Jews around the world are scrambling to get ready for Pesach, the most stressful of all the Jewish holidays. For the uninitiated, Passover (as the holiday is also known) is where we eat that big cracker known as matzah while abstaining from bread. But what Jews are avoiding specifically is chametz, which refers to any sort of leavening in any bread products.
I’ve written about chametz before, so I won’t go into detail. But I will mention that Pesach is about freedom. Judaism recognizes a profound connection between slavery with this leavening quality known as chametz. Not only do we avoid chametz, it becomes flat out non-kosher. Like, next level non-kosher. Not only can you not eat it, you can’t derive benefit from it, and you’re not even allowed to own it.
Going paleo for a week might not seem that big of a deal, but when you realize that extends to your liquor cabinet… or say if you owned a sizable portion of a bread company… those would have to be sold! If that’s not enough, there are even MORE stringencies! Normally if you had a vat of chicken soup and a drop of pig fat fell into your soup, as long as that drop of swine juice was less than a 60th, you’re fine. The soup is still kosher. It is as if the pig fat drop is nullified. But on Pesach, chametz doesn’t benefit from the nullification of the 60th portion. Now you get why Pesach prep is so intense.
So after going through all the cleaning, we collect all the chametz items and we either sell them (literally, with a legal contract), destroy them (usually by burning), or declare them ownerless (this is kinda the easiest option.) But before these last steps, there is a ritual to make sure you’ve gotten every last crumb. This custom is known as bedikas chametz.
One Part Scavenger Hunt, One Part Spring Cleaning.
Bedikas chametz is done the evening before Pesach (or two evenings before if Shabbos goes straight into it). Members of the family gather and they search every nook and cranny by candle light only (though a flashlight is acceptable). The purists even use a feather and a wooden spoon to collect the crumbs. The hunt starts with an official bracha (blessing) “Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the removal of chametz.” Once all the stray breadcrumbs, Cheerios, and overlooked items (who knew there was wheat in those soy sauce packets?) are gathered, the declaration known as kol chamira is spoken. “All leaven or anything leavened which is in my possession, which I have neither seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.“
Also since you are using Hashem’s name in the blessing, some don’t want to risk making a bracha in vain. So to make sure they actually remove chametz, they will hide 10 pieces of chametz around the house to then find, making sure they fulfill the mitzvah. However, many Rabbis find this step unnecessary and even problematic, so not everyone does it.
This sure sounds like a fun family activity, something to get the kids in the spirit, and a good way to double check your work. But what if you’ve been thorough? What if you’re gluten free or you don’t eat bread at all? Is it really necessary? Absolutely!
Sourdough Soul Searching
Remember that chametz represents our egos and any element that is inhibiting our ability to attain freedom. And just to be clear, Judaism defines freedom as having the ability to do what is meaningful. Everyone is a slave to something, but being able to choose your slavery is what we’re talking about. The distractions, escapes, obsessions, and anything else that pulls us away from living a fulfilling life is what we’re trying to identify and get free from during this holiday. But the big question is, how serious are we about that? We may know that we waste hours of our day on numerous Youtube videos and endless scrolling, but what really are we going to do about it? We may uninstall the apps for a couple weeks but we’re not really serious about going back to the clamshell Nokia are we? Abstaining from chametz for one week is a tool to give us the opportunity for true freedom from these things. But is eating matzah really enough?
That’s where bedikas chametz comes in. Once we’ve done all the work, scrubbed, rekasherd, spent a fortune on a month’s worth of food for one week, it’s at that point we give our home a once over. But not in the usual way. You’d think if you were trying to find the last tiny crumbs, you’d want to do it in the bright light of day. Bedikas chametz must be done at night. You think you’d want all the lights on. Nope, just a candle. Why?
The ritual of bedikas chametz is about looking at things from a whole new perspective. If we are only looking at our problems and our behaviors from our point of view, we’re missing a whole lot about ourselves. We are victim to a blind spot. By looking for chametz at a different time, we think of new places to check. In a new setting of darkness, we trigger a whole other mood. By searching with the tiny illumination of a single candle (or cone of a flashlight) we are focusing our attention.
Freedom isn’t Free
Chances are we’re going to find something we missed; I know I always do. Bedikas chametz teaches us that if we’re serious about being free, if we’re not thorough when we search ourselves, we’re going to miss something. We have to be brutally honest about the things that might be holding us hostage. We might need to get a new perspective from someone to shine light on a place we haven’t thought to look. We might need to get out of our comfort zone to gain some objectivity. And we’re going to need to double check all the routines and givens to recognize a blind spot. But when we’ve given it our all, we have to recognize growth is a muscle and it might take a few more tries to get it right. So we have to declare we’ve done our best and the rest we can’t own up to right now.
If we put in that much time, consideration, and determination, we just might be able to welcome our chametz back after a week. But this time maybe they will serve us instead of the other way around.