The Three Removals of Chametz

by Geert ter Horst

 

Between Purim and Pesach we are occupied with the mitzvah of removing chametz from our possessions in preparation of the festival of Matzot. When we study the laws of Pesach the detailed and complicated nature of this process of removal strikes our mind. And we ask ourselves: Why does the halachah distinguish three stages in the removal of chametz? First, there is the physical and legal removal by destroying and selling our chametz; then the removal by the declaration bitul chametz on the 14th of Nisan; and finally the removal that occurs by the arrival of the festival itself, on the eve of Nisan 15, or, more precisely, at the time designated by the Torah for slaughtering the korban Pesach, for it is said (Ex. 34:25): “Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven”.

At first sight, it seems senseless to have three kinds of removal for one and the same thing. Removing chametz seems to be a relatively simple affair, which doesn’t involve complex legal distinctions. The Sages thought differently, however, and they made a number of rulings concerning the correct manner of removing chametz. In this article we’ll try to find out more about the halachic details they discovered.

The main key to understand the differences between the three stages of removing chametz is that bitul chametz is understood by the Rabbis to be a reality of the heart or the intention. Bitul is about the correct performance of the scriptural commandment of the removal of all chametz from “all thy borders” on the 14th of Nisan. Since this commandment cannot be literally carried out to its full extent, it was interpreted by the Sages as a removal on the level of the intention. Bitul was perceived as a mental renunciation of chametz, i.e. a legal declaration that causes it to become ownerless. This declaration is independent of actual physical removal. It is primarily intended to cover the chametz which has escaped our attention at the preceding destruction and selling during the Pesach cleansing which was already done before the 14th of Nisan.

Now, since by scriptural commandment one may not use or handle chametz once the first Yom Tov of Pesach has arrived, one can also no longer legally recite bitul, since bitul itself is a manner of “handling” chametz, of doing something with it, namely making it ownerless. The complication that arises here is that there exists another halachic rule, which tells us that should it, unfortunately, happen that a person discovers chametz during the festival, he is still under the obligation of physically removing or destroying it. One would expect that this last mentioned removal would be considered as halachically impossible, since after bitul no handling of chametz is permitted. But this consequence doesn’t follow from the perspective of the Sages. How can their ruling be explained?

The essence of bitul is the scriptural commandment, which is, as I said, perceived to be on the intentional level. Did the Sages perhaps view the rule to physically remove chametz that is found during the festival as an additional rabbinic enactment? This would mean that, although the recitation of bitul causes loss of ownership on the scriptural level, it doesn’t cause loss of ownership on the level of the rabbinic law.

This explanation is untenable, however, since the additional destruction of chametz detected during the festival is considered by the Ran (i.e. Rabbi Nissi ben Reuven (1320 – 1380 CE) to be  a scriptural law. And this seems to be the common opinion. Moreover, the proposed solution causes the obvious problem that a person is owner of chametz according to the rabbinic law during the entire period of the festival. For it is not clear how and when this ownership ever ceases when it doesn’t end at bitul.

I would be glad if someone would be able to throw light on this complicated and paradoxical detail. For if the removal of chametz which was found during the festival is a scriptural commandment, it requires a handling of chametz not on the basis of ownership, a particularity which raises new difficulties. The only solution that I can imagine for the moment is to assume that it is perhaps the discovery itself here which causes a renewed ownership, even after bitul. If this assumption is correct, then the concept that there is a scriptural obligation to remove chametz found during the festival can be explained, since we are scripturally under the obligation not to have chametz in our possession during these seven days (Ex. 12:19; Dt. 16:4). For it can hardly be grasped how we are obligated to remove chametz that isn’t ours and has no owner. Making chametz ownerless was the very intention of bitul, which was based on the idea that it is ownership which causes responsibility.

However that may be, a consequence of the halachic line of thought is that the physical removal and destruction of chametz which, for practical reasons, takes place before the 14th of Nisan, is a rabbinic instruction, not a scriptural commandment. The reason why it is not a scriptural commandment is that Scripture commands us to remove all leavened items on the 14th of Nisan. So removing them before that date cannot be a commandment on the scriptural level. And thus the whole process of the actual removal and selling of chametz, which takes place before the 14th, is something on the rabbinic level. The fulfilment of bitul on the 14th of Nisan thus doesn’t make the preceding removal and selling of chametz superfluous, because the fulfilment of a scriptural commandment doesn’t imply the fulfilment of a rabbinic commandment.

A detail of bitul is that it should be performed twice. First, on the eve of the 14th of Nisan, after bedikat chametz. Bitul should be performed a second time at daytime, after the burning of chametz (biur chametz). The reason for the recitation of bitul at the beginning of the 14th is that a commandment should be performed as soon as the legal time for it has arrived. It should not be postponed. The reason why bitul should still be recited a second time at noon is that the formula used for the first recitation doesn’t include all chametz, since one may still eat chametz during the 14th of Nisan, until noon. Therefore, the recitation formulas are slightly different. The first mentions only the chametz which is not known to one, while the second includes all chametz, known or unknown. The first recitation thus doesn’t include the known chametz that a person has destined for consumption on the 14th. The second recitation does include known chametz, since it is recognized by him that inevitably some crumbs from the final chametz meal will remain undetected and thus unremovable.

The sense and purpose of the threefold removal of chametz thus is the following. Since the scriptural commandment is to have all chametz removed from our borders on the 14th of Nisan, and it is impossible to literally carry out this commandment to its full extent, it is necessary to have the physical activity of removing already completed before the 14th of Nisan arrives, and to interpret the removal of the 14th of Nisan itself (bitul) as mainly taking place on the level of the intention of the heart. An additional “removal” occurs at the time of slaughtering the korban Pesach. From then on it is scripturally prohibited either to use chametz or to have it in one’s possession, whether one has performed bitul or not. Bitul is necessary to ensure that one doesn’t transgress this prohibition. The physical removal of chametz before bitul is necessary to ensure that bitul is performed with the right intention of the heart.

Personally, I find it a peculiar result that, according to this halachic framework, which seems rather tight and well thought out, the actual and physical removal of chametz is something on the rabbinic level only, and not, or only indirectly,  commanded by Scripture.

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