Hameitz: Laws and Customs

By Alan Lucas
Adapted from The Observant Life

There are few aspects of Jewish observance as complicated as preparing for Passover. The Torah, at Exodus 12:15–20, prohibits the eating of leavened food, popularly called hameitz, during the entire festival. But the situation is even more stringent than that, for the halakhah forbids not only eating hameitz, but even deriving any benefit from it or permitting the presence in our homes of any hameitz that belongs to us during the entire festival period. It is this last requirement that results in the kind of intense labor most of us associate with preparing for Passover.

The forbidden substance, hameitz, is defined as any food made of any of the five species of grain—wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye—that has been made wet with water, then left unbaked for more than eighteen minutes. Baking halts the leavening process, so if water is added to any of the above grains but baked within the eighteen-minute period, it is deemed to be unleavened. This is why matzah is called “unleavened bread,” as it is supervised to give assurance that no more than eighteen minutes ever elapse between the time the water is added and the time it finishes baking. To the five original grains, Ashkenazic custom adds rice, corn, millet, and certain kinds of legumes, generally called kitniyyot, for reasons that are explained below.

בדיקת חמץ: The Search for Hameitz

Since the possession of any amount of hameitz at all is considered a violation of the law, great effort must be made to remove all food substances that contain hameitz from the home before Passover. After intense cleaning and the removal of all visible hameitz, a search—popularly called b’dikat hameitz—is undertaken the night before Passover after sundown. (This search takes place on Thursday evening when the first night of Passover falls on Saturday night.) Since, by now, almost all hameitz should have been removed from the house, it is customary to leave a few crumbs of bread or cake (or any leavened substance) around the house so that something can be found and the search will not feel as though it were carried out in vain. A candle is lit and used to search out the hameitz hidden in even the darkest recesses of the house.

The blessing recited before the search can be found at the beginning of the Passover Haggadah (a one-page version adapted from the Feast of Freedom Haggadah is available here). Then, after the search concludes, a special prayer is recited that declares any unlocated hameitz to be null and void, “as if it did not exist,” and affirms that a good-faith effort was made to find and remove all hameitz in one’s possession. The text of this declaration too can be found in the front of any Passover Haggadah. One who is away from home on the night before Pesah can perform the b’dikah earlier (Magein Avraham to SA Orah Hayyim 432:6; Mishnah B’rurah ad loc., note 10). Those who will be away for the entire holiday can sell their hameitz early and not be obligated for b’dikah (Mishnah B’rurah to SA Orah Hayyim 436:32).

בעור חמץ: The Destruction of Hameitz

The next morning we participate in a ceremonial burning of the small amount of hameitz that was found during the search the night before. This ceremonial burning is called biur hameitz (“destruction of hameitz”). This can be done at home, but some communities sponsor communal bonfires where the public brings hameitz for burning. A declaration similar to the one made after the search for leaven the previous evening is recited following the burning of the hameitz. The remaining crumbs of hameitz must be destroyed long before noon on the day before Passover (Most synagogues announce the precise time by which the hameitz must be destroyed so as not to require individuals to calculate the precise time on their own).

The deadline for actually eating hameitz, however, is even earlier than that. Nor, however, may matzah be eaten on the eve of Passover until the seder meal itself (SA Orah Hayyim 471:2). And some suggest that one should not eat matzah from Rosh Hodesh Nisan on in order to increase one’s appetite for the mitzvah of matzah on the first night of Passover (Mishnah B’rurah to SA Orah Hayyim, loc. cit., note 11).

מכירת חמץ: The Selling of Hameitz

Finally, there is the custom of selling hameitz (M’khirat Hameitz documents are available for RA members here and here). The original intention of tradition was completely to rid one’s house of all traces of hameitz. As time went on and households grew in size, this became more difficult, more costly, and more wasteful. In turn, this led to the creation of a legal mechanism known as m’khirat hameitz, the selling of leavened foods. The procedure is as follows. All remaining hameitz is put out of sight for the entire length of the festival. It is then formally sold to a non-Jew. Even though it remains in the house, it is no longer deemed technically to be in one’s legal possession and thus, equally technically, not to contravene the requirement to rid one’s home of hameitz. This hameitz may be purchased back after the conclusion of the holiday. Most often, this sale is a service arranged by synagogues with the rabbi acting as the community’s agent. Through a formal procedure, interested parties give the rabbi the authority to sell their remaining hameitz, which is accomplished through a formal transaction with a non-Jew some time before the deadline for possessing hameitz in a Jewish home. The sale involves certain requirements on the part of the purchaser, however, and, when the non-Jewish purchaser does not complete the requirements of the sale at the end of the holiday, the hameitz reverts back to its original owners. Some rabbis actually repurchase the hameitz formally to restore it to its original owners after the festival ends.

In any event, it is not sufficient merely to store away hameitz in a Jewish home over Passover and not sell it formally because of the concept of hameitz she-avar alav ha-Pesah, hameitz after the holiday ends that somehow remained in the possession of a Jew during Passover. Any such hameitz may not be eaten after Passover, as a kind of punishment for ignoring this stricture against owning hameitz during the festival. So it is important to either get rid of or sell hameitz before Passover.