The Meaning of the Prohibition against Chametz – Pride in Relation to God

The prohibition against chametz (leavened bread) on Passover is especially stringent, for the Torah not only forbade eating it, but commanded that it not be seen nor found in our possession. Our Sages further forbade eating any food with even the slightest amount of chametz mixed in. Thus the avoidance of chametz on Passover is absolute. This is because chametz symbolizes evil, as it says in the Zohar (2:40b) that chametz is the evil impulse. Specifically, it alludes to the impulse of pride. Fermentation causes dough to rise – it looks as though the dough is inflating itself and puffing up with pride, as an arrogant person would. In contrast, matzah, which remains in its original size, as it was when God created it, symbolizes the trait of humility.

At first glance, this is difficult to understand. If chametz represents the evil inclination, then why is there no commandment or custom to avoid it throughout the year? On the contrary, man is praised for knowing how to make wheat into tasty chametz cakes (see Tanchuma Tazri’a 5). This was the Creator’s purpose in endowing man with the wisdom and practical skills to engage in developing the world. God created an imperfect world intentionally, so that man could imitate His deeds and participate in improving the world through scientific and technological development.

The answer is that there are two types of pride: One is that man exaggerates his own praiseworthiness and thinks he is wiser, stronger, and better than he really is. Any intelligent person understands that such pride harms one’s ability to actualize his potential for the betterment of the world. His ability to judge is completely impaired, and he cannot conduct his life properly. Clearly, such pride is inappropriate all year long and has nothing to do with the prohibition of chametz. On the contrary, such pride detracts from one’s good works and thus harms the good, year-round chametz.

The second type of pride, which corresponds to chametz on Passover, is man’s pride vis-à-vis his Creator, his God. Jewish faith is predicated on the acknowledgment that God created the world and determined its destiny, and that the roots of all things depend on Him alone. Although God gave man the ability to improve and to develop the world, this is limited to manipulating and developing the outgrowths of the root elements of creation; man has no power over the root elements, which are divine creations. God created the world, chose the people of Israel to be His am segula, His treasured nation, and gave them the Torah. Man has no authority to call these fundamental principles into question. Therefore, when one stands before his Creator, he must envelop himself in humility and make every effort not mix his petty human thoughts with the fundamental principles of creation. Such confusion, like chametz on Passover, is forbidden.

Passover, and especially the Seder, is designed to instill in us the fundamentals of faith: that the world has a Creator, that He watches over His creatures, and that He chose the people of Israel to reveal His name in the world. Whenever there is revelation of an aspect of the divine in the world, it appears in a completely miraculous fashion, to show that it is not a human endeavor. Thus, the Exodus was accompanied by signs and wonders, to make public that the election of Israel was a divine matter. Similarly, the Torah was given with obvious miracles, to a generation that lived miraculously for forty years in the desert, in order to make it known that this was an entirely divine matter. In other words, we receive the fundamental principles of faith from God – we do not invent them. Whoever mixes some human aspect into these basic principles of faith is guilty of idolatry. This is alluded to in Zohar’s statement that chametz on Passover is idolatry (2:182a).

Therefore, on Passover, the holiday geared toward imparting the fundamentals of faith, we are commanded to be extremely cautious to avoid eating and possessing even a smidgen of chametz, which symbolizes our human aspects that must not get mixed in when we speak about the roots and foundations of faith. During the rest of the year, however, when we are involved with developing and improving the branches, chametz is allowed, and even desirable.

The Meaning of Matzah

Matzah, symbolizing our recognition that the spiritual roots of things are beyond our grasp even though God granted us the ability to operate within and improve the world, is the opposite of chametz. Therefore, on Passover, when we are engaged with the most fundamental elements of faith, we do not mix even one iota of chametz in our food. We eat only matzah, which remains simple and thin throughout its baking, without going through any additional process of swelling.
Through our humility before God, expressed in the matzah, we internalize the faith, first revealed at the Exodus from Egypt, that God actively watches over the world and elected Israel. Certainly, there were elite individuals who believed in God even before the Exodus, but their connection with the divine was of a personal nature. The wholeness of faith was first revealed only at the Exodus, with the formation of a complete nation containing all strata of society destined to manifest God’s name in the world.

