Chametz and the Way Back to Eden

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Returning to Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan: Drasha 5, Chametz and the Way Back to Eden

My first series on Aruch HaShulchan’s sermons left out four, those for Shabbat HaGadol. Over the next five essays, we’ll see some of how he approached his congregants regarding Pesach and whether those sermons round out, supplement, or complement the conclusions we saw before.

But first, as Shushan Purim ends, I want to bring to your attention my most recent book, As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience. Structured as a set of daily readings starting with the first of Nissan and going until the end of Pesach (plus a memoir of my father a”h’s Seder), I hope and believe the book will greatly enrich the Pesach experience of even those who have been celebrating the Seder all their lives. If you read and enjoy these columns, I would greatly appreciate if you would buy one or a few copies of the book (trust me that the financial incentive for me here is insignificant; the few dollars that might come my way go to tzedakah anyway), read it yourself and give it to others who might also benefit. Much thanks in advance for helping me share that which I have managed to carve out of the great rock of the Torah of our tradition.

The fifth sermon in Derashot Kol Ben Levi starts with Menachot 53a’s focus on the word adir, mighty, in the first verses ofTehillim 16. He then heads in a very different direction; we’ll follow that other direction, and return to Menachot when he does.

Yitzchak as Our Father

He notes a sequence from Shabbat 89b, where Hashem tells the Patriarchs the Jews have sinned. Avraham and Ya’akov say to destroy them al kedushat Shemecha, to sanctify Your Name, but Yitzchak argues. Hashem is calling them the Avot’s children, but had referred to them as His own children when they agreed to accept the Torah.

Furthermore, he argues, how much wrong could they have done? The Heavenly Court does not punish our sins until we are twenty, Yitzchak says (that’s a common Talmudic assumption), about a third of their lives are spent sleeping, a sixth in prayer, eating, and attending to bodily needs. He and Hashem could split the rest, to cover for the Jews’ sins. And if not, was not his being bound at the Akedah sufficient to protect them?

Hashem agrees, leading the Jews all turn to Yitzchak and say avinu atah, you are our father (the Gemara takes this fromYeshahayu 63;16, but we don’t have space to look at the verse and how the Gemara is using it). Yitzchak corrects them, telling them to praise Hashem.

Aruch HaShulchan is bothered by much of this. Why were Avraham and Ya’akov so quick to say Hashem should destroy the Jews, when the usual punishment for the nation’s sins is exile? What did Yitzchak mean with his claims about how limited the Jews’ sins had to be—people can and do sin while sleeping, eating, and praying. Then, fter they were saved, why was he so adamant they turn to Hashem?

The Exception of Chillul Hashem

The crux of his answer is that Hashem was complaining about the desecration of His Name by the Jews. That does render a person or nation liable for death (in Yoma’s list of ways to achieve atonement, chillul Hashem is one of those sins that requires penitence, Yom Kippur, suffering, and eventual death). That’s why Avraham and Ya’akov agree they must be destroyed—as Rashi explains, the public punishment of evildoers rectifies the desecration of the Name.

Yitzchak’s calculation of how people spend their days was meant to show that they had had only limited opportunities to commit chillul Hashem, since such chillul can only happen in public. People sleep, eat, and pray in private [it’s not clear to me why he’s so sure there can’t be chillul during prayer, since that happens in front of ten Jews; I think he might mean that chillulis where we willfully violate the Torah, which is unlikely to happen in the middle of prayers. He might have offered some other explanation, but I don’t want to digress too far].

That reading also explains why Yitzchak corrects them when they want to celebrate him as their savior—those who had desecrated Hashem’s Name should be careful to use their salvation as an opportunity to praise and sanctify that Name. But there’s more to it, for Aruch HaShulchan.

The Linked Generations of the Jewish People

In his view, the fact that the merits of the Akedah could help later generations of Jews was only because Hashem had decided to link all generations of humanity. That link, which explains why Hashem is poked avon avot al banim, punishes descendants who keep to the paths of their ancestors for those ancestors’ sins as well, is also what allows the merits of an earlier generation to protect a later one.

