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).

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Temple

In The Shadow of the Temple coverIn the Shadow of the Temple :
Jewish influences on early Christianity
by Oskar Skaursaune

455 Pages
InterVarsity Press, 2002

Until reading this book, I was totally unaware of Skarsaune and his literary offerings. Now, I realize how deprived I have been.

In In the Shadow of the Temple, Skarsaune begins his account of the development of Christianity by first peering into the last two centuries of the Second Temple period, beginning with the Hasmonean dynasty and the subsequent influence of Hellenism upon Jewish religion and culture. From there he sets the stage to masterfully guide us through the first few centuries of the development of Christianity, culminating in “The Constantinian Revolution” of the early fourth century.

Throughout each chapter he weaves the story of the early believers with the fibers of secular historical records (such as Pliny the Elder & Tacitus), Jewish writings (Talmud, Apocrypha, etc.), and the writings of both Jewish and non-Jewish believers (Didache, 1 Clement, etc.). Skarsaune examines as much of the evidences as possible in order to place each piece of the puzzle with care. He is very articulate without being verbose. Following are some highlights from this work.

The impact of this way of looking at first-century Jewish and Christian history has been enormous, and is still felt in New Testament scholarship. There is no doubt, however, that a basic “change of paradigm” is taking place. For one thing, Jewish scholars have argued with great conviction that Jesus should not be placed outside Pharisaism, but within it: when Jesus debates with Pharisees, his own positions can be shown to agree with those of other Pharisaic authorities. In other words, Pharisaism itself was complex; it comprised different opinions; it could comprise those of Jesus. Jesus’ debates with Pharisaic opponents is therefore an intra-Pharisaic debate…It is meaningless and grossly anachronistic to picture Jesus, Peter or Paul as debating with “Judaism” or its representatives, as if they themselves were outside and represented something else, a non-Jewish position. 1

In this quote, Skarsaune rightly recognizes the intra-house debate between Jesus and the Pharisees of his days, rather than viewing Jesus as an outsider as is typically the case. Jesus has not come to topple the biblical religion in order to establish a new one through subversive tactics. He is in the order of the prophets of old, condemning hypocrisy and calling his people back to repentance through proper relationship to the Torah given at Sinai.

In another insightful passage, Skarsaune hits upon another often overlooked truth in regard to the standard model of prayer for the early believers:

In the days of Jesus the wording and sequence of the elements of the synagogue service had attained such stability that we are fully justified in speaking of a synagogal liturgy. The echoes of the synagogal prayers in the Lord’s Prayer and other early Christian prayers demonstrate that this liturgy was well known to Jesus and the early disciples. We should not think that the early Christians were antiliturgical in their worship gatherings. It is no accident that in Acts 2:42 Luke does not say that the early community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching … and prayer,” but to “the prayers,” which suggests fixed patterns. All the evidence points to the synagogal liturgy as a source for those prayers. 2

When examining the letters of Ignatius 3, Skarsaune aptly notes:

One gets the impression that Ignatius’s relationship to the Old Testament was mainly a literary one. For him, the Old Testament was a book, not a living past which, through traditions and observances, determined his own life and thinking. It is this, more than anything else, that betrays the Gentile Christian. The position of Ignatius may perhaps best be characterized as New Testament orthodoxy. It was the apostolic writings that made him value the Old Testament and love the prophets. The authority of the Old Testament is undisputed, but it is derived from the authority of the gospel.

This was probably one of the most characteristic differences between Jewish believers and believers coming from an entirely Gentile background. It was not a question of doctrinal differences but rather a difference of mentality. For both groups the Old Testament was an authoritative book, and the church of the Gentiles was later to defend the Old Testament bravely and at considerable cost against attacks from within the church and without. But to them the Old Testament was and remained a book, describing a history that was past and finished. To the Jewish believers, it was so much more. Through innumerable cords of tradition, festivals, daily practices, religious concepts, etc., the Jewish believers were bound up with the Old Testament; it was part of their lives.

What we observe in Ignatius may perhaps best be described as a loss of Jewish context. 4

In this observation, I believe Skarsaune has hit upon one of the primary dysfunctions of modern Christian faith. We have built our house of faith from the top down, rather than from the bottom up due to our subconscious disconnect with the Tanach (the “Old Testament”) and the patriarchs. Yes, Jesus is the pinnacle of our faith. But in order to truly understand his work, we must first have an intimate relationship with the broad foundation of the Tanach, which was laid out in order to elucidate that which would come after it. Without this understanding, the majority of the Scriptures (i.e. the “Old Testament”) becomes exactly as Ignatius views it, as “a history that was past and finished.”

To conclude, the present work from Skarsaune is one which should be in the library of anyone who is serious about understanding the development of Christianity in the first few centuries, and how the apron strings began to be cut (whether for the good or for the bad) from Mother Judaism. Skarsaune does an excellent job at reducing and articulating a plethora of information into layman’s terms in a way which is easily comprehendible and manageable. I look forward to collecting his other offerings as well.

