The Search for Chametz

The Search for Chametz

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel … For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread. (Exodus 12:14-15, 19-20)

An Eternal Tradition

Every year just before Passover Jewish families all across the world turn their homes inside out in search of the dreaded chametz, or food items containing leavening. Many go to great lengths to assure the search for chametz is complete. Couches are pulled out, beds are broken down, ovens are pulled out, shelf-paper is replaced — all due to the search for chametz that might be hiding in any crack or cranny. And the reason for this is a good one. The Scriptures state quite clearly, “On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses” (Exodus 12:15), and then again, “For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses” (Exodus 12:19). Hashem makes it pretty clear that He’s serious about this leavening thing, and even makes a contingency that if a person actually eats of anything that is leavened during this time, “that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:19-20).

For most Christians, removing leaven and leavened products from one’s home may seem a superficial or even legalistic endeavor. But for the Children of Israel, this is serious business. It’s not just an ancient ritual of bygone years. It is a spiritual reality that exists to this day, as it is written, “you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever” (Exodus 12:17, emphasis added). God not only expected those fleeing from Egypt to keep this decree during their lifetime, but emphasized that this tradition be kept “forever” — dor l’dor — from one generation to the next. According to the instructions of the One who redeemed Israel from Egypt — Who calls Himself by this very title — every person of Jewish decent is to painstakingly remove all traces of chametz from their dwelling year after year at this season. It is a yearly reminder of the redemption from Egypt, as well as a time to use the search for chametz to drive home the spiritual reality of hidden sin and its ramifications. Let me explain …

Leaven as Sin

The Talmud asks the question, “And who prevents us from performing Your will?” It answers its own question by responding, “The yeast in the dough” (b.Berachot 17a). At first, the answer doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But if we think about it, we can make the connection. In Jewish and biblical tradition leaven is the quintessential analogy for sin. It represents that which is impure, corrupt, infected and arrogant. The “yeast” (in this context) which prohibits man from properly and whole-heartedly serving his Creator is his yetzer hara, or “evil inclination,” a term used frequently in Judaism equivalent to what Paul calls “the flesh” (cf. Romans 7, Galatians 5). Frequently, the Talmud uses this phrase, “the yeast in the dough,” to refer to man’s propensity towards evil.

James, the brother of Yeshua, affirms this concept when he says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). We don’t need to blame haSatan for our sinful behavior. It is the desire within us and our submission to our sin nature which make us fall into sin.

Yeshua uses the yeast/leaven metaphor in a fashion similar to the Talmud. We hear this when he instructs his disciples saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). His disciples, being educated in the basics of Scripture but not yet as familiar with the rabbinic jargon, begin to scratch their heads trying to grasp the meaning of Yeshua’s instruction. Contextually, they had just witnessed the feeding of the five thousand a day or two previously and the feeding of the four thousand just moments beforehand. They began to wonder about the meaning of Yeshua’s reprimand. Maybe they thought he was criticizing them for not saving some of the miraculous bread to take with them on their voyage across Lake Galilee and sustain them during their travels there? Maybe Yeshua thought they had some starter dough that had somehow become contaminated with their encounter with the Pharisees? Maybe he didn’t want them relying on the food from the now-critical Pharisees and the Herodian traitors? But Yeshua heard their discussion and their erroneous conclusions and interrupted, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21). After realizing that his disciples really had no clue, Yeshua sets the record straight and tells them plainly that the yeast for which they must be on their guard is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1).1

The Search

There is a pre-Passover tradition that on the evening before Passover begins one final search for chametz takes place. It is more of a token of finality and time to engage the children than to actually do a final, house-wide search, but it represents something very important. The major search and cleaning has already been done. This search represents a final inspection to remove any traces of chametz that may be hiding or have somehow slipped by without our knowledge.

The interesting component of this ritual is that the search is traditionally done with a candle, even in an age where we have the convenience of flashlights. The search is done together by the father and the children. As they come across a piece of chametz (conveniently placed by the mother), they brush it onto a wooden spoon with a feather and place it into a paper bag which will be ritually burned the following morning.

King David said, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24). This ritual represents this plea. Rather than being oblivious to our sins, we are to be carefully examining ourselves asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate the corners of our hearts to see if any chametz may be lurking unbeknownst to us.