Matzah comes to remind us of faith and is therefore called the “food of faith” (meikhla de-mehemnuta) by the Zohar (2:183b). By eating matzah on the Seder night with the proper intent, one achieves faith, and by eating matzah all seven days of Passover, one implants that faith firmly in one’s heart (Pri Tzadik, Pesach 9).

Since matzah signifies faith, it is understandable that its entire manufacturing process must be performed very meticulously. This is because the roots of all things depend on faith, and any small flaw in faith can cause tremendous destruction in the world.

We can thus understand why the nation of Israel came into being as slaves in Egypt. All other nations develop naturally, from the ground up, from family to clan to tribe to nation. As they grow, they develop cultures that evolve out of the circumstances of their lives, the climate of their territories, and their conflicts with their neighbors. As part of the emergence of their culture, they develop some type of deistic belief. Since human beings are involved in their invention, such beliefs are idolatrous.

In contrast, Israel became a nation as slaves, devoid of any culture. They could not develop their own culture while enslaved and lacking national self-esteem. At the same time, Egyptian culture was foreign to them and possibly despised by them, as it was associated with their tormentors. Israel was thus a tabula rasa, free of preconceived notions, and perfectly capable of absorbing the true faith based on divine revelation and accepting the Torah without introducing human considerations into its fundamental principles. The impoverished, unembellished matzah alludes to the condition of the Israelites at that time.

One Who Degrades the Festivals

An important principle is articulated in Mishna Avot (3:11):

Rabbi Elazar Ha-Moda’i says: ‘One who desecrates sacred things, one who degrades the festivals … and one who expounds the Torah not in accordance with halakha, even if he has Torah study and good deeds to his credit, has no share in the World to Come.’”

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook would ask how one with Torah study and good deeds to his credit could not have a share in the World to Come. Moreover, since the Mishna does not specify how much Torah study and good deeds this person has to his credit, it is implied that even if the person is a great Torah scholar, highly scrupulous in his observance of mitzvoth, and a doer of many good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come since he degrades the festivals and expounds the Torah not in accordance with the halakha.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda went on to describe one who greatly respects tradition and is meticulous about fulfilling the halakhic requirements of the Seder, but considers it all the product of human intelligence. He explains that the importance of the Passover holiday and the Seder lies in the parents passing their traditions on to the next generations, imparting to them the moral principles of human liberty and a sense of mission to improve the world. The matzah merely concretes Israel’s historical consciousness, and the four cups of wine simply add a dimension of joy. Even though all of these lovely ideas are true, the central fundamental principle is missing: that God chose us from among all nations, gave us the Torah, and commanded us to celebrate Passover and eat matzah on the Seder night.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda’s hypothetical Jew similarly honors Shabbat as a day when the family spends time together and grows closer, and when hardworking people can rest and engage in spiritual pursuits. The good-meaning Jew even adds: “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews.” He forgets only one thing: that God commanded us to observe Shabbat, down to its finest detail.

This is what the Mishna meant by “one who expounds the Torah not in accordance with halakha.” Even though he studies it diligently, to him it is not God’s Torah but merely human wisdom, so he allows himself to interpret it any way that comes to mind. Thus he degrades the festivals; he thinks they are customs and traditions that human beings invented to give expression to all sorts of spiritual notions, thereby denying that they are God-given mitzvoth of the Torah. Therefore, even though he may have studied much Torah and performed many good deeds, and he is thought of as a good, honorable man in this world – he has no connection with holiness. He has no share in the eternal historical mission of the Jewish people, and thus has no share in the World to Come.

These excerpts were taken from Rabbi Melamed’s highly popular series on Jewish Law and thought, “Peninei Halakha:Pesach”, and were translated from Hebrew. Three books from the series – Pesach, Tefila, and Z’manim—have already been translated into English, and can be read in their entirety at: