Checking for Chametz
Before the Fourteenth of Nisan
By Rav Yair Kahn
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
A. Thirty Days Before the Holiday
B. Before the Fourteenth
C. The Special Nature of the Fourteenth
A. THIRTY DAYS BEFORE THE HOLIDAY
Though the first mishna in Pesachim declares: "We check for chametz on the night of the fourteenth [of Nisan]," the obligation to check our houses may actually take effect earlier. Two passages in the gemara seem to present differing versions of when the obligation to check for chametz begins.
Source #1: Pesachim 4a
The gemara asks who is obligated to check a house that is rented out on the fourteenth of Nisan: Does the owner of the house check, because the chametz is within his property, or does the tenant check, because the chametz is in the house he is living in? Rav Nachman rules that the answer is dependent on when the keys were handed over to the tenant. If the keys were transferred to the tenant before the fourteenth of Nisan, the tenant is obligated to check; however, if at the start of the fourteenth the keys were still in the hands of the owner, the obligation falls upon him.
Rav Nachman's assumption is that the obligation to check takes effect on the FOURTEENTH, in accordance with the simple reading of the mishna mentioned above. Therefore, we assign the obligation of checking to the person who held the keys to the house when the fourteenth began.
Source #2: Pesachim 6a
"One who embarks on a sea voyage or joins a departing caravan more than thirty days before Pesach need not destroy the chametz [in his house], but one who leaves less than thirty days before Pesach must remove the chametz [in his house]. Said Rava: Only one who does not intend to return to his home [Rashi: during Pesach] need not destroy the chametz in his house if he leaves more than thirty days before Pesach. However, one who does intend to return must destroy the chametz in his house."
This passage in the gemara seems to maintain that the obligation to check for chametz takes effect THIRTY DAYS BEFORE PESACH (or, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, two weeks; see the continuation of the gemara on 6a and 6b). One who leaves his house earlier than that has no obligation to check. Later on, when Pesach comes, he is absolved from checking because he is simply too far away. He is therefore not responsible for any chametz in his possession during Pesach. One who knows that he will return to his house during Pesach must check prior to his departure and destroy his chametz. This is not because of any obligation to check per se, but rather in order to avoid finding himself on Pesach in a house full of chametz.
Three possible ways of resolving these two seemingly contradictory sources present themselves:
1. The obligation to check for chametz takes effect on the fourteenth (as indicated by the simple reading of the gemara on 4a and the first mishna of the tractate). The obligation to check within thirty days of Pesach stems from another source - "Starting thirty days before Pesach we ask questions and teach publicly about the laws of Pesach" (Pesachim 6a). Thirty days before Pesach we must begin to address ourselves to the approaching holiday.
Therefore, one who plans to leave home within that time period has no excuse for not having his house checked for chametz on the fourteenth. Although he will be far away from home on the relevant date, the fourteenth, he is required to plan ahead to make sure his house will have been checked when the day arrives. More than thirty days before Pesach, though, one need not be concerned about the holiday; when the fourteenth comes around he is not responsible for checking if he finds himself far away on that day. Although he is obligated to check his house, extenuating circumstances (distance) absolve him of that responsibility. However, within the thirty day period, since he must plan ahead for Pesach, the difficulty in checking is not considered extenuating circumstances, and the obligation to check remains.
[An analogous case: "Three days before Shabbat one may not embark on a sea voyage" (Shabbat 19a). Within three days before Shabbat - "mekamei Shabbat," the time period defined as "before Shabbat" (Ba'al Ha-ma'or) - one must be concerned about the problems a sea voyage presents for the approaching Shabbat. Before that, one need not be concerned about the issue. When Shabbat eventually arrives, he finds himself in a situation where extenuating circumstances (pikuach nefesh) allow him to remain on the vessel.]