The Torah sheds some light on this when it gives us instructions in regard to observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Exodus 12, Hashem is giving the Children of Israel instructions for that first Passover, as well as additional instructions for future observances. In verse 17, there is an ambiguous phrase that has been subject to various translations over the years. The Hebrew of the first phrase reads:‭ ‬וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם‭ ‬אֶת–הַמַּצּוֹת‭ ‬— Ushmartem et hamatzot, which literally means “And you shall guard the matzot (plural for matzah/unleavened bread).” This is usually smoothed over in translation and rendered something to the effect of “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” But literally, this is not what it’s saying. The word chag (feast) is not included as it is just three verses previously. This appears to be a slightly different context in which Hashem is instructing the Children of Israel to not allow their matzah to become leavened during the feast. It is a glimpse into the spiritual principle of rejecting apathy and being proactive in our spiritual discernment.

Guarding the Matzah

When we look at a piece of matzah and compare it with a piece of leavened bread (particularly sour dough, which was the only type of “yeast” bread known in the ancient world), what do we see? What is the difference between the two? One is flat, having been baked before giving it time to rise; and one is puffed up, having been allowed to rise before baking. They have both been made from the same basic ingredients: flour and water. The difference between the two is someone had to pay close attention to the unleavened bread to ensure that it did not rise, while the other was left alone and rose on its own accord.

It’s easy to allow sin to creep in. Just don’t do a thing. Don’t put your guard up. Don’t do regular self-examination. Don’t spend regular time in prayer and study each day. Don’t do anything that would enhance you spiritually. Just don’t do a thing. Sin will work its way into us and puff us up so that we are spiritually blind to our own undoing. Remaining pure and unblemished by sin and the world requires much more effort. It requires us to be proactively aware of our spiritual condition and to guard against the influences of the world, rather than sitting back and allowing the world and its influences to permeate us. It’s the difference between a loaf of bread and a piece of matzah.

Israel was set free for a purpose and it wasn’t to return to being slaves. We have been made free as well, but not to return to the enslavement of sin. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We are supposed to be guarding against “the yeast of the Pharisees” so that it does not creep into our hearts and lives to enslave us once more. Hypocrisy and arrogance follow on the heels of apathy.

Let us conclude with Paul’s admonition in this matter and heed his counsel:

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

May we all be a new lump of dough, purged of the old leaven we once knew in our lives and live daily guarding against the subtle infusing of the leaven of the world as we enter into this season of redemption.

  1. Although Matthew records the interpretation of the “yeast of the Pharisees” as being, “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” this is surely a scribal addition which attempts to explain Yeshua’s teaching since it is not a direct quote from Yeshua and does not appear to agree with either the context of the passage, nor his other teachings in this regard. For instance, his discourse against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 which begins with “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3) is in agreement with their teaching, but not their application. This statement is immediately followed (verses 4-36) by a litany of accusations which are centered around his condemnation of their hypocrisy and lack of integrity, rather than false teachings. His overarching accusation was that they “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vs. 28).

J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 2

April’s J-BOM Book: Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

Joseph Tabory

The Jewish Publication Society, 2008

This, the second half of my review of The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, unfortunately, I have run out of time to highlight all of the interesting information which Tabory puts forth in this succinct volume. We are well into April, and I need to focus my attentions on the April J-BOM review (Visions of the Fathers by Rabbi Abraham Twerski – one of my favorite commentaries on Pirkei Avot). There is, however, one last thing I want to make sure I hit.

I have often been troubled over the last decade or so of celebrating the seder meal in regard to the seeming absence of the answers to the Four Questions in the Maggid. Tabory makes a connection between the mandate of R. Gamliel and the questions. Gamliel requires the “mention” (in context, the “discussion”) of three things at the seder meal: pesach (referring to the meat of the Pesach offering), matzah and maror. He states,

Examination of the best manuscripts of the Mishnah and early haggadot show that there were originally only three questions, which may be summarized as “Why do we eat only matzah? Why do we dip (referring to the dipping of the maror)? Why do we eat only roasted meat?” Thus it seems to be a reasonable assumption that R. Gamliel’s explanations of the significance of Pesach, matzah, and maror are the answers to the three questions, although distanced from them in the haggadah.1

In essence, the original three questions were changed over the centuries to deal with the change of custom (particularly the absence of the pesach after the destruction of the Second Temple), but the answers continued as a type of curious provocation which were not explicit in their connections to the new questions. I feel this is a reasonable explanation which tends to put in a missing piece of the puzzle surrounding the haggadah.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled to try and make some kind of connection between the Questions and the answers. In my Greek-oriented mind (which has to have a clear connection of all the dots), when I created my own haggadah, I attempted to make a clear connection of a question with its answer. Rather than maintaining the mystique and encouraging questioning, I have formulaically given both the problem and the solution. But this is what we are accustomed. Rather than chewing our own food, we have someone else chew it for us. Although this particular example is innocuous, the overarching snapshot is that this is a sad commentary on our culture and the spiritual state of the majority of believers.

