any chametz (pronounced and also spelt as khametz) in their houses for seven days – the duration of Pesach. They were not to have chametz in their homes … and not to posses chametz.

So, what is chametz?

Literally, chametz is leavening – yeast. So bread, rolls, bread-sticks, doughnuts … all these foods and any other foods like them are chametz. However, chametz is accepted to have a much wider meaning … wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt.

In other words, the five grains – wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt – are also considered chametz.

This is not because any of these grains actually contain yeast. However, if mixed with water and left for longer than eighteen minutes, all of these grains could produce a substance like yeast. The rabbi’s are concerned that this might result in people accidentally consuming chametz.

In order to prevent this from happening – even by accident – Jews traditionally don’t eat any of these grains during Pesach. To illustrate this … traditionally, pasta, spaghetti, cereal, cake and biscuits made from wheat, barley, oat, rye and spelt flour are un-kosher for Pesach. These must all be consumed, sold or destroyed before Pesach and can only be bought and eaten again once Pesach is over.

The exception to this rule is clearly matzah … though matzah is made with wheat and water. What stops the matzah being declared un-kosher for Pesach is that Kosher for Pesach matzot are mixed and cooked within the eighteen minutes – before any yeast-like substance can be produced. Kosher for Pesach matzot are carefully overseen by rabbis and all machinery is washed down between every eighteen minute matzah-making time slot.

This way, everyone can be sure that the matzot they eat at Pesach are totally chametz-free! Factories all over the world produce Kosher for Pesach matzah every year. They also produce Kosher for Pesach matzah flour and cake matzah flour, so that cakes and biscuits can be made during Pesach!

In most Jewish families today, ‘chametz’ is used to describe anything that is considered un-kosher for Pesach – even if it does not contain yeast. In very traditional Jewish families, any non-yeast food that is not labeled Kosher for Passover is also considered chametz. When Pesach Cleaning is done, the removal of all chametz from the house includes yeast-chametz and everything-else-chametz!

The commandments regarding chametz during Pesach are multi-faceted.  Not only is one admonished not to eat leaven during this time but also to “put an end to leaven from your houses” (Exodus 12:15) that “no leaven shall be found in your houses” (Exodus 12:19) and “that no leavened bread shall be seen with you” (Exodus 13:7).  In order to cover the wide ranging implications of these commands the rabbis have instituted a four step process regarding chametz.  First leaven is to be searched for throughout the home (bedikat chametz), then it is nullified by verbal declaration (bitul chametz) after which it is destroyed via burning (biur chametz) and legally sold to a non-Jew (mechirat chametz).  

Of course a logical question arises when it comes to mechirat chametz for if verbal nullification makes chametz as the “dust of the earth”, declaring it practically useless and ownerless, why would it be necessary to legally sell any remaining/stored leavened products to a non-Jew?  In the eyes of chazal this issue is a matter of intent.  For bitul chametz to be legally effective it must be said with all sincerity. This means that once the leaven is nullified and declared ownerless theoretically a stranger off the street could take it away without any objection from the one who has stored it — for by declaration the chametz is no longer his and does not serve any useful purpose for him.  In the case, especially, of an individual who has a significant amount of chametz during Pesach (such as an owner of a liquor store or a grocery store) it would be nearly impossible for the verbal nullification to be said with all sincerity of heart.  Therefore, a legally binding sale insures that even if an individual is reluctant regarding nullifying chametz, he has fulfilled the commandment regarding it through a real and specific action.

Contrary to popular thought in some circles, Pesach Cleaning is not Spring Cleaning. Pesach Cleaning has a different motive to that of Spring Cleaning – and it is more thorough. On the other hand, to the uninitiated there are many similarities between Pesach Cleaning and Spring Cleaning!

In Exodus 12 v 19, G-d says, “For seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses …” When taken literally, this verse dictates a through cleaning of our houses in order to ensure that there is no chametz of any kind to to be found in them. Back in the days of the Bible, Pesach Cleaning was probably fairly easy … bread would be thrown away, rugs, curtains, blankets and clothes would be washed, the house would be swept. Pesach Cleaning today is a lot more complicated. This cleaning is like no other …

The entire house – from attic to cellar – is cleaned. The ceiling and walls are brushed and dusted, every inch of the floor can be vacuumed or brushed, the windows are washed, the curtains are washed and ironed (and starched in some families). The furniture is all cleaned … tables are wiped, mattresses are vacuumed, chest-of-drawers and wardrobes are sorted and cleaned, books are dusted and bookshelves are washed, high-chairs are scrubbed and ovens are scoured, lampshades are cleaned, toy-chests are inspected. The pockets of clothes and coats are checked for crumbs … and the ingredients of all food, drink and medication has to be scrutinised. If it contains any chametz and is not labeled Kosher for Pesach, it is replaced with something that is Kosher for Pesach.

This is only a short account of Pesach Cleaning! In order for Pesach Cleaning to be thorough, everything in every room of the house has to be cleaned. Any chametz that is found has to be removed and destroyed. Some Jewish women start Pesach cleaning as soon as Purim is over. Others don’t do any Pesach cleaning until the week before Pesach. Whenever Jewish families start Pesach Cleaning and however they clean (top to bottom or bottom to top …) the objective is the same: to get rid of any and all chametz for Pesach!

We perform the ceremony of Bedikat Chametz after dark, the night before Pesach. By this time, all the Pesach Cleaning is done and the house is clean from top to bottom. Nevertheless, the rabbis stress that it is important for us to ceremonially search through our houses for chametz in order that we might find and destroy any chametz that might have been overlooked during Pesach Cleaning.

The father of each family leads the search for chametz. First, a blessing thanking G-d for the commandment not to eat chametz is recited. Then the father takes a candle, a wooden spoon and a feather. All the lights in the house turned off and the candle is lit. Then, the whole family searches for chametz …

Although it would seem unlikely, when the house has just been cleaned, chametz is always found. Before the search, the mother will hide ten pieces of bread around the house. This is so that the search for chametz is not fruitless. We search for chametz … and we find some bread. Jewish children learn how important it is to find and take care for all chametz before Pesach.

The pieces of bread are found with the light of the candle – then they are swept into the bowl of the wooden spoon with the feather. When all ten pieces of bread have been found and swept into the wooden spoon, they are all carried carefully outside. At this point Bitul Chametz occurs. The ten pieces of bread are put in a paper bag. The wooden spoon and feather are also put in the paper bag. Then the father recites an ancient disclaimer – denouncing any chametz that might still be lurking, unseen and unknown, in the house.

The next morning the paper bag containing the chametz, the wooden spoon and the feather are carefully destroyed. The father takes care of this and does so very carefully, so that nothing else is destroyed apart from the chametz, wooden spoon and feather in the bag. Now that all chametz has gone from the house, Pesach can begin!


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