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Is the Mitzvah to Burn or Nullify Chametz?

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Joshua Kulp

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Is the Mitzvah to Burn or Nullify Chametz?

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Is the Mitzvah to Burn or Nullify Chametz?

The night before Passover, chametz “leaven” is searched for and then burned the next morning—ביעור חמץ biʿur chametz. Afterwards, any remaining unfound chametz is nullified and declared to be “like the dust of the earth,”— ביטול חמץ bittul chametz. Which of these acts fulfills the biblical requirement?

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Is the Mitzvah to Burn or Nullify Chametz?

Haggadah with German translation, 1829, Braginsky Collection B350, f. 2r (adapted). E-codices

The Torah’s Commandment

As the festival of Matzot begins, the Torah commands the Israelites to makes sure chametz (leaven) ceases to be present in their homes.[1] The verb used for this is תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ from the root שׁ.ב.ת; this verb usually means “to cause to cease”:

שמות יב:טו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם כִּי כָּל אֹכֵל חָמֵץ וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן עַד יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.
Exod 12:15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day tashbitu leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.[2]

The same verb appears in the requirement for salt to be used in the grain offering:

ויקרא ב:יג וְכָל קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ עַל כָּל קָרְבָּנְךָ תַּקְרִיב מֶלַח.
Lev 2:13 You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not cause the salt of your covenant with God to cease from your meal offering; with all your offerings you must offer salt.[3]

How do you cause chametz to cease to exist?

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל פסחא ח רַבִּי יוֹסֵה אוֹמֵר: "תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם", בִּשְׂרִיפָה.
Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 8 R. Yosi says: “‘Cause leaven to cease from your house’—by burning it.

Rabbi Yosi bases his argument on an analogy to what the Torah requires be done with leftover sacrificial meat (Lev 7:17):

אַתָּה אוֹמֵר בִּשְׂרִיפָה, אוֹ אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא בְּכָל דָּבָר? הֲרֵי אַתָּה דָּן: נוֹתָר אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה, וְחָמֵץ אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה. אִם לָמַדְתָּ עַל נוֹתָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ אֶלָּא בִּשְׂרִיפָה, אַף חָמֵץ לֹא יְהֵא אֶלָּא בִּשְׂרִיפָה!...
Are you saying by burning or perhaps any method [of destruction]? You can learn it from this: Leftover sacrificial meat is prohibited to eat and chametz is prohibited to eat; if we have learned that leftover sacrificial meat must be burned, so too chametz must be burned….”

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira challenges the view that burning is the only way to legitimately destroy chametz, but admits that it is the preferred method:

אָמַר לוֹ רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בֶּן בְּתֵירָה: סָבוּר אַתָּה שֶׁאַתָּה מַחְמִיר עָלָיו, וְאֵינָךְ אֶלָּא מֵקֵל עָלָיו! הָא אִם לֹא מָצָא אוּר, יֵשֵׁב לוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׂרֹף? אֶלָּא בַּלָּשׁוֹן הַזֶּה הֱוֵי אוֹמֵר: עַד שֶׁלֹּא תַּגִּיעַ שָׁעַת הַבִּעוּר, מִצְוַת כּלּוּיוֹ בִּשְׂרִיפָה. מִשֶּׁהִגִּיעָה שָׁעַת הַבִּעוּר, מִצְוַת כּלּוּיוֹ בְּכָל דָּבָר.
Rabbi Yehudah son of Beteira said to him: “You think you are being strict with the person but you are really only being lenient. If he doesn’t have access to fire, does he just sit around and not burn it? Rather you should put it this way: Up until the time for destruction arrives, it is a mitzvah to destroy [the leaven] with fire. Once the time for destruction arrives, it is a mitzvah to destroy any way possible.”

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi uses logic as opposed to analogy to prove that only burning is sufficient:

רַבִּי אוֹמֵר: בְּדָבָר שֶׁהוּא בְּ'בַל יֵרָאֶה' וּ'בַל יִמָּצֵא'. וְאֵי זֶה הוּא דָּבָר שֶׁהוּא בְּבַל יֵרָאֶה וּבַל יִמָּצֵא? אֵין אַתָּה מוֹצֵא אֶלָּא בִּשְׂרִיפָה.
Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] says: “Regarding that which is forbidden to be seen or found. What is something that cannot be seen or found? You can only accomplish this by burning.”[4]

While other rabbis accept other forms of physical destruction of chametz such as crumbling it up and throwing it into the wind or throwing it into the sea (Mishnah Pesachim 2:1), all tannaim understand Exodus 12:15 as mandating physical destruction of chametz.

