By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)


What is chametz?. 2

Chametz Parallels Idolatry. 3

Chametz = Ego. 3

Chametz = Yetzer HaRa. 4

In The Temple. 5

Spring Cleaning. 5

Selling Leaven. 5

Search for Leaven. 5

Burning Leaven. 5

Pesach to Shavuot 5

Halacha. 6

Conclusion. 6


In this study I would like to look at chametz, leaven, and it’s details, symbolism, and implications. Jews approach the spiritual through our involvement in the physical. chametz (leaven) is the physical component that includes a spiritual component. In fact, real spirituality comes from being able to see through mundane physical objects, to their spiritual core. Further, we see the physical as bridge to the spiritual because Judaism recognizes that the physical has been created as a visceral mirror for abstract spiritual concepts. One of the goals of this study is to understand the spiritual component of chametz.


Let’s start by examining the Torah prohibition against chametz on Pesach (Passover):


Shemot (Exodus) 12:15-20 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast (chametz). On the first day remove the yeast(chametz) from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast (chametz) in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat--that is all you may do. "Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast (chametz), from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. For seven days no yeast (chametz) is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast (chametz) in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. Eat nothing made with yeast (chametz). Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread."


Shemot (Exodus) 13:6-7 For seven days eat bread made without yeast (chametz)  and on the seventh day hold a festival to HaShem. Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast (chametz)  be seen anywhere within your borders.


Although chametz is often translated as “leaven,” the term has a much more precise definition. Chametz means wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye that has become wet and allowed to remain for a short period of time (18 minutes) so that it begins the leavening process.


On Pesach we are forbidden to own chametz (leavened bread, i.e., virtually any flour product not especially produced for Pesach) or have it in our possession. On the evening preceding Pesach there is a serious search of the home for chametz.


The prohibition on eating chametz (leavened bread) on Pesach is different from all other prohibitions in the Torah. This begins from the fact that the prohibition is only for seven days. The simple question is: If chametz is bad, for some reason, it should be prohibited all year; and if not, why is forbidden on Pesach?


All other food prohibitions fall into two possible categories; either eating, or all benefit, is forbidden. Indeed, chametz falls into the latter category. However, in addition, there is a prohibition called "lo yeira'eh lekha". chametz may not be in your possession all the days of Pesach. There is no prohibition on having ham in one's home, but chametz must be gotten rid of before Pesach. That is why Pesach is the cause of massive spring cleaning in Jewish homes, as we conduct an obsessive search to root out any crumbs that might be lurking somewhere. There is no other prohibition like this.


On Pesach, we are enjoined to strike out the very existence of chametz from our lives. chametz is not to be found anywhere "in your borders." According to the Ramban, the aim is that chametz not be found "in your mind," it should be like dust in your eyes.


What is so bad with chametz that we are set to destroy it, and why does our attitude change so completely seven days later?


What is chametz?


Our Hakhamim specified five grains which can become chametz: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. Ashkenazi authorities added to this list rice and kitniot, or legumes (including beans, peas, lentils, corn and maize, millet, and mustard). Sephardic authorities, prohibit only the five specified grains, thus Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat legumes and rice during Pesach.


During the eight days of Pesach (in the diaspora), chametz cannot lose its identity in an admixture (the ratio needed is usually 1/60). Therefore, the minutest amount of chametz renders the whole admixture chametz and its use on Pesach is prohibited. However, during the rest of the year, chametz follows the normal rules of admixture, i.e. it loses its identity in an admixture of non-chametz. This affords us the opportunity to differentiate between foods purchased before and during Pesach.


The Sages teach us that there is no punishment for eating less that kazait, the bulk of an olive, of forbidden food, if done accidentally. So, if a drop of milk accidentally falls in the beef stew, we are allowed to eat it. But one Torah prohibition does not follow this standard, chametz. If we even so much as possess, much less eat, the tiniest speck of chametz during Pesach, the punishment is keret, spiritual excision. We have no other mitzva like it. This mitzva declares that we are to live in the moment which is beyond the reach of the yetzer hara, a moment beyond time.