2. The personal obligation TO CHECK takes effect thirty days before Pesach (6a); only WHICH HOUSE he checks is determined by the house which is under his control on the fourteenth (4a). This is the approach put forth by the Ra'avia (as explained by the Beit Yosef OC 436): "Avi Ha-ezri writes: A Jew who leaves the house of a Gentile within thirty days of Pesach must destroy the chametz [he leaves there]... for the obligation falls upon the Jew who leaves." The Beit Yosef explains: "For within thirty days of Pesach, the rabbinically mandated mitzva of bedikat chametz falls upon him."
3. The Yerushalmi (Pesachim 1:1) presents a subtly but significantly different version of this halakha:
"One who embarks on a sea voyage earlier than thirty days before [Pesach] need not check; within thirty days - he must check. This is the case if he intends to return; but if he does not intend to return he must even check even before thirty days."
Though there are those who tried to force a reading of this Yerushalmi that would make it similar to the Bavli, one can instead take it at face value. According to the Yerushalmi, the obligation to check for chametz takes effect thirty days before Pesach (similar to the Ra'avia's approach). One who intends to return home before Pesach can nevertheless perform his bedika (checking) before his departure, if it is within thirty days of Pesach, and thus fulfill the mitzva. If, however, he left home more than thirty days before Pesach, i.e., before the mitzva takes effect, he must postpone his checking until his return home (before Pesach). On the other hand, one who leaves home not intending to return before Pesach must check prior to his departure, even if it is more than thirty days before Pesach. Although he does not fulfill his obligation of bedikat chametz, he must check nevertheless. The Yerushalmi believes that even before thirty days there is no escaping responsibility for checking. In other words, extenuating circumstances do not absolve one of his obligation to check for chametz.
Thus, two basic approaches emerge, with one fixing the onset of the obligation to check for chametz at thirty days before Pesach, and the other limiting it to the fourteenth of Nisan.
There are several practical differences between these two approaches:
a. THE BERAKHA: According to the Ritva, one recites a blessing over bedikat chametz within thirty days of Pesach. This is in line with the Ra'avia's approach. The Sefer Ha-mikhtam disagrees and requires a blessing only when the house is checked on the fourteenth. The Rema rules in accordance with this opinion.
The Ritva quotes the Ra'a's opinion that even one checking for chametz before thirty days, without intention to return, makes a blessing over his bedika. Apparently, according to the Ra'a, the blessing is to be made any time a required bedika is performed, even before the normal obligation to check has taken effect.
b. USING A CANDLE: The gemara (Pesachim 7b) says: "The Sages taught: We should not check [for chametz] by the light of the sun or the light of the moon or the light of a torch, but [rather] by the light of a candle, for a candle light is efficient for checking."
The gemara derives this rule of checking with candle light from passages in Tanakh. Rabbenu David, in his commentary on Pesachim, believes that this is an "asmakhta" (a verse which the Sages connected to a particular halakha but which is not an actual source), and what the Sages really require is to check in the most efficient way possible. In the times of the Talmud there was nothing more effective than a candle. Tosafot R. Peretz, though, sees this as an actual "gezeirat ha-katuv" (prooftext); one must check by the light of a candle. (R. David and R. Peretz might then differ regarding the use of some other type of illumination that is more reliable than a candle.)
According to R. Peretz, if the mitzva of checking for chametz takes effect thirty days before Pesach, then one who checks during those thirty days but before the fourteenth must do it with a candle. If, however, checking before the fourteenth is not part of the mitzva of bedikat chametz, but simply a pragmatic way of preventing oneself from having chametz in his possession when Pesach comes, it might not require a candle. The use of a candle, if it is part of the mitzva of bedika (as R. Peretz claims), might only be required on the fourteenth.
In practice, then, one who leaves his dwelling place within thirty days of Pesach but before the fourteenth of Nisan should preferably check at night using the light of a candle (to take into account those whose opinion is that the mitzva to check has already taken effect) but should not say a berakha over the bedika (in accordance with the ruling of the Rema based on the opinion of the Sefer Ha-mikhtam).
B. BEFORE THE FOURTEENTH
Until now, we have discussed the possibility of fulfilling one's obligation to check, up to thirty days before Pesach. There is a parallel dispute among the Rishonim concerning a passage on Pesachim 4a which revolves around the possibility of doing bedika before the night of the fourteenth.