Rish’ei Yisrael, the evildoers of Israel, deny this aspect of Jewish history, since they only accept that which they can comprehend [clearly a shot at people of his time, it seems to me to remain true today, that one driving element of those who reject some or all of tradition is their insistence that the religion and its dictates make sense to them, intuitively and immediately].They see no obvious connection among the souls of all generations, so they repudiate it; but it’s exactly that connectedness,  that will be the Jewish people’s saving grace.

It’s for that reason that Yitzchak tells the Jews to praise Hashem; yes, he was the one bound for the Akedah, but Hashem’s the One who made that relevant and protective for them. (I don’t have space here to discuss it, but I think some of modern genetics supports this idea, in ways some of the most prominent atheists of our time would refuse to contemplate).

When Chametz Becomes Prohibited

I have to skip a few more aggadic interpretations he offers (along the same lines), because I want to get to the halachic part (traditional drashot, especially for Shabbat HaGadol, had an halachic and an aggadic component; the halachic part was the original purpose of such drashot, to teach the laity how to observe the holiday properly. Only later did it morph into using thosehalachot to teach lessons of faith and religiosity).

Pesachim 28b has a debate between R. Yehudah and R. Shim’on about when the Torah itself prohibits chametz. R. Yehudah held the Biblical prohibition started on midday of the 14th of Nisan (which we call Erev Pesach), continued throughout the holiday, and then applied ever after to chametz owned by a Jew during Pesach. R. Shimo’n held that the Torah addressed only Pesach itself, that before and after were Rabbinic enactments.

Rambam codifies R. Yehudah’s view regarding the fourteenth, but R. Shim’on’s regarding post-Pesach chametz, despite the two tannaim seeming to see this as one question, whether the Torah prohibited chametz other than on Pesach itself. [I am skipping over his discussions of what led Rambam to rule that way, how the Yerushalmi and Bavli either do or don’t disagree on this, and how other rishonim might have read it].

Among the problems with R. Yehudah’s view is that if we are not allowed to own chametz after noon on the fourteenth, why did the Torah need to articulate a specific prohibition against offering the Pesach sacrifice when owning chametz?

Why There Are No Lashes for Owning Chametz

The basic answer is that bal yera’eh, the prohibition of owning chametz, isn’t punishable by a court, so the Torah added a lashes-liable prohibition for owning chametz while offering the Pesach. The reason bal yera’eh itself does not obligate lashes is up for discussion. A first guess is that it is a lav she’ein bo ma’aseh, a prohibition with no action. Courts ordinarily administer that punishment only for violations where an action is performed.

The problem with that, for Aruch HaShulchan, is that R. Yehudah held—as we do not—that a lav she’ein bo ma’aseh in fact does incur lashes. For all that the answer would have worked for ordinary halachic thought, it does not work for R. Yehudah, whose view we are discussing.

Eating chametz is also a lav ha-nitak le’aseh, a prohibition linked to an obligation (a classic example of such a prohibition is open theft, where the Torah obligates returning the item—since the theft isn’t the end of the story, and has a Torah-ordained method of rectification, there’s no lashes). For owning chametz, the ‘aseh is getting rid of it, so there would seem to be no lashes.

A problem with that view is that the obligation usually comes into play only once a transgression occurs, but tashbitu, rid yourselves of chametz, was in force before the violation. That should mean bal yera’eh is an independent prohibition that could incur lashes.

The Implied ‘Aseh of Bal Yera’eh

I am again skipping, to get to Aruch HaShulchan’s solution; he argues there is a separate ‘aseh here, which comes inherently with the prohibition. When Rashi comments that someone who violates bal yera’eh has a continuing obligation to get rid of that chametz, that’s not because of the original obligation of tashbitu, says Aruch HaShulchan, it’s because the prohibition itself implies an obligation.

