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Following the Breadcrumbs

Rabbinical reasoning behind our pre-Passover search for hametz leads Jews through a theological maze, but everything is illuminated at the end

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(Ivy Tashlik)

People sometimes tell you that Judaism is a utilitarian religion. Having to throw out all your food and scour your home before Passover according to the laws of bedikat hametz—the search for leaven—may be tiresome, but it yields the greatest good for the greatest number.

This turns Judaism into a sound public policy, but a dry, dull religion. So, it’s important to remember that the sages of old weren’t health officials. When they directed us to remove every trace of fermentable dough from our homes the night before Passover, they weren’t thinking about sanitation. To clean, you need ample light, but the Talmud tells us to search at night with no more than a candle (“On the evening of the fourteenth, we search for hametz by the light of a candle”). And that’s both inefficient and odd. Jews in the Greco-Roman world had perfectly good torches.

So, why do we search for hametz? The rabbis wondered, too: “From where is this law derived?” Hametz is banned on Passover, but there’s no biblical commandment to go looking for it. No character in the Torah ever conducts such a search. The whole thing just never comes up.

It’s worth figuring out how the rabbis answered this question, because thinking about ritual was as close as they came to doing philosophy. They didn’t propound arguments like Western philosophers, though. They meandered through the Bible like mad metaphysical poets. The discussion of bedikat hametz weaves together four apparently random biblical verses.

The first one is from Exodus: “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days” (Exodus 12:19). The rabbis ask: What does it mean for leaven not to be found? It means that first it must have been sought, then it would have been found and removed. Why give the absence of something so much back story? The rabbis don’t give the obvious answer, which is that if we keep hametz in our homes the rest of the year, than we have to get rid of it before Passover. Instead, they cite the Joseph story. We seek before we find, they say, because that’s how Joseph’s steward went about it: “He searched, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest, and he found the goblet in Benjamin’s bag” (Genesis 44:12).

You’re supposed to know the context. Years after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, his brothers had to go get food in Egypt, where Joseph had become grand vizier, though they didn’t know that. When they entered the palace court, he recognized them but they didn’t recognize him. A grim comedy ensued in which he made incomprehensible demands, including that they bring him his younger brother, Benjamin. They did, whereupon Joseph framed the boy by having his steward put his silver goblet into Benjamin’s bag and accusing the boy of stealing it. That’s the search the rabbis are talking about: Joseph’s steward looking for a goblet he planted there himself.

What are we to think? That hametz is something we’ve hidden ourselves and the search is a farce? Once again, the rabbis dodge the question. They ask: How should we search? This takes us to the third verse, Zephaniah 1:12: “At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps.” Here God is saying to the prophet Zephaniah that He’s going to root out all the wicked people in Jerusalem by the light of lamps. Therefore, say the rabbis, we should use lamps or candles, too. Does the use of the plural, “lamps,” mean we should use more than one candle? No, because of our fourth verse: “The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord, seeking out all the rooms within” (Proverbs 20:27).

To follow the legal reasoning behind all this, you’d need a PhD; to follow the poetry of it, you string the analogies together. We search for hametz as Joseph’s steward searched for the goblet, which is like God searching Jerusalem. The way we search is with a candle, which is like the lamp of the Lord lighting up our insides.

A theology emerges. What is man? He who is capable of searching inside himself. What does he search for? Some dark or foreign matter that he has put there himself. With what does he search? The light of God, which is also in himself.

There’s a darker thought lurking here. If the man who searches resembles Joseph’s steward, then what he’s looking for is proof of guilt—proof placed there at his master’s command. And if that man also resembles God purging Jerusalem of evildoers, then that means God must have put the evildoers there himself. By the time you get to the fourth verse, God is starting to look pretty unsavory. This is not a God who leaves us the choice to sin or not; this is a God who puts the evil in us and demands we root it out.

The rabbis liked to build little theological mazes and then move on to the next question, leaving us trapped inside. How do we get out? I think the answer lies in the light of a candle. We manage not to sin because ritual shows us where to find our evil and gives us the means to get rid of it. But still: Why a candle rather than a torch or the sun? This time the rabbis bother to answer. Sunlight, the rabbis said, leaves portions of your house in shadow. Torches can blind you. The smallest light is the most reliable. “One can bring the light of a candle into the holes and cracks [of one’s house], but one cannot bring the light of a torch into holes and cracks,” said Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. The torch “makes you afraid,” said Rav Pappa, “whereas a candle does not make you afraid.” (Rashi explains: With a torch, you might set your house on fire.) “The light of a candle is steady,” said Ravina, “whereas the light of a torch flickers.”

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This truly was illuminating–thank you!

i missed greatly judith shulevitz’s departure from the pages of the nyt book review. her columns were a reading experience. talmudic, brilliant, witty. how happy i am to find her low-key erudition periodically adorning tablet now.

A lovely piece. But the author surely knows that the association from verse to verse is based on similar words. It’s not as mystical and poetic as she is making it out to be, though I love her exegesis.

This is a lovely drash. Thank you judith. I like to imagine what might have happened in 1st Temple times:

Judith came in from the fields where it appeared as though the whole community was out harvesting the new grain crop. The rains had ceased and the ground had dried enough to enable them to walk through the plants and collect the ripened sheaves. The stone house still felt damp from the winter and she helped her mother empty the storage urns of the remainder of the previous year’s grains.

The moisture had gotten into everything. They recognized the aroma of slowly fermenting wheat and barley and they did not want the old to contaminate the new. Judith’s mother even took the little wad of dough she always removed after kneading to put in a cool covered pot to help the next batch rise and added that also to the pile to take out and burn. They were so careful that after sweeping the stone floor with the palm fronds they took feathers and swept out the corners.

Judith thought about how the Chametz puffed up the bread she liked so much, yet considered how a similar spoilage often puffed her up with pride. She always felt cleansed as she warmed her hands with the heat of the burning Chametz. Both because it reminded her of the escape from slavery to freedom, the beauty of purity and simplicity and because she knew it would only take a week for her mother to create a new starter, Judith didn’t mind eating the Matzah her mother would make with the brand new dough.

…see “A Growing Haggadah”

`//rite On!
,\\ark Hurvitz

Larry Snider says:

Very nice!
Thank you so much for your gentle wisdom.

Rabbi Deborah Silver says:

What a beautiful piece. I’d not noticed these associations before. Thank you, and hag sameah!

a very beautiful idea and practical as well

i would just like to say that when speaking of our sages, such a sarcastic condescending tone does not shed such a positive light on the author’s levels of respect…

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Following the Breadcrumbs

Rabbinical reasoning behind our pre-Passover search for hametz leads Jews through a theological maze, but everything is illuminated at the end

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