The gemara inquires why houses need to be checked on the night of the fourteenth when it is only forbidden to eat chametz from the sixth hour of the day of the fourteenth. Would it not be sufficient to check in the morning? The gemara answers: "Rav Nachman the son of Rav Yitzchak says: [We check at night, which is] when people are generally at home and [when] candlelight is best for checking." Some Rishonim emphasized the first reason - that people are generally at home - and others, the second - that candlelight works best at night.
The first reason for checking on the night of the fourteenth (and not the next morning) is that if bedikat chametz is set for a time when people are not usually at home, they will either forget or be unable to check. They therefore decreed that the bedika be done at night, after the work day, when all are in their homes. What would the Rishonim who emphasize this reason say about someone who wanted to check EARLIER than the night of the fourteenth? R. David and the Ran understood that according to the Ba'al Ha-ma'or one can check earlier than the night of the fourteenth because the reason that "People are generally at home" is not applicable, since checking earlier poses no new danger of missing the final date. Other Rishonim claim that the reason "People are generally at home" applies only to working people, but one who is unemployed can check later if he wants to.
The Yerushalmi mentions only the second reason, "Candlelight is best for checking." If this reason does not apply, for instance in a porch flooded with light, one need not check with candlelight on the night of the fourteenth. One could check either earlier or later.
R. David regards both of the reasons as essential; only when neither of them applies (as in a well-lit porch checked by a non-working person) can one check at a time other than the night of the fourteenth.
According to all of the opinions mentioned above, one could also check on the night of the THIRTEENTH. The Ba'al Ha-ma'or even allows for checking on the day of the thirteenth (since he emphasizes the reason "people are generally at home"). Even R. David, however, who requires that both reasons be fulfilled, would not object to one checking on the night of the thirteenth. People are in their homes and candlelight can be used efficiently.
The Ra'avan, in contrast, takes the position that checking can only be done on the night of the fourteenth. He proves his case by quoting the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 1:1):
"Do courtyards in Jerusalem where 'chalot toda' (the leavened breads of a thanks offering) and 'rekikei nazir' (the thin breads of the nazirite's sacrifice) are eaten, require checking for chametz? They are checked for 'notar' (forbidden leftovers from sacrifices) anyway."
Despite our certainty that there is no chametz there because they were already checked on the thirteenth for "notar," they are still to be checked on the night of the fourteenth. Apparently, says the Ra'avan, it is essential to check on the fourteenth, even if one checked previously.
The Gra rejects the Ra'avan's proof from the Yerushalmi. The reason that those courtyards had to be checked on the fourteenth even after having been checked for "notar" on the thirteenth is not because the mitzva of bedikat chametz can only be done on the fourteenth. Rather, it is because the one who checked on the thirteenth intended only to check for "notar," not for chametz. If, however, one had intended to check for chametz on the thirteenth, he would have fulfilled the mitzva of bedika.
[Whether one can conceive of bedikat chametz before the fourteenth will determine how another passage in the Yerushalmi should be punctuated. The Yerushalmi at the beginning of the tractate reads, "Let one check on the night of the thirteenth?! If so, one could check starting on Rosh Chodesh." The words "If so, ... Rosh Chodesh" are a simple statement according to the Gra, concluding that bedika can in fact be done from Rosh Chodesh. However, according to the Ra'avan it should be read as a rhetorical question, the conclusion being that one can check only on the fourteenth. (The Yerushalmi apparently assumes, like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, that two weeks before Pesach one should already be concerned about the holiday.)]
The Mordekhai (Pesachim 535) agrees with the Ra'avan's proof from the Yerushalmi, but claims that the Bavli conflicts with it. Therefore, one can (like the Gra) check on the night of the thirteenth.
In summary, three major approaches emerge:
1. According to the Ba'al Ha-ma'or, bedikat chametz can be done on the day or the night of the thirteenth.
2. According to R. David and most of the other Rishonim, one can check on the night of the thirteenth but not on the day.