  1.  In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (105–106, 107). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid., p. 125.
  3. was among the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle.
  4. Ibid., p. 217

Pharisees vs. Karaites

Recently, someone started a discussion on Facebook as to whether followers of Yeshua should follow either a rabbinic (Pharisaic) path verses a more Karaite path in their Torah observance. I’ve got a lot of thoughts on this, but unfortunately am nearly always short on time due to pressing deadlines with my work. I would like to share, however, the brief response I wrote for this discussion:

It is natural to think that the Karaite way of doing things would be a better way of doing things. However, the Karaite interpretation is actually anti-Scriptural. Let’s think about it. If we were to go to a Karaite interpretation of Scripture, we would all being living out the Scriptures as we interpret them. Which means, we would not be in any kind of unity. Which means we would be celebrating the feasts at different times, celebrating them in different ways, trying to fulfill the commandments in different ways. In short, this is chaos and anarchy. The Master (Yeshua) was a Pharisee among Pharisees, in that he was in agreement with the Pharisees in all but one point: hypocrisy.

Here are 3 short examples of the many that can be sited to show his Pharisaic affinity:

  1. He & his disciples kept the feast at the same times as greater Israel (which was determined by Pharisaic halachah)
  2. He reclined at the Passover meal (a Pharisaic invention, seemingly contrary to the biblical mandate in Exodus)
  3. He gave a blessing before eating, strictly a Pharisaic invention

The list could go on and on. These are just off the top of my head. It boils down to this: Yeshua was in agreement with Pharisaic tradition so long as it did not contradict with the written Word. We must examine the words of the Master and the Apostolic writings to determine whether a tradition is able to be kept or not, and follow his example.

The Karaite method is not even an alternative. If we were following the Karaite method, we would revert to the days of the Judges when “Every man did what was right in his own eyes…And they again did wickedness in the eyes of Hashem.”

The Divine Disconnect

Yesterday, for my drash, I spoke on what I called, “The Divine Disconnect.” To me it is the crux of Yeshua’s ministry, and all of Scripture for that matter. The focus of my discussion revolved around Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 5:20, which says,

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Traditionally, this has been interpreted as meaning that the righteousness of the scribes & Pharisees was based on keeping the Law, but our righteousness must be based on faith in Yeshua, and this latter righteousness surpasses the previous. However, this interpretation doesn’t hold any water, particularly in relationship to the context of Yeshua’s teaching, either broadly throughout the Gospels or more narrowly within the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The immediate context of this statement seems to make a clear case for the way it was to be understood. The statements that immediately precede this are:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, ESV)

From this we see that Yeshua’s topic was the importance of the mitzvot. However, his emphasis was not on the mere adherence to the external strictures of mitzvot. His point, I believe, was well taken when he contrasted his expectations in regard to Torah against the known practices of some of his contemporaries within Pharisaic leadership. What is the heart of this warning against? In a nutshell, hypocrisy. There were many in the day of the Master who believed what we believe today: That it is fair to judge others by their actions, while judging ourselves by our hearts. But Yeshua calls us to a higher standard. He calls for both our hearts & actions to be joined together in the service of the Creator. Whereas the Pharisees of which Yeshua spoke had either the heart or the actions, there remained a disconnect between the two. How many of us have fallen into this trap?

We are quick to decry any kind of “works” based on our misunderstanding of Paul’s polemic against the topic. However, how many of us can truly say that we haven’t tasted the “leaven of the Pharisees?” It seems that as human beings, we are caught in the middle of a juggling act, constantly trying to find a balance between our love and our response to that love. It seems we are constantly settling for one or the other. There are those who are holed into the polar extremes of this, but most of us are somewhere right in the middle. On one extreme, there are those of us who smugly assert our theological creedos of how much we can’t “earn grace,” and therefore are completely devoid of any righteous fruit in our lives. On the other, there are those of us who are so focused on bringing back the mitzvot (commandments) which have been all but lost over the last two millennia that we tend to forget the weightier matters of Torah—love, mercy, compassion, etc. But most of us fall somewhere in between. We tend to struggle with maintaining a balance between what we know and feel, verses how we respond to that. There is somehow a “disconnect” between our flesh and spirit, and we are inevitably making corrections & adjustments along the way.

But such is life. If we ever get to the point that we are settled in our relationship to the Almighty, something has grown cool. Until we shed this mortal coil, I believe we will constantly battle to serve the King of the Universe “בכל לבבך” (b’chol levav’ka)—”with all your heart.” Because in order to serve Him whole heartedly, it requires a death—the death of the one giving service. For unless we die, our service will ever be tainted. But a one-time death will not suffice. Thus, we hear the message of the Master echo in our ears: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Therefore, let us repent and die today, in order that we will live tomorrow as a whole person.

“Repent one day before your death.” (Rabbi Eliezer, Avot 2:15)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Yeshua, Matthew 4:17)