There are few aspects of Jewish observance as complicated as preparing for Passover and ḥameitz.
The Torah, at Exodus 12:15–20, prohibits the eating of leavened food, popularly called ḥameitz (also written chametz, hametz), during the entire festival. But the situation is even more stringent than that, for the halakhah (Loosely translated as Jewish law) forbids not only eating ḥameitz, but even deriving any benefit from it or permitting the presence in our homes of any ḥameitz 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, ḥameitz, 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 (also spelled kitniyot, qitniyot), for reasons that are explained below.
The Hunt for Ḥameitz
Since the possession of any amount of ḥameitz at all is considered a violation of the law, great effort must be made to remove all food substances that contain ḥameitz from the home before Passover. After intense cleaning and the removal of all visible ḥameitz, a search—popularly called b’dikat ḥameitz (also spelled bedikat ḥameitz)—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 ḥameitz 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 ḥameitz 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. Then, after the search concludes, a special prayer is recited that declares any unlocated ḥameitz 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 ḥameitz 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 Pesaḥ can perform the b’dikah earlier (Magein Avraham to SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 432:6; Mishnah B’rurah ad loc., note 10). Those who will be away for the entire holiday can sell their ḥameitz early and not be obligated for b’dikah (Mishnah B’rurah to SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 436:32).
The next morning we participate in a ceremonial burning of the small amount of ḥameitz that was found during the search the night before. This ceremonial burning is called bi’ur ḥameitz (“destruction of ḥameitz”). This can be done at home, but some communities sponsor communal bonfires where the public brings ḥameitz for burning. A declaration similar to the one made after the search for leaven the previous evening is recited following the burning of the ḥameitz.
The remaining crumbs of ḥameitz must be destroyed long before noon on the day before Passover. (Most synagogues announce the precise time by which the ḥameitz must be destroyed so as not to require individuals to calculate the precise time on their own.)
When do we stop eating Ḥameitz?
The deadline for actually eating ḥameitz, however, is even earlier than that. Nor, however, may matzah be eaten on the eve of Passover until the seder meal itself (SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 471:2). And some suggest that one should not eat matzah from Rosh Ḥodesh 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 Oraḥ Ḥayyim 471:2, note 11).
Finally, there is the custom of selling ḥameitz.
The original intention of tradition was to completely rid one’s house of all traces of ḥameitz. 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 ḥameitz (also spelled mechirat ḥametz), the selling of leavened foods.
The procedure is as follows:
All remaining ḥameitz 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 ḥameitz.
This ḥameitz 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 ḥameitz, which is accomplished through a formal transaction with a non-Jew some time before the deadline for possessing ḥameitz 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 ḥameitz reverts back to its original owners. Some rabbis actually repurchase the ḥameitz formally to restore it to its original owners after the festival ends.
In any event, it is not sufficient merely to store away ḥameitz in a Jewish home over Passover and not sell it formally because of the concept of ḥameitz she-avar alav ha-Pesaḥ; ḥameitz after the holiday ends, that somehow remained in the possession of a Jew during Passover. Any such ḥameitz may not be eaten after Passover, as a kind of punishment for ignoring this stricture against owning ḥameitz during the festival. So it is important to either get rid of or sell ḥameitz before Passover.
Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.