Contrary to the common misconception, the primary mitzvah of Pesach is not to eat enough matzah to commit gastric suicide. Rather, we are commanded “V’ Higadita L’Vincha…you shall tell this story to your children.” Indeed, the Seder with all of its experiential components is the quintessential family education program, empowering parents to pass on our precious heritage, replete with family history and customs, to the next generation.
Before the Seder begins, however, there is a wonderful ceremony that not only, illustrates the concept of removal of Hametz (leavened products) in an experiential fashion, but involves everyone in climax of Passover preparation. This ceremony is called Bidikat Hametz, the search for leaven.
How do arrive at this point? On Pesach, the Torah commands us to avoid all contact with Hametz – any item which has been allowed to rise for more the 18 minutes. This includes products containing yeast, Se’or – items made with a sourdough process, grains that have been allowed to ferment and other similar products. Rabbinic tradition has understood this to mean we can not have benefit in any way or even posses these items or anything that may contain even the smallest trace or crumb of Hametz. So we dutifully scrub and clean every crevice of our homes lest we miss a tiny particle of Hametz and violate this injunction. Thus, it is traditional to shun the dishes,pots and pans etc. that we normally use and replace them all with dedicated Passover dishes and utensils. Despite all of our cleaning, however, we still would own the “non-Passover” kitchenware not to mention alcohol, fine china and other products that would be very expensive to replace if we had to dispose of them. There are great stories told by employees and residents of institutions in Israel that housed newly arrived immigrants from Ethiopia who were awakened in the middle of one of the nights leading up to Pesach by a cacophony of crashing dishes emanating from the communal kitchen. They discovered to their shock and disbelief the their Ethiopian brethren were “helping” the residents get rid of the non-Passover dishes by destroying them in preparation for the holiday.
Fortunately, our sages alleviated the need for such draconian measures( although my kids are always ready to smash dishes) by instituting a process known as Mecirat Hametz, which allows for the temporary sale to a Gentile of forbidden items that would cause too much of a financial hardship to us if we had to destroy them or eliminate them from our homes.A special bill of sale is drawn by which the Hametz reverts back to the original owners and the deposit is returned unless the buyer wishes to pay an exorbitant price based on the market value of all of the Hametz included in the original deal.
As I noted above the Torah specifically states ” No Hametz shall be found in your homes…[or] within your borders.”(Ex. 12:19; 13:7) However none of us is perfect. It is possible that a microscopic particle of Hametz may remain for example, one Cheereo or morsel of Captain Crunch or a tiny crumb may be stuck to the bottom of the fridge or somewhere similar. Therefore, our sages devised a formula by which we can declare any Hametz that we have unwittingly left un-sanitized null and void “as the dust of the earth.”
Rabbi Joseph Elias writing in the Art Scroll Haggada explains that just evoking a formula seems a bit insincere, can we really just declare our homes devoid of Hametz? So, in order to insure that we can honestly certify to the best of our knowledge that our homes are Hametz free, the search for Hametz using the following process was instituted.
We begin our search on the evening of the day before the first Seder. The text and detailed instructions can be found below or in any good Haggadah. You will need a candle to guide your search, a feather to sweep up Hametz a wooden spoon to receive the Hametz and a paper bag to collect the Hametz. This year we are following a custom of using the Lulav or Palm branch left from last sukkoth in place of the feather. It is customary to strategically hide morsels of Hametz, some use 10 as it has mystical significance, in your home. I often use breakfast cereal as it is easily to scoop and doesn’t cause too much collateral damage i.e. crumbs. In order to make it more exciting for the kids, I have them stay in a bedroom while I hide the morsels of Hametz. The children ideally take turns holding the spoon, feather, candle and bag although your mileage may vary, especially with the candle.
After the Hametz has been hidden, (make sure you remember were it all is or you could be in for a nasty surprise in the middle of Pesach) we turn off all the lights, gather together and recite the Blessing thanking God for making us holy with the Mitzvot and commanding us to remove ( i.e. burn) all Hametz. We then search throughout the house (I tend to confine the hiding places to the public parts of the home as opposed to the bedrooms just to be on the safe side) scooping up the offending pieces of Leaven and collecting them in the paper bag. After all the Hametz is in the bag, we add the feather, spoon and candle (extinguish the candle first) and recite the Hametz Nullification formula in Aramaic and or English. The excellent Feast of Freedom Hagadah produced by the Rabbinical Assembly, notes that this text is first found in the writings of Rabbi Issac Ben Jacob Alfasi of Fez ( 1013-1103)
” all Hametz in my possession which I have not seen or removed, or of which I am unaware, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
The bag of Hametz and the associated contaminated utensils are carefully set aside until morning. In the morning after breakfast but before the deadline for eating Hametz passes, usually about 2.5 hours before midday, all the Hametz is gathered together and burned. Usually a metal trash can will work for this purpose or an old Barbecue that you do not plan to use for Pesach. We complete the Hametz search and destroy mission with the following declaration, recited after the burning is finished, again in Aramaic and or Hebrew.
“All Hametz in my possession,whether I have seen it or not,whether I have removed it or not, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
Of course we are familiar with the biblical origin of the requirement for eating Matza. The Israelites in their haste to leave Egypt did not allow sufficient time for the dough to rise and so they baked flat cakes of Matza instead of bread. But why the total obsession with Hametz? Perhaps this is a good topic of discussion for our family as we go through the Hametz eradication process.
Rabbi Alex Israel of the Pardes Yeshiva in Jerusalem suggests three possible reasons for the prohibition against Hametz. Whereas Egyptian worship involved the usage of leavened bread in the context of sacrificing to their various deities, the Torah, wanting to avoid any similarities between the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians and our service to God, permits only unleavened bread in the Israelite Sacraficial Services. Secondly, Rabbi Alexander cites a source that points out that leavened bread requires human technology, i.e. the introduction of yeast or sourdough to work. Since the Exodus was accomplished only by the Divine Hand of God with no human input, we eat Matza which is made with out the benefit of this human ingenuity. Rabbi Israel’s final point is based on the fact that while as mentioned above, with all other sacrifices there is a prohibition against any Hametz, the offering for Shavuot is an exception, it requires the inclusion of loaves of leavened bread. Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah on Mt Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel, upon leaving Egypt, were a primitive group of escaped slaves. It was only after receiving the Torah that we grew from a gang of former slaves into a definitive nation with a direction and purpose under God. Therefore, Rabbi Israel teaches, we eat the plain bread of slaves on Peasch but eat the enhanced loaves of the bread of God’s chosen emancipated nation on Shavuot.
Experiences such as the search for Hametz help to create the lasting memories that are the building blocks of family history. Like the Seder, it is a wonderful way to pass on our rich and beautiful heritage to the next generation in a concrete fashion. By including the search and burning of Hametz in our Passover tradition we are empowered to teach our children about the fundamental meaning of the holiday and are thereby enabled to fulfill the primary mitzvah of Pesach – “V’higadita L’vincha Ba Yom ha Hu, and you shall teach these lessons to your children on that day.”
Best wishes for a Zissen (sweet) Pesach to all.
For some interesting ideas on how to make your Seder even more appealing as well as some musical enhancements, click here.
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Hazzan Michael Krausman