Stage 1: When Nothing Else Can be Done, Nullify It

What happens if it is difficult to physically destroy one’s chametz? The Mishnah distinguishes between three different cases in which people have left their house before Pesach and have left chametz at home, and introduces a new procedure: nullification in one’s heart.

1) Going to perform a mitzvah

משנה פסחים ג:ז ההולך לשחוט את פסחו ולמול את בנו ולאכול סעודת אירוסין בבית חמיו ונזכר שיש לו חמץ בתוך ביתו אם יכול לחזור ולבער ולחזור למצותו יחזור ויבער ואם לאו מבטלו בלבו
m. Pesachim 3:7 One who is on his way to slaughter his Pesach sacrifice or to circumcise his son or to dine at a betrothal feast at the house of his father-in-law, and remembers that he has chametz in his home: if he is able to go back, burn [it], and [then] return to his religious duty, he must go back and burn [it]; but if not, he annuls it in his heart.

The best option is to do both—go back home to destroy the hametz and then perform the mitzvah, but if impossible, the mitzvah takes priority.

2) Going to save a life

להציל מן הנכרים ומן הנהר ומן הלסטים ומן הדליקה ומן המפולת יבטל בלבו
[If he is on his way] to save from an invasion or from a river or from brigands or from a fire or from a collapse [of a building], he annuls it in his heart.

Absolute priority is given to saving a life—even if it is possible to destroy one’s chametz and still return to save a life, the chametz may be left.

3) Traveling for pleasure

ולשבות שביתת הרשות יחזור מיד:
[But if] to rest for pleasure, he must return immediately.[5]

Pleasure trips are not an excuse to leave chametz in one’s house.

The main purpose of the Mishnah is to clarify cases when destroying chametz is less of a priority than other obligations. At the same time, it offers a novel mitigating solution: nullify it in your heart, one that does not appear in the parallel text of the Tosefta.[6]

No Nullification in the Tosefta

Shamma Friedman notes that the Tosefta says nothing about nullification;[7] instead, if the person cannot return home and then perform the mitzvah, they simply leave the chametz at home.

תוספתא פסחים ג:יב ההולך לשחוט את פסחו, ולמול את בנו, ולוכל סעוד[ה] אירוסין בבית חמיו, ונזכר שיש לו חמץ בתוך הבית, אם יש לו שהות כדי שיחזור חוזר, ואם לאו, אין חוזר.
t. Pesachim 3:12 One who is on his way to slaughter his Pesach sacrifice or to circumcise his son or to dine at a betrothal feast at the house of his father-in-law, and remembers that he has chametz in his home: if he has time to go back home [and burn it and also accomplish the mitzvah], he must go back [and burn it]; but if not, he doesn’t go back.

Like in the Tosefta, tannaitic literature elsewhere seems to make peace with the notion that a person might own chametz and still not be considered transgressing the prohibitions of not seeing or possessing chametz on Pesach:

  • Chametz in a gentile’s home (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Pisha 10).[8]
  • Setting aside impure challah on Pesach without baking it, thereby allowing it to become chametz by nightfall (R. Joshua, m. Pesachim 3:3).

Friedman’s claim throughout his book is that the Mishnah presents a later stage of development and here, at least, this seems to be the case. In the original Toseftan formulation of this halakhah, a person who forgot chametz at home and for a justified reason could not return home to destroy is not considered to be transgressing the negative commandment of possessing chametz on Pesach. These examples reflect a general principle beyond just cases that involve saving a life or performing a mitzvah.

The editors of the Mishnah were bothered by the tradition recorded in the Tosefta of allowing people on their way to perform a mitzvah remain in possession of chametz in their home. They therefore developed a solution, nullification, which is not really a way of “destroying chametz”—since such chametz need not be destroyed. Rather, it is a way of allowing people away from home to take some kind of step to rid themselves of chametz that they can’t reach physically.

Stage 2: The Expansion of Nullification

In early amoraic literature, nullification (bittul) of chametz is given a formula and expanded to new cases:

A Formula for Bittul

First, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav—a first generation amora—provides a Hebrew[9] formula to be recited for nullification:

ירושלמי פסחים ב:ג [כח::] רב אמר: "צריך לומר: 'כל חמץ שיש לי בתוך ביתי ואינו יודע בו יבטל.'"
j. Pesachim 2:3 [28d] Rav said: “He must say: ‘Any chametz that I have in my house and that I did not know about is nullified.’”

