Leaven (Hametz)

Three steps for ritually cleansing the home for Passover

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Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Passover (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The Bible prohibits the eating of leaven during the festival of Passover (Exodus 12:15-20). The Hebrew word "hametz"is translated as leavened bread and refers to food prepared from five species of grain--wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye--that has been allowed to leaven. To these, Ashkenazic [European Jewish] authorities add rice, millet, corn, and legumes. [It should be noted that the Conservative movement in Israel has declared that legumes may be consumed on Pesach even by its Ashkenazic followers.]

Matzah (unleavened bread) is made from any of these aforementioned five species of grain. It is customary, however, to make matzah from wheat flour only, and it is essential that the wheat and flour be given no chance to leaven. Hence, the grain used for matzah must be kept perfectly dry.

The rule against leaven applies not only to its consumption but also to enjoying any benefit thereof and even to its possession. Therefore, before the arrival of Passover, all leaven must be removed from one’s premises. Nor should one have leaven in his legal possession. In a simple economy, not having any leaven in one’s legal possession was easily accomplished. If by chance a bit of leaven was left, it could be disposed of with relative ease. When the economy became more complex, a new solution had to be found--selling one’s hametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Passover.

Selling the Leaven

It has been suggested that there was a transition period when leaven was sold, but to a non-Jewish friend with the full knowledge that it was a temporary sale. When this process led to collusion, it was instituted that at least outwardly the sale take a legal form using a formal bill of sale called a “shetar mikheera.” Today, the sale is usually carried out through the agency of the rabbi, in order to ensure that the proper form is maintained.

A “shetar harsha’ah,” an authorization, is drafted, which gives the rabbi power of attorney. Those persons who wish to sell their leaven sign their names under this agency appointment and authorize the rabbi to act on their behalf. The authorization empowers the rabbi to sell the leaven they own, and the place where it is stored, at terms that the rabbi sees fit. The rabbi keeps the authorization and sells the leaven to a non-Jew by means of a “shetar mikheera,” which contains all of the terms of the sale. At the conclusion of Passover, one buys it back. [In reality the leaven is often not removed from the premises.] While this transaction is not intended to be a real sale, nevertheless, since all the formal requirements of a legal sale have been met, it satisfies the requirement of the law forbidding the possession of leaven during Passover.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.