There are also a few instances in which Tabory actually rejects interpretations of the text which have traditionally been thought to be written as anti-Christian polemic. It is interesting to hear his opinions on this, because he appears to be unbiased in his approach (he takes the opposition position a time or two as well). The two examples he gives (and defends as not being anit-Christian in origin) are: 1) the de-emphasis of Moses as the redeemer, and 2) the re-interpretation of the Afikomen as the “bread of distress/affliction.” In both cases, Tabory looks at the earliest historical sources (including Philo, an interesting source considering the topic) and refutes (or cast serious doubt on) the interpretation.

Lastly, the listing of the various differences between haggadot across cultural and linguistic lines is fascinating and much attention has been spent in tedious comparisons between them. Tabory does a masterful job at presenting these with fine granularity in the areas that are significant enough for examination. If you’re interested in this type of examination of one of the most central texts of Judaism, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah is a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

  1. Page 14.

Seder Semanim by Boaz & Einya

Boaz & Einya singing

Long after Passover my youngest two children will still be singing the Seder Semanim, the song that lists the 15 different steps of the Passover seder (Kaddesh, Urchatz, etc.). For some reason they just love to sing that song! So… To capture their zeal and sweet voices, I recorded them singing their current favorite tune. Here is Boaz (age 5) and Einya (age 3) singing for you. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.

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J-BOM: JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Pt. 1

JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah

Joseph Tabory

The Jewish Publication Society, 2008

I have officially jumped on the J-BOM wagon, and I appreciate the call to action by fellow-blogger, Derek Leman. If you are not sure of what this “J-BOM” thing is about, Derek explains it for you here. This is my first installment of my review on the JPS Commentary, be sure to check back for subsequent posts, as well as posts reviewing a new book each month.

The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah from the Jewish Publication Society is the first book for all of us J-BOMmers to review. It was very nice to be able to know about this resource prior to Passover this year, as I believe it will enhance my personal experience of Passover.

Let me begin by saying that this commentary is not for the average person wanting to find out how to better celebrate Passover. It is for those who have celebrated the feast for several years and have wondered about the origins of all of the strange rites, traditions and expressions found within the haggadah. However, even within this group, it is probably not a blanket recommendation for addition to your reading list. This commentary is a scholarly approach at peering beneath our current text of the haggadah through textual & higher criticism, comparing our current text to many early variations of the text that, although extant, are not in use. Tabory makes note that “the earliest sources that help us understand the modern seder are those found in talmudic literature” (p.1). And although he does make reference to arguments regarding Christian scholarship regarding many related topics, including the Last Supper, he does not consider the Gospels of the New Testament a valid source from which we can learn anything regarding the earliest seder expressions. Maybe this is due to the fact that his position is somewhat opposed to any kind of interpretation of the seder experience from the believing community. Maybe this is due to his not considering the Last Supper of Jesus to be a seder meal, as many have reasonably argued1. Whatever the case, rabbinic literature is his primary source, and the majority of these works appear to come from the Cairo Genizah (in the case of what Tabory terms the “Eretz Yisra’el” tradition) or sources such as the siddurs of R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadiah Gaon (both from the 9th century, and follow the “Babylonian” tradition).

In regard to this vast sea of literature, Tabory appears to have a knack for pouring over massive volumes of historical & rabbinic works and compressing the essentials into a very small space. He makes many assertions about the origins of the haggadic elements, however, which may be problematic for the average reader. Yet in his pulling on the sacred threads, he is deeply reverent and respectful of traditional interpretation and understanding. Tabory does a thorough job at peeling back layer upon layer of text to uncover the earliest records of the Passover tradition in a way that is both curious and rewarding.

I plan on posting several insights and thoughts brought up by Tabory, but one of the things I would like to note first is regarding the historic nature of the haggadah. In regard to this we can be certain of one thing: The haggadah has never been a static text. Although our present text represents the current and definitive expression of the seder experience, it has not been without challenge or modifications historically. It has been a very dynamic text; one which has changed throughout the centuries in order accommodate the every-changing circumstances of each generation in order that one may be able to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt, as it says: “He brought us out from there in order to bring and give us the land which He had promised to our ancestors” (Deut. 6:23). Although many might view this as a corruption, or paganizing of the service, it can also be viewed as proof that the haggadah has ever been a living organism, bent on elucidating the purpose of redemption in each generation. Tabor notes that “the Torah does not prescribe exactly how the post-Exodic paschal meal should be eaten nor does it prescribe any ceremony connected with it” (p. 4). This is noteworthy in that each generation and community have adapted this ritual in some way or another throughout the centuries, not re-creating it as some would have us do2, but adapting it. Personally, I think this fortifies a Messianic position in that we should be able to produce Messianic versions of the haggadah unapologetically, without feeling we have tipped any sacred cows. We are only adapting to our needs to express Hashem’s redemption according to our understanding, the same as each of the previous generations.

With that said, let me begin my actual commentary with an interesting note regarding the traditional four cups of wine. In his overview of the seder and its history, Tabory makes an observation regarding these cups. He states, “The texts of the second cup, which embodies the story of the Exodus, and those of the fourth cup, Hallel or songs, are unique to this evening. Some of these texts belong to the tannaitic stratum of the haggadah, having been added between the destruction of the Second Temple (c. 70 C.E.) and the redaction of the Mishnah (c. 220 C.E.), while other were added even later” (p. 7). Although here, Tabory speaks of texts in association to the additional cups3, I believe we might also be able to deduce that these cups may not have been in use during this time either. Thus, we have a better explanation of why it appears that during the Last Supper Yeshua only drinks from two cups, rather than the traditional four.

Another interesting note that seems obvious, but I have failed to recognize it until he brought it out, is the fact that the Maggid (the telling of the Exodus) and the Shulchan Orech (the actual Passover meal) are really not connected. The Maggid actually takes place prior to the meal, rather than surrounding or in relationship to the meal. This is due to the post-Temple era in which the modern seder evolved. Since there was no lamb to be the focal point of discussion for the evening, the discussion naturally shifted to the expressions of redemption that could be represented tangibly in the evening. Hence the four cups representing the four4 expressions of redemption found in Exodus 6:6-7.

This is all I have time for now. I will post more soon…

  1. But Tabory cannot be faulted for this. Take for instance the argument of Jonathan Klawans in the Biblical Archaeology Review: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/jesus-last-supper.asp
  2. Some Messianic or Christianized haggadot stray very far from the traditional text in order to “fix” it. However, I believe a book such as this would help their understanding of the elements of the haggadah to become more mature.
  3. Tabory notes that the first and third cups are traditional cups associated with festive meals, to which the houses of Hillel and Shammai took issue in regard to interpretation.
  4. Although many have seen not less than five expressions, the fifth found in Exodus 6:8, “And I will bring you to the land I swore.” The debate surrounding this fifth cup lead to the Cup of Elijah.

Chametz Everywhere!

Invariably, no matter how hard and long we clean in preparation for Chag HaMatzot (the Feast of Unleavened Bread), somewhere around the middle of the week, we open a cabinet or the freezer and there’s a whole package of hamburger buns or something ridiculous like that. This year things are already a little different.

We’ve found a couple of small things that we had forgotten contained vinegar (a type of chametz/leavened food that we have chosen to remove during this time), such as our Ranch dressing that we had mixed up before we had started purging our home. Since it wasn’t labeled, all we thought about was what was in the mix contents. We didn’t think about the mayo that was added to it!

But there was something that was even larger that I, personally found. The actual day of Pesach, I found about three loaves of puffy, white bread in my heart. I allowed my zeal for observing the feast at a higher level than those around me spoil the spirit of the feast. The entire daylight hours of Pesach for my family ended up being a burden, and not a joy. I allowed a conflict of observance to get under my skin and sour our Pesach experience. Fortunately, I was able to work through this with my family prior to our second seder, confessing my sin and asking forgiveness from my family & friends. 

I am admitting this publicly, because we need to confess our faults in order to get rid of them, and I also need a reminder for the following years so that I don’t allow it to happen again. I need to remember that we must continually look into the “Law/Torah of Liberty” (James 1:25;2:12), not falling prey to the “leaven of the Pharisees”—hypocrisy. I wanted to be strict in the minor areas, while allowing the larger, more weightier matters of the Torah (love, compassion, etc.) to fall by the wayside. May Hashem use this as a life lesson to draw me (and hopefully others) to the heart of His commandments. I am thankful for a loving and gracious family. Truly love does cover a multitude of sins.