Unlike the Mishnah, Rav’s formula assumes that people nullify chametz even when they have searched their home (bedikah). While the Mishnah assumes that nullification is an exceptional act, Rav uses the notion of nullification to solve the problem of how to avoid chametz that might not have been found during the bedikah.

The Babylonian Talmud formulates Rav’s statement as a halakhic requirement (but without the formula, which the Babylonian Talmud never includes):

בבלי פסחים ו: אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: "הבודק צריך שיבטל."
b. Pesachim 6b Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “One who checks must annul.”

It is clear from both presentations of Rav’s view that the nullification is not the fulfillment of the biblical commandment to destroy; it is a supplement to the biblical commandment, one that works only vis-à-vis chametz that was not found during the examination.

Chametz that Cannot Be Destroyed

The second expansion of nullification is applying it to cases in which chametz cannot be destroyed. The first two cases concern chametz stuck in a hole between two houses:

בבלי פסחים ח. חור שבין אדם לחבירו - זה בודק עד מקום שידו מגעת, וזה בודק עד מקום שידו מגעת, והשאר מבטלו בלבו.
b. Pesachim 8a A hole in a wall between two people: One checks as far as his hand can go and the other one checks as far as his hand can go, and the remainder he nullifies in his heart.
בבלי פסחים ח: תניא: חור שבין יהודי לארמאי - בודק עד מקום שידו מגעת, והשאר מבטלו בלבו.
b. Pesachim 8b It was taught: A hole in a wall between a Jew and a non-Jew, he checks as far as is hand can go and the remainder he nullifies in his heart.

The third case is chametz buried under a heap of stones. The Mishnah states that it is not necessary to dig out the chametz and destroy it before Pesach:

משנה פסחים ב:ג חמץ שנפלה עליו מפולת - הרי הוא כמבוער.
m. Pesachim 2:3 Chametz onto which a heap of stones fell, behold it is as if it was destroyed.

On this, the Talmud comments that bittul is still necessary:

בבלי פסחים לא: אמר רב חסדא: וצריך שיבטל בלבו.
b. Pesachim 31b Rav Hisda said: “And he must nullify it in his heart.”

These cases are all like those in the Mishnah. The Tannaim do not mandate poking out the chametz in the wall that cannot be reached by hand or removing a heap of stones that fell on the chametz. The only step that is required for hard-to-reach chametz is to mentally nullify it.[10]

Stage 3: The Triumph of Nullification

In its analysis of a baraita—a (purported) Tannaitic text, but not appearing in the Mishnah—the stam (anonymous voice) in the Talmud declares nullification to be the core, biblical obligation to remove chametz.

The baraita claims that women, slaves, and minors should be believed when they say that they checked for or destroyed chametz. This, however, contradicts the rabbinic principle not to rely on testimony made by people in these three categories. The Talmud resolves this by saying that nullification is the main thing, not the destruction:

בבלי פסחים ד: כיון דבדיקת חמץ מדרבנן הוא, דמדאורייתא בביטול בעלמא סגי ליה - הימנוהו רבנן בדרבנן.
b. Pesachim 4b Since checking for chametz is only of rabbinic origin, for according to the Torah nullification alone is sufficient, the rabbis trusted [these people] in a law of rabbinic [and not biblical] origin.

The tables have now turned—the physical destruction of chametz is the rabbinic directive whereas the nullification of chametz is in adherence to the laws of the Torah.[11]

Nullifying Chametz You Can See

The Talmud discusses Rav’s principle, quoted above, that the one who searches for chametz must also nullify, and inquires why the necessity for both, and answers with:

בבלי פסחים ו: אמר רבא: "גזירה שמא ימצא גלוסקא יפה ודעתיה עילויה."
b. Pesachim 6b Rava said: “One might find a good loaf/cake of bread, and his mind will be upon it.”

To this the Talmud responds:

וכי משכחת ליה לבטליה!
Let him nullify it when he finds it!
דילמא משכחת ליה לבתר איסורא, ולאו ברשותיה קיימא, ולא מצי מבטיל.
He might find it after the time in which chametz is forbidden, and it is no longer in his possession, and he can’t nullify it.

According to the stam, in theory, people could keep their chametz and just nullify it. After all, if nullification is from the Torah, then why would it not be applicable to all chametz, not just that which is inaccessible or unknown?

Thus, the Talmud closes with the theoretical triumph of nullification over physical destruction. Nullification and not physical destruction is what the Torah mandates be done before Pesach begins. And nullification is, at least in theory, an effective means of avoiding the prohibition of possessing chametz, even that which is immediately present and easily destroyable.

