Pesachim 23

Spiritual hametz.

Today’s daf finds us deep in a debate that began back on page 21a, where the mishnah taught that not only are we forbidden to eat hametz on Passover (starting from the middle of day on the 14th of Nisan), we are also forbidden to benefit from hametz in any way — such as feeding it to animals or earning money by selling it to a non-Jew. Naturally, the rabbis want to know the biblical source for this prohibition, and two opinions are recorded.

The first is the position of Hizkiyah, who argues that the Torah’s passive formulation in Exodus 13:3 of “hametz shall not be eaten” (as opposed to stating “‘you shall not eat hametz”) implies that no benefit is allowed.

The second opinion comes from Rabbi Abahu, who argues that every biblical prohibition against eating a certain food includes a prohibition against benefitting from that food in any way — unless the Torah specifies otherwise. Since the Torah does not explicitly allow us to benefit from hametz on Passover, this must mean that we are prohibited from both eating and benefitting.

For almost three pages, the Gemara analyzes and probes these two positions, poking holes in the rabbis’ arguments by bringing one example after another from the Torah that seem to contradict their views. It feels almost like an intellectual boxing match that carries on until the Gemara successfully defends both Rabbi Abahu and Hizkiya from every challenge and we arrive in the middle of 23b, breathless and ready to collapse.

It is at this moment that the Gemara realizes there is not much of a difference after all between these two scholars and their approaches. Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that the only practical difference between Hizkiya and Rabbi Abahu’s positions is whether it is a biblical or rabbinic prohibition to derive benefit from an unconsecrated animal that was slaughtered in the courtyard of the Temple.

Was it all an intellectual game? Sure, this type of scholarly gymnastics is a hallmark of the Talmud, which is more of a guide to or display of creative legal reasoning than a usable law code, but I can’t help feeling dissatisfied. After all, the prohibition against deriving any benefit from hametz during Passover is a pretty big deal; there must be something more to the argument between Hizkiya and Rabbi Abahu.

Rashi’s read of Hizkiya’s position, back on 21b, offers a meaningful insight. Rashi explains that, in Hizkiya’s view, the Torah’s passive articulation (“hametz shall not be eaten”) implies that using hametz in any way that could lead to eating is prohibited, even if what you put into your mouth is not actually hametz. For example, if I were to sell hametz, I might use that money to buy kosher for Passover food to eat during the holiday. Thus the hametz would enable me to eat, even if the food I eat is not itself hametz. 

Rashi’s explanation of Hizkiya’s position suggests to me a spiritual aspect to this discussion: we don’t want anything we eat to be “contaminated” by hametz, not even tangentially, because even indirect contact with hametz is enough for us to be affected by it. It’s not enough to destroy it and stop eating it — the level of dissociation from hametz required is much more significant if it is to have spiritual impact.  

There was a strain of thought in antiquity that understood the prohibition of leaven on Passover as a spiritual exercise. Yeast proves a powerful metaphor for misdeeds (see Berakhot 17a); given the right conditions and a little bit of time, a tiny bit of leavening can inflate a large mass of dough. Similarly, wrongdoing can permeate our lives and overtake us in the same way. Abstaining from leaven during Passover, including preventing it from passively being consumed (ie: benefitting from it), can be a way of symbolically enacting our desire to fully clear out our spiritual hametz, as well. 

Read all of Pesachim 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 14th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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