Shemot (Exodus) 12:15 Anyone who eats chametz, that individual will be cut off from the Jewish people.


Chametz which remains in the possession of  a Jew over Pesach may not be used, eaten, bought or sold even after Pesach.


Given the nature of modern food technology, that results in the necessity that any processed food have special Pesach supervision.


חמץ - chametz

מצה - Matza


chametz (leaven) shares nearly the identical letters with matza (unleavened bread). The only difference is that one has a chet (ח) and the other has a hay (ה). A careful examination of these two letters will reveal that the only difference is one very tiny line. A line so short it is just a point.


What is the difference between matza and chametz? To bake matza, we must have the matza cooked within eighteen minutes of the time we first add water to the flour. If we go eighteen minutes and one seconds, the matza becomes chametz.


The difference is one second! The same ingredients that make matza, if left an extra second will become chametz. Again, the difference is very tiny.


On Pesach, eating matza is a mitzva and eating chametz is a grave sin which cause a soul to be cut off from Israel. The very same material can either be spiritual rocket fuel or spiritual excision; all for the sake of one second!


Keep in mind that the number eighteen is written in Hebrew as: יח These two letters can be reversed to spell: חי Which is the Hebrew word for life!


Now if we eat chametz at Pesach, the penalty is spiritual excision:


Shemot (Exodus)12:15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.


Shemot (Exodus) 12:19 Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land.


WOW! If we eat matza at Pesach, it is a mitzva derisa and we enter the sublime spiritual realms because of the mitzva. But, if we eat the same stuff that took a second longer to cook, we are completely cut off from Israel! Such is the transcendent level that Jews are to live. Time is important!


Chametz Parallels Idolatry


The Zohar equates chametz and idolatry:


Zohar 2:182 Whoever eats chametz on Pesach is as if he prayed to an idol.


R. Menachem Kasher[1] draws a series of halakhic parallels between the laws of idolatry and the laws of chametz:


  1. The prohibition of even seeing it.


  1. The requirement to burn it, to eradicate its existence.


  1. The prohibition not only of eating but of any manner of benefit from it.


  1. The prohibition of even the most minuscule particle. This is true for idolatry and chametz, but is not true for any other prohibitions in Jewish law.]


Chametz = Ego


Some have observed that chametz, the air that puffs up dough into bread, is the ego. Just as chametz makes bread look bigger than it is without adding any substance, so too an ego filled with self-importance is ultimately nothing but hot air.


Ego, though, has a purpose that is good. Any psychologist will tell you that a healthy ego is a powerful motivator, giving people the courage to pursue their dreams and stand up for what is right. The ego drives us to build the world, to accomplish the tasks that HaShem has set before us. Though we think that we are building up ourselves, in reality we are usually building the world in a very real way. Because we wish to be seen and appreciated by others, we perform tasks and mitzvot which ultimately build the world and accomplish the purposes of HaShem. Thus we see that the ego is a good thing and that our goal should be the mastering of the ego for HaShem’s work.


chametz is nothing but puffed up matza. But what chametz is actually made out of is nothing less than matza itself! So too there is an idea that the ego is nothing but a corrupt twisted desire that actually has its basis in a drive coming from the soul. For example:


The soul wants only to give, to help humanity and fix the world. The ego's perverted version of this noble drive is the desire for power and control, the urge to conquer the world.


The soul wants to connect with the Divine. The ego wants to use spirituality to serve its needs (this is the basis for idol worship).


The soul wants to connect with other people meaningfully. The ego corrupts this desire into a drive to manipulate and take from people.


By seeing that often the ego is nothing but a corruption of a noble desire we can easily move past it and bring even the ego to serve HaShem.


Chametz = Yetzer HaRa


The Ramchal zt”l  teaches us that chametz is a symbol of yetzer hara, the evil inclination. This urge to sin is a force given to us by HaShem to balance the yetzer tov, the good inclination. With these two in balance, we have the free will to choose the good or the evil. Without the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov we would not have free will.


