Why Are There Two Words for “Leaven” in the Torah?

Most of us may be familiar with the Hebrew word “chametz” (chet-mem-tzadi) as a term used to mean food not kosher for Peach. We associated the phrase “chametz and matzah” with the Pesach seder as well. I was interested in the original verse from the Torah, Exodus 12:17-20 (from The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by JPS) that mentions chametz:

In verses 17 and 18, we see reference to “matzah” as “unleavened bread”. However, in verse 19, the third Hebrew word is “s’or” (sin-alef-reish; translated as “leaven”)! Later in the verse (and in verse 20), we see variants of the Hebrew word chametz (machmetzet) and also translated as leaven. Both words (s’or and chametz) mean “leaven”, but they have different h roots in Hebrew from which we can derive some lessons before the Pesach festival begins on the evening of 3/30/18.

Chametz means “to leaven” (flour dough rising, because of yeast fermentation), but it also has the meaning of sour and degenerate.We think of chametz as the finished product (leavened bread). S’or (again translated as “to leaven”) also has the meaning of “to be left over”, or “to remain”. So, let’s look at the verses in the light of the root meanings of the Hebrew words. In the Torah, the first seder occurred in haste since the Jewish People and be ready to leave Egypt at a moments notice (bags packed, walking sticks ready to go). This was during the tenth plague (the slaying of the firstborn of the Egyptians, as Hashem “passed over” their houses.

From verse 19 we read “No leaven (s’or) shall be found in your houses for seven days.” The normal routine has been changed, there is no time to wait for dough to rise, we are leaving behind the past in a new rush to freedom. Nothing of the past reminding you of the haughtiness (which leaven is associated with) is to remain. neither the products (chametz) nor their base parts (s’or). Chametz is not to be “eaten”, but s’or is not to be found int he house. Finally in verse 20 we again read “You shall eat nothing leavened (machmetzet)…”

It is interesting, that chametz became to more common word for food not eaten on Pesach (regular bread or otherwise; consult a rabbi or see the codes of Jewish Law for foods that are considered “kosher l’pesach”). However, I found something interesting in the word s’or (spelled in the Torah as sin-alef-reish). The gematria (numerical analysis of the Hebrew word) of s’or (as spelled in the Torah) is 501. This is the same gematria (501) as the abbreviation of the ten plagues mentioned in the Haggadah by Rabbi Yehudah (from The Sefaria Haggadah with community translation):

While some commentators have attributed the abbreviation to either specific groupings of plagues, or just a mnemonic to remember them, the fact the the gematria of the abbreviations “d’tzach, adash, b’achav” is the same the word uncommon word for leaven ;”s’or” gives us a hidden meaning. By remembering the ten plagues (as embodied in the phrase “d’tzach, adash, b’achav“), is a reminder to us to leave behind (the other meaning of s’or) the problems of the past year (since the last seder) and move forward to a spiritual freedom!

Chag sameach!

About the Author
Jonathan Wolf is a retired high school physics teacher. He retired to NJ with his wife. He is an adjunct professor of physics at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has published professional papers and has been the author of AP Physics review books as well as general HS and college physics review books. He is a past President and ritual chairman at a conservative synagogue on Long Island, NY before he retired to NJ.
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