by R. Gil Student
I. Checking for Chametz
According to Torah law, we must get rid of all of our chametz, our leavened bread, before Pesach. However, this can be accomplished either by rendering it all ownerless or by disposing of it. Rabbinic law requires us to do both — bi’ur chametz, disposing of it, and bitul chametz, rendering whatever remains in our possession ownerless. Part of the process of bi’ur chametz is bedikas chametz, checking our homes for any remaining chametz on the night before Pesach. Before we begin checking our homes, we say the blessing of “al bi’ur chametz.”
Contemporary practice raises a question of whether that blessing is necessary. If it is not necessary, it is not allowed because an unnecessary blessing constitutes a berachah le-vatalah. I would like to explore two forms of doing bedikas chametz which lead to three theories justifying the blessing, one of which only allows it in specific circumstances.
I was always puzzled as a child when my mother told me to clean my room because the cleaning lady was coming the next day. Why does it need to be cleaned twice? As an adult, I understand that there are different kinds of cleaning and different levels of thoroughness. Most people today clean their homes thoroughly well before bedikas chametz and therefore will not find any unexpected chametz when they formally check for it. This is not a new practice.
Already in the thirteenth century, Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel of Germany writes that we must clean our house before performing bedikas chametz (Mordekhai, Pesachim, no. 536). It seems to have been a well-established practice in his day. Earlier (no. 535), he mentions that Rav Elazar Ben Nassan (Ra’avan, 12th cen., Germany) says that people who clean their homes must still do bedikas chametz in the proper time. In fifteenth century Austria, Rav Yisrael Isserlein likewise says that many people have the practice to thoroughly clean their homes two or three days before bedikas chametz (Terumas Ha-Deshen 1:133). If so, why do they still have to do bedikas chametz?
Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel gives two answers to that question. First (ibid., no. 535), he says that we do not differentiate between bedikah and bedikah. Meaning, we do not say that some homes need bedikas chametz and some do not. The rabbinic decree applies to all homes equally. His second answer (ibid., no. 536) is that you might still find chametz in a crevice. The practical difference between the two answers is a house that undergoes a rigorous and thorough cleaning in which you know from experience that you will not find chametz in a crevice. According to the first reason, this does not matter because the obligation applies equally in all situations. According to the second answer, if there is no likelihood of finding chametz, there is no obligation of bedikas chametz in such a pre-cleaned house. Rav Yisrael Isserlein (ibid.) quotes both answers and requires a full bedikas chametz even if the house has been cleaned days in advance.
III. Checking After Pre-Cleaning
Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Gloss to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 433:11) says, based on Rav Mordechai’s ruling, that we must pre-clean the house before bedikas chametz. Not only must we clean the house, despite that we must also do bedikas chametz. However, later authorities note a profoundly lenient attitude regarding bedikas chametz among people who pre-cleaned their homes. Rav Chaim Mordechai Margoliyos (19th cen., Ukraine; Sha’arei Teshuvah to Orach Chaim 433:1) quotes an earlier authority who says that the thorough cleaning of houses in advance explains why so many people only do a cursory bedikas chametz. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Machazik Berakhah, Orach Chaim 433:6) quote the same ruling. Rav Shlomo Kluger (19th cen., Ukraine; Chochmas Shlomo, ad loc.) suggests that if you clean your house close to Pesach, you must still do bedikas chametz. However, if you clean your house more than three days before the time of bedikas chametz, you have established a presumption that your house contains no chametz and are exempt from bedikas chametz. Somewhat similarly, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (19th cen., Russia; Arukh Ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 433:13) says that while in prior times, their pre-cleaning may have left some chametz, in his day the cleaning was so thorough that there is no chametz to find; therefore, you only have to do a cursory bedikas chametz.
However, a simple reading of the Rema indicates that even a pre-cleaned house needs to undergo bedikas chametz. As mentioned above, Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel gives two reasons to require bedikas chametz on a pre-cleaned house. Even if there is no chance of finding chametz, the rabbinic decree does not differentiate between houses. Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Russia; Mishnah Berurah 433:45) likewise says that we do not differentiate between houses when it comes to bedikas chametz and therefore even a pre-cleaned house must be subjected to a thorough bedikas chametz.
We find two approaches to bedikas chametz. In an age when people generally clean their houses thoroughly a few days (sometimes weeks) before Pesach, some require a full and thorough bedikas chametz and some require a quick and cursory bedikas chametz. According to the first approach, we understand why we say a blessing on bedikas chametz. According to the second approach, how can we recite the blessing? Don’t we really know that the house has already been checked and we are just going through the motions?
IV. A Blessing on a Quick Check
Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (ibid., par. 8) says that since there is debate whether bedikas chametz is required in a pre-cleaned house, you should not say the blessing. Rav Zev Wolf of Zitl (19th cen., Russia; Responsa Emek Halakhah, Orach Chaim, no. 128) says that we can only recite a blessing if we follow the custom to hide pieces of chametz for bedikas chametz. Once those pieces are hidden, the search for chametz becomes obligatory and requires a blessing. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (ibid., 432:5) offers a different approach to why the blessing is still necessary. We started checking for chametz when we cleaned the house originally. We will continue that process of eating and disposing of chametz through the morning before Pesach, when we burn the remaining chametz. Therefore, we are in the middle of the process of disposing of the chametz, which is a legitimate time to recite the blessing.
We have seen two approaches to bedikas chametz. According to Terumas Ha-Deshen and Mishnah Berurah, we have to do a thorough bedikas chametz on the night before Pesach and therefore we recite a blessing on it. According to the others, if we clean our houses early, we do not have to do a full bedikas chametz on the night before Pesach. According to Rav Zev Wolf of Zitl, we say the blessing on the pieces of chametz we hide. Rav Shalom Yosef Elyashiv (21st cen., Israel; quoted in Dirshu Mishnah Berurah, 432 n. 19) agrees with this approach. According to the Arukh Ha-Shulchan, we say the blessing because we are in the middle of a long disposal of chametz.
Among more recent authorities, we find a slightly different approach to bedikas chametz and its blessing. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th cen., Israel; Halikhos Shlomo, Pesach 5:1) says that pre-cleaning a house does not exempt it completely from bedikas chametz. Rather, you still have to go through the entire house and confirm with family members what was cleaned and look for areas that might not have been cleaned from chametz. This can be a relatively quick process but still constitutes bedikas chametz and requires a blessing. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (Kovetz Halakhos, Pesach 6:22) seems to take a similar approach. While bedikas chametz might have changed somewhat from its initial enactment, we still have to check for whatever chametz might be left, even if we have to hide it ourselves.