The yetzer hara is also the desire which pushes us to marry in order to fulfill lust. It is the desire which pushes us to build a house in order to marry. It is the desire which pushes us to work hard in order to gain the money or power that we covet. But, in the end, each of these selfish acts is used by HaShem to build His world and to cause us to do His will. Our goal is to bring the yetzer hara under our control to eliminate the lust, love for money, love for power, and every other selfish desire. Our goal is to use the yetzer hara to bring about the world desired by HaShem.


Sometime, on a future Pesach, the yetzer hara will finally be destroyed and we will enjoy the reward that came from over-coming the yetzer hara. Then we will no longer have to battle the yetzer hara, and we can enjoy the reward that we earned by controlling the yetzer hara.


Berachot 17a R. Alexandri on concluding his prayer used to add the following: Sovereign of the Universe, it is known full well to Thee that our will is to perform Thy will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough and the subjection to the foreign Powers. May it be Thy will to deliver us from their hand, so that we may return to perform the statutes of Thy will with a perfect heart!


When the chametz enters the dough mixture through the air or water, it is acting independently, intruding on its own. Fermentation, chametz, is a function of nature which symbolizes the negative forces of civilization which sway man from his responsibilities, which entice man to sin. This is how evil works, it sneaks up quietly and unobtrusively. Fermentation represents the evil urge, the urge to sin, the influence of alien ideas and forces. It is the voice that encourages us to ignore the pushy power of evil until it is too late. Flour and water which stand for more than eighteen minutes become by definition chametz, leaven. Because matza is bread which is not leavened, it represents man in control of his passions, exercising his independent disciplined will unflayed by external forces. Matza is the very opposite of chametz. It is a man who is alert, on the defensive, disciplined and in control, rising above the forces of nature.


Pesach is the time of freedom, spiritual freedom (which is the essence of why HaShem brought us out of Egypt). The only thing that stands between you and HaShem, is you. To come close to HaShem (which is the essence of life and the opportunity of every mitzva and holiday), one must remove his yetzer hara. One must choose the good! This is the lesson of removing the chametz from our possession.


The Sages teach that the yetzer hara, evil inclination, cannot touch one who acts immediately at the flash of inspiration from HaShem. If we live at that transcendental moment, we will live beyond the reach of Paro’s magicians, beyond the reach of evil. Then HaShem will reward us midda kneged midda, measure for measure.


Our Sages have told us that chametz and the preparations associated with it are extremely symbolic. Chametz represents the evil within us, our yetzer hara, our evil inclination. It represents all of our character flaws such as haughtiness, jealousy, unbridled passion and lust. Just as we need to remove every speck of chametz from our household, so too we need to remove every speck of spiritual chametz from our beings. Just as much time and effort is expended on preparing ourselves physically for Pesach, by removing any hint of chametz, we must also exert much time and effort on preparing ourselves spiritually for Pesach, by working on improving our character, which is accomplished by removing all the evil traits we unfortunately carry with us. Then, and only then, can we stand before HaShem.


In The Temple


Among the many laws of offerings to be brought in the Beit HaMikdash, there is a curious restriction: no chametz may be brought on the altar as part of the various meal-offerings. We can’t bring chametz on Pesach:


Shemot (Exodus) 34:25 Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with chametz; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left unto the morning.


Nor can we bring chametz to the altar at any other time:


Vayikra (Leviticus) 2:11 No meat offering, which ye shall bring unto HaShem, shall be made with chametz: for ye shall burn no chametz, nor any honey, in any offering of HaShem made by fire.


So when do we bring leaven to the Temple?


Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks. It is also the festival designated as the time to bring first fruits from the new crop in the Land of Israel to the Temple. Shavuot is linked to Pesach by the Omer. We count seven cycles of seven days from Pesach and then we celebrate Shavuot. Pesach is the start of a process; Shavuot is the end. On Pesach, we remove all leaven and eat only unleavened bread. On Shavuot, we bring loaves of leaven.


