I know someone who wrote a Purim Torah piece about how bread is the ultimate evil. One of his silly arguments is that Pesach is “a festival of happy freedom, freedom from carbs!”<1> If only it were that simple. (Who said matzah doesn’t have carbs, anyway?) The truth is that while the Torah is extremely strict about chametz on Pesach – for example, there are mitzvot to get rid of it, not to eat it, and not to own it on Pesach<2> – the Torah does not explain the need for such strictness.
Professor Moshe Benovitz spells out just how unusual the Pesach status of chametz and se’or (a chametz-starter) is:
[I]t is difficult to understand the prohibition against hametz. Eating matzah on Passover is hardly the only mitzvah that is a symbolic action: there are many others, such as tzitzit, tefillin, lulav on Sukkot, and even some of the other Seder rituals such as the bitter herb and the four cups of wine. In none of these cases is the symbolic act accompanied by a matching prohibition: we are not prohibited from hanging other pendants on our garments, in order to ensure that we attach tzitzit. We are not prohibited from wearing other ornaments, in order to ensure that we wear tefillin. We are not prohibited from having other plants in our home or synagogue on Sukkot, in order to ensure that we lift up the lulav, etrog, myrtle and willow. And we are not prohibited from drinking liquids other than wine or eating vegetables other than bitter herbs on Passover, in order to ensure that we observe these Seder rituals. Why then are we prohibited from eating hametz, in order to ensure that we eat matzah on Passover? And why is this prohibition backed up by an even more stringent prohibition, demanding the eradication of leaven and leavened products from our borders for the entire Passover week?<3>
The Radvaz (Rabbi David ben Zimra, 1479-1573) addresses this very issue in his she’elot uteshuvot (responsa). After his detailed comparison reveals that no other halakhah in the entire Torah shares all the stringencies of chametz on Pesach, the Radvaz concludes that this is because chametz symbolizes the yetzer hara (evil inclination). According to the Gemara, when Rabbi Alexandri finished saying the amidah, he would add a tefillah: “Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to Your will; but what prevents us from doing so? The se’or in the dough…”<4> For this reason, the Radvaz suggests, before Pesach we must ferociously search out and eradicate chametz, and on Pesach itself even a tiny bit cannot be nullified. The message for us to internalize is zero tolerance for the yetzer hara.<5>
However, this is not enough for the Radvaz. In his sefer about the reasons for mitzvot, he raises a followup issue: If chametz represents the yetzer hara, why then is it allowed the rest of the year? He presents two answers, each of which is fascinating to consider.
The first answer relates to a well-known phenomenon which does not usually appear in halakhic literature – matzah is hard on the stomach! According to the Radvaz, it would indeed be preferable spiritually to eat matzah and ban chametz all year round, but then we would just get sick. To spare us endless digestive woes, the Torah limits the war on chametz to one week a year. Reminiscent of Yehoshua’s attack on Yericho, in which he circled it for seven days,<6> this should be enough to weaken the spiritual danger of the yetzer hara for the rest of the year.<7> Alternatively, one could suggest that to spare our stomachs, the Torah says that the symbolism applies for one week only, during which we imagine that chametz is the yetzer hara and go all out against it. The rest of the year, a sandwich is just a sandwich.
The second answer of the Radvaz is that the reason that Hashem gave us the yetzer hara is to test us to see if we can withstand it. After all, the world needs the yetzer hara. If not for its life force, everything would come to a grinding halt. The Gemara recounts that the rabbis once prayed for the yetzer hara to be removed. Hashem granted their request, and the yetzer hara was stopped in its tracks – but egg production stopped as well.<8> Apparently the world does need the yetzer hara. For this very reason, asserts the Radvaz, chametz is permitted all year round – as a test to see if we can overcome our yetzer hara.<9> We can throw out the yetzer hara with the chametz, but only temporarily. The rest of the time, our job is more difficult. We need to keep the yetzer hara, struggle with it, and channel it in positive directions.<10>
1. Joshua Fox, “‘Not by Bread’: The Jewish Approach To Carbs.” https://web.archive.org/web/20080731210748/http://www.joshuafox.com/other/humor/carbs/index.html
2. Shmot 12:15-20 and 13:3-8. Additionally, in the context of the korban minchah, the Torah forbids offering chametz in a korban. See Vayikra 2:11-13 and 6:7-10.
3. Prof. Moshe Benovitz, “Which Came First: The Hametz or the Matzah?” http://www.schechter.edu/facultyForum.aspx?ID=29
4. Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 17a. Rabbi Alex Israel thinks this tefillah can explain the prohibition of chametz on the mizbe’ach (altar); see his article entitled “Pessach 5760.” http://www.harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1073
5. Rabbi David ben Zimra, She’elot uTeshuvot Radvaz, Vol. 3, #546 (977).
6. Yehoshua 6:11-16.
7. Rabbi David ben Zimra, Metzudat David: Ta’amei Mitzvot LeRadvaz, #107.
8. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 69b.
9. Rabbi David ben Zimra, op. cit.
10. See also Rabbi Dov Linzer’s Modern Orthodox approach to the issue: “Passover: Chametz, Matzoh, and the Challenge of Confrontation” (April 10, 1998), http://www.hir.org/torah/linzer/passover.htm. A later version, entitled “Chametz and Matzah: The Risks and Rewards of Engaging the World” (April 22, 2011), appears at https://weeklyparsha.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/chametz-and-matzah-the-risks-and-rewards-of-engaging-the-world/