A Pyrrhic Victory

On the books, nullification won; in the wake of the stam, all halakhic authorities (see postscript) consider bittul, not burning, to be from the Torah. Nevertheless, it was at most a pyrrhic victory. On the morning before Pesach, Jews all over the world burn their chametz. Nullification is de facto relegated to a means of avoiding a transgression only for the chametz that one could not destroy, just as it was originally intended.

Postscript

Revising Maimonides: The Two Readings in the Mishneh Torah

The two approaches to nullification are reflected in two different versions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Zemanim, “Laws of Chametz and Matzah,” 2:2).

Stammaitic Position—The version found in our printed editions and also reflected in the Hagahot Maymoniyot commentary:

ומה היא השבתה זו האמורה בתורה?
What is this “removal” stated in the Torah?
היא שיבטל החמץ בלבו ויחשוב אותו כעפר וישים בלבו שאין ברשותו חמץ כלל.
It is that one should nullify the leaven in his heart and consider it like dust and he should think in his heart that he has no leaven in his possession at all.

This reflects the stammaitic position that nullification is from the Torah.[12]

Amoraic Position—Another text found in R. Yosef Karo’s commentary, the Kesef Mishneh, as well as in the 1509 Constantinople printing and the 1550 Venice printing, and also reflected in Rabbeinu Manoach’s commentary:

ומה היא השבתה זו האמורה בתורה?
What is this “removal” stated in the Torah?
היא שיסיר החמץ הידוע לו מרשותו, ושאינו ידוע יבטלו בלבו.
It is that he should remove from his possession any leaven that is known to him and that which is unknown to him he should nullify in his heart.

This follows the amoraic understanding of nullification, that bittul is used only as back up. Karo spends much energy raising difficulties against the Amoraic version, and towards the end of his commentary, says:

ודאי אין שרש לנוסחא זו וטעות סופר היא... וכן מצאתי בספר רבינו מדוייק שכתוב בו כאן כך...
Certainly there is no basis for this text and it is a scribal error… And so too I found in an accurate book of our Rabbi’s (the Rambam) which reads as follows…

He then goes on to quote the Stammaitic version.

It would seem that the original version reflects amoraic literature. This accords well with the Maimonides’ occasional tendency to rule according to the general gist of tannaitic and amoraic statements and to ignore the anonymous portions of the Bavli. It also accords well with the Yerushalmi, which often influences his halakhic rulings. The second version is either an emendation made by Maimonides himself, or more likely an Ashkenazi version of the Mishneh Torah, which would explain its presence in the Hagahot Maymoniyot.

Appendix

What is Nullification?

The murky origins of nullification and the seeming duplication of how chametz is destroyed led eventually to a classic chakirah (vigorous deliberation) among the rishonim (medieval sages) as to what the legal mechanism of nullification is:

Ownerless—According to the Tosafot (a medieval Ashkenazi commentary on the Talmud),[13] nullification is a form of “hefker”—the declaration of something as ownerless. It is not derived from the verb תשביתו but rather from the phrase, ולא יראה לך (“is not to be seen with you”), which the rabbis understood to mean that a Jew is prohibited from seeing only chametz he owns, but not that which is owned by others. This is based on the extraneous word לך “with you,” which the rabbis understand as meaning “yours,” rendering the verse “You shall not see your chametz.”

Like Dust—Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, ca. 1195–ca. 1170) raised multiple difficulties against the notion that nullification is akin to hefker, most of which can be summarized as “this is just not how one declares things to be ownerless.” The technique of nullification has nothing in common with the technique of declaring ownerless.

Ramban’s conclusion focuses on the phrase found in all geonic formulations, that the chametz should be “like the dust of the earth (כעפרא דארעא).” When nullifying chametz, people are essentially aligning their own wishes with that of the Torah, saying that even if there is chametz still in their possession, they wish it was inedible like the dust of the earth.

This medieval dispute is reflected in the two formulae now used for nullification. Those who say ולהוי כעפרא דארעא “It shall be like the dust of the earth” are following Ramban, whereas those who say, וְלֶהֱוֵי הֶפְקֵר כְּעַפְרָא דְאַרְעָא “It shall be ownerless like the dust of the earth” are following the Tosafot.

Published

April 16, 2024

|

Last Updated

April 16, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi Joshua Kulp is a Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is the co-author of The Schechter Haggadah and Reconstructing the Talmud Volume 1 and Volume 2. He received his Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University and his semicha from the Hadar Institute.