[Having stolen something does not directly imply an obligation to return it, nor does having taken baby birds directly imply an obligation to send the mother away. In those cases, we could have imagined that once the violation occurred, it occurred, end of story.

With non-ownership, since the prohibition continues throughout the holiday, it’s always there as an ‘aseh and makes this a prohibition linked to an obligation [there’s a lot to say about that, but I’m really pressed for space this time].

Nullifying Chametz and Returning to Eden

He then notes some examples of a surprising phenomenon, that there are certain kinds of chametz where the owner must demonstrate that s/he values the chametz in order to transgress. That’s because the whole prohibition is odd, in that this is one of the few items the Torah assigns liability to us for having even though we are not legally owners of it (once Pesach starts,chametz is proscribed and not really ours anymore).

Through steps I don’t have space to recount, that leads him to wonder why it is that our verbal nullification of chametz in fact works (in other cases of removing items from our possession, declaring them hefker, we need more than a verbal declaration; too, in this case, we don’t just declare it hefker, we declare it ke-afra de-ar’a, like dirt of the earth).

He suggests that Pesach is a time when we remember how we hurt the earth with the sin of Adam and Chava. Hashem created a world of bounty; when human sin lost them that world, Hashem made it harder to achieve that which we need most (this contrasts interestingly with Rambam in the Moreh, who claimed that that which we need most is most plentiful. In Aruch HaShulchan’s world, apples, not a staple, were more plentiful than bread or grains).

In addition, Hashem made the conversion of grain into bread, our sustenance, dependent on se’or [by which he probably means sourdough], which is disgustingly inedible.

When Hashem commands us on Pesach to avoid leavened bread, we are really avoiding that disgusting item, that reminder of the sin that led us to a world of scarcity. That’s why we declare it like dirt of the earth, because in the original plan for creation, we would have treated it exactly that way, since we’d have had all we needed and more without resorting to dirt of the earth.

Who’s Powerful?

One last piece of prior information before he can return to the opening Gemara is that Pesachim 87b says the Jews were exiled so converts would join them. That kiddush Hashem, showing Hashem’s power to non-Jews, atones for the chillul Hashem we committed before. Our declaring Hashem’s power, making it real for others, restores us to our pre-sin state.

Now we can see Menachot 53a, which reads Tehillim 16 as the Jews’ request from Hashem that He protect them because they were the ones who declared Hashem’s power, and placed all their faith in Hashem. A later verse uses the term adir, powerful, and says that Hashem is pleased with that adir, presumably the Jewish people. The Gemara then plays on that word, saying that the Adir will come and take vengeance for adirim, from adirim, in adirim.

That Hashem is powerful is clear; the Jews got the title adir in this Psalm, but who are the adirim? Aruch HaShulchan suggests it’s the Egyptians, who saw themselves as all-powerful, whom Hashem punished in the water (of Yam Suf, the Sea), which is also seen as powerful, yet is subject to Hashem.

It’s that theme of adirut, seeing Who has real power and who doesn’t, that leads us to speak of adir adireinu, Our Most Powerful One, in the kedushah, the communal prayer said during the chazzan’s repetition of Musaf. That recognition is the sanctification of Hashem’s Name that makes up for our national history of desecrating that Name, and can lead to a time when all recognize Hashem, when Hashem will be One throughout the world.

What’s His Point?

That’s where he leaves it. It seems clear that he’s focused on the issue of recognizing Hashem, of admitting Hashem acts in ways we cannot understand that yet do nothing to change the fact that Hashem rules the world. He also threw in a reminder that our livelihoods come from Hashem (a theme we saw in other drashot), since in the Eden version of the world, our sustenance came easily and effortlessly and now comes with difficulty and through otherwise disgusting means.

Appropriate to Pesach [since this is exactly what happened during the Exodus, although he doesn’t say that explicitly], his focus is that the solution to our problems—our national problems of desecrating Hashem’s Name, and humanity’s post-Eden problems– lies in recognizing Hashem, sanctifying the Name, and acknowledging His power is beyond our comprehension.

About Gidon Rothstein

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