3. According to the Ra'avan and the Terumat Ha-deshen, one can only check on the night of the fourteenth, and no earlier.
C. THE SPECIAL NATURE OF THE FOURTEENTH
Until now, we have assumed that bedikat chametz is limited to the night of the fourteenth (Ra'avan and Terumat Ha-deshen) because it is the closest time to Pesach that the Sages' two reasons apply (that people are in their homes, and that candlelight works well). There might be another reason, on a de-oraita (biblical) level, to limit checking to the night of the fourteenth.
The gemara (Pesachim 4-5) brings a number of derivations from the Torah to show that the biblical prohibition of chametz begins at chatzot (noon) on the day of the fourteenth. Some show that the mitzva of "tashbitu" (destroying chametz, Shemot 12:15) starts on the fourteenth. If we make the following three assumptions, there might be a biblical reason to limit checking to the night of the fourteenth:
1. "Tashbitu" is a mitzva to actively destroy chametz (see Gra, Minchat Chinukh mitzva 9, and Mordekhai 533);
2. the time for this mitzva is chatzot on the day of the fourteenth;
3. checking for chametz is the beginning of this process.
It is logical to say that the time for bedika must be on the day that the mitzva of "tashbitu" is to be kept. Earlier than the fourteenth, the bedika would not serve to fulfill this mitzva (see Mishna Berura 436:4). (The text of the berakha, "al bi'ur chametz," would support this.)
Why, though, is assumption #2 correct? Why should "tashbitu" take place on chatzot of the fourteenth? Why should the time for a mitzva not connected to the Pesach sacrifice be on the fourteenth, Pesach eve, and not on Pesach itself? The Torah commands, "Do not slaughter the Pesach sacrifice [on the fourteenth] while you still own chametz" (Shemot 23:18), but the mitzva of "tashbitu" is related not just to the Pesach sacrifice but to the general restriction of chametz on Pesach. Why must "tashbitu" take effect so early?
The answer lies in our understanding of a mishna on Pesachim 50a: "In a place where people are accustomed to do work on the morning of Erev Pesach (the fourteenth) until noon, one can work; in a place where people are accustomed not to, one may not." After noon, work is prohibited according to halakha; before then, it is dependent on custom.
Tosafot explain, based on the Yerushalmi, that work is prohibited on the day that the Pesach sacrifice is offered. Rishonim differ about whether there is still a prohibition nowadays when the sacrifice is not brought. The Ramban believes that work is still prohibited today because the prohibition is not just for the sake of the sacrifice, but in order to enable people to prepare properly for the seder night.
The mishna records the custom not to do work from the morning on. R. David explains that the connection between the sacrifice and work extends to the whole day; the day the sacrifice was to be brought was treated as a "yom tov" (see Yerushalmi 4:6). We could, though, apply this expansion to the Ramban's approach and view the whole day as devoted to preparing for the seder and the holiday. Any normal work that would detract from one's focus on these approaching events was to be avoided. [See Mo'ed Katan 13a - "Certain work was permitted on the fourteenth because it was necessary for the yom tov."]
It therefore is very appropriate that the mitzva of "tashbitu" should take place specifically on the fourteenth.
Based on this understanding of the nature of the fourteenth of Nisan, one can view the fourteenth as the time period when the mitzva of bedikat chametz applies. Anyone who checks before the fourteenth has done a mitzva before its appointed time (like eating matza before Pesach). Only on the fourteenth, the day the halakha designated for Pesach preparations, is there significance to checking the house for chametz. It is worth noting that the Yerushalmi (and the Mekhilta de-Rashbi) derives the law of checking for chametz on the night of the fourteenth from the passage "'Watch this day' (Shemot 12:17) - the day and the night should be watched." There is a special requirement that on the fourteenth the house be cleared of chametz through checking and destroying. This might very well be based on the nature of the day in the eyes of the halakha - a day dedicated to preparing for Pesach.