Spring Cleaning


The Passover home atmosphere is created by the practice of cleansing the home of all traces of chametz, or leaven, and by the careful avoidance of its use throughout the holiday, both at home and away.


The term chametz is applied not only to foods, but also to the dishes and utensils in which foods are prepared or served during the year. 'These may not be used during Pesach, except as indicated.


Selling Leaven


MECHIRAT CHAMETZ - The Selling of Leaven: According to the Biblical injunction that "no leaven shall be seen or found in your possession, “during Pesach, one must dispose of all non-Pesach foods for the full week of Pesach.


Torah law prohibits the use or legal possession of any chametz, leaven of any kind, on Pesach. In order to be certain that all chametz has been removed from our possession, Jewish tradition requires us to sell our remaining chametz to a non-Jew. This chametz, then, becomes the property of the non-Jew for the duration of Pesach and should be set aside in a place in one's home that will be unused during Pesach.


The authorization of the right to sell chametz can be granted to another. In order to symbolize that one is transferring the authority to sell, it is customary to make a token monetary transfer. The money contributed will be used to provide needy families with Pesach necessities.


Search for Leaven


BEDIKAT CHAMETZ - The Search for Leaven: Taking place the evening before the first Seder, (except when Pesach begins on a Saturday night), this ceremony is the climax of the Pesach preparation. Ten pieces of chametz are hidden around the house. The family gathers together with a candle for lighting the way, a feather for brushing-up the chametz, and a wooden spoon onto which the chametz is brushed.


Burning Leaven


BIUR CHAMETZ - The Burning of Leaven: The crumbs of bread that have been gathered the night before are put together in a bundle and burned the morning before Pesach. The appropriate prayers can be found in any Haggada.


Pesach to Shavuot


The seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot is a time when we move from matza to chametz.




1. Chametz may not be eaten in any form on Pesach, for seven days (eight outside of Israel).


2. It is prohibited to have chametz in your possession during Pesach (beginning one hour before noon on the day before.). Either one simply gets rid of it all, or it can be sold to a non-Jew through the offices of your local Hakham.


3. The night BEFORE Pesach, one searches through the entire house to insure that there is no chametz around. The found chametz, and any left over, is burnt the next morning. One mentally removes any remaining chametz from one's mind and makes it "hefker" (free, un-owned).




In the ultimate sense, fermentation is not merely a process which does not take place in matza. That is its lesson. In reality it was Israel who had become fermented, up to the point where they almost became chametz. It was HaShem who saved Israel from becoming chametz, which would have spelled Israel's destruction. It was the redeeming hand of HaShem which guaranteed that Israel would "remain matza" for all time to come.




Soncino Zohar, Bereshit, Section 1, Page 157a As R. Hiya and R. Jose were once walking on the road, the latter said: ‘Every time we walk together and discuss matters pertaining to the Torah, God performs for us miracles, and now that we have a long road before us let us occupy ourselves in the Torah and so God will join us.’ R. Hiya then opened with the verse: In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread (Ex. XII, 18). ‘This unleavened bread’, he said, ‘is called in another place “bread of affliction” (Deut. XVI, 3), an expression on which the companions have commented as follows. When Israel were in Egypt they were under an alien power; and when God desired to bring them near unto Himself, He assigned them the region of the bread of ’oni (affliction), the term ’oni admitting also of the reading ’ani (poor), and thus pointing to King David, who said of himself: “for I am poor (’ani) and needy” (Ps. LXXXVI, 1). Now this bread of affliction is called matza (unleavened bread), symbolic of the female principle, which without the male principle is, so to speak, in poverty. Thus Israel were first brought near the grade symbolized by matza. But afterwards God caused them to enter other grades, until the male principle joined the female principle, and so matza received the addition of the letter vav, symbolic of the male principle, and became converted into mitzva (command, precept). So Scripture says: “For this commandment” (Deut. XXX, 7): first matza (unleavened bread), then mitzva (commandment).’


* * *


This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

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[1] Haggada Shelema by R. Menachem Kasher, Appendix #7