One of the main features of the rapidly approaching Pesach festival is, as we are all aware, cleaning. Of course, not every element of our cleaning rituals is mandated by halacha. But while Pesach gives us a good opportunity for spring cleaning, the underlying concept draws from the need to ensure our houses and properties are free of all chametz.

Because of all the cleaning we (meaning, generally, our womenfolk) traditionally do, there is often little (if any) chametz left to find in the actual bedikas chametz. However, the obligation of bedikas chametz—the final candlelight search for chametz—remains the formal halachic method by which we make sure that come Pesach, our homes, offices, cars, and so on, are all chametz-free.

When is the best time to perform the bedikas chametz? What kind of bittul—nullification of the chametz—must be done? What is done when a person leaves his home before the time of bedikas chametz? Does his intention to return home during the festival make a difference, and what happens when somebody else (Jew or non-Jew) stays at home?

We will address these questions, among others, below.

The Obligation to Check for Chametz

The Torah prohibits not only the consumption of chametz on Pesach, but even the keeping of chametz in our property. Parallel with the negative prohibition of keeping chametz at home, we therefore stand obligated to remove all chametz from our property for the duration of Pesach. This is explicit in the Torah passage, “However, on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses” (Shemos 12:15).

Chazal explain that there are two ways in which we can “remove” chametz from our abodes. One is by physically removing the chametz, and the other is by “annulling” the chametz by means of a verbal annulment—bittul.

But while bittul is effective in Torah law (somebody who performs bittul does not transgress the prohibition of keeping chametz in his possession), the Sages decreed that we must not rely on bittul alone. Rather, they obligated the performance of bedikas chametz, checking for chametz and removing it from our domains (Pesachim 4b) as well as bittul.

The opening Mishnah of Pesachim thus states: “On the night of the fourteenth of Nissan, one searches for chametz by candlelight.”

Commentaries suggest two distinct reasons why bittul is not enough. According to Tosafos, the enactment was made out of the concern that one might find a piece of chametz and eat it on Pesach. Although we find no similar measure concerning other forbidden foods, this is because we eat chametz throughout the year, thus giving rise to a greater risk of forgetting the prohibition and eating the chametz The Ran (1a in the pages of the Rif) says bittul is insufficient because we are afraid that one’s annulment will not be wholehearted. Either way, there is therefore a rabbinic enactment to be rid of one’s chametz specifically by thoroughly searching for it and burning (or otherwise disposing) any chametz found.

The obligation of searching for chametz is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 431). The Mishnah Berurah cites both reasons mentioned above.

Annulment after Checking

Chazal note that even after checking for chametz and disposing of any chametz found, one must still go through the bittul (annulment) procedure, for fear that a person will find chametz at home over Pesach, and might not act immediately to dispose of it (Pesachim 6b).

At night, after completing the search, one must annul all chametz that he did not see. The chametz that is found is set aside for burning, while that which has not been found—chametz that is unknown—is annulled. It is important not to annul the known chametz, for the mitzvah of burning chametz requires that one own it (; see Pesachim 12b). After bittul, the chametz is no longer one’s own, and the mitzvah will not be performed.

The next morning, after burning the chametz, the bittul is repeated, this time including both known and unknown chametz. It is of utmost importance that one understand the text of the bittul: although the Aramaic declaration should preferable be used, if one does not understand the words one should say it in the language he understands since one may make the declaration in any language (Magen Avraham and Be’er Heiteiv 434:5).

The Time to Search

According to Torah law the deadline for removing chametz from one’s possession is chatzos (the midpoint between sunrise and sunset) of the day of the fourteenth of Nissan. The proper time for searching for chametz therefore seems to be the morning of the fourteenth of Nissan.

However, the Sages enacted that the search for chametz should be carried out at nightfall of the fourteenth. One reason for this is because during the day people are busy with their affairs, and if a person would wait until daytime on the fourteenth he is liable to forget about it altogether. Furthermore, candlelight is especially effective for searching in cracks and crevices, and the search by candlelight requires the dark backdrop of night, for during the day candles do not illuminate well (see Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 431:5).

Because the mitzvah of davening Maariv is a daily mitzvah, it takes precedence over searching for chametz, and one should therefore daven Maariv first, and then proceed quickly to search for chametz (Mishnah Berurah 431:8). A person who is accustomed to davening later in the evening should search for chametz at nightfall, and then pray at his usual time.

Note that after the time for bedikas chametz arrives, it is unfitting to start any sort of work, or even to eat fruit, even as a quick snack, for this might impede the fulfillment of the mitzvah at its proper time (Bi’ur Halacha 431) unless he needs to eat a snack in order to perform the mitzvah properly. A person should not even begin studying Torah once the time has arrived. Even when a person began a Torah study session beforehand, many rule that it is best to stop studying at nightfall, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of bedikas chametz at its proper time (Mishnah Berurah 431:11; Kaf Ha-Chaim 23).

Early Bedikas Chametz

The ideal time for checking for chametz is therefore the night before Pesach. However, this is not always feasible. The Gemara reflects on a case of somebody who leaves town before Pesach, and cites the following teaching (citing from Rabbi Yehuda in the name of Rav): “Somebody who sets sail or journeys with a caravan: before thirty days, he is not obligated to burn; within thirty days, he is obligated to burn” (Pesachim 6a).

The time of thirty days defines a connection with the approaching festival. The Gemara itself explains: “As we find (in a baraisa): One questions and expounds on the laws of Pesach thirty days before the festival.” The thirty-day time period forms a connection with the upcoming festival, so that once inside the period, the obligation of checking for chametz applies to anyone who will not be present on the eve of Pesach.

The Gemara continues to cite a dispute among amora’im concerning the application of this halacha. According to Abaye, the obligation of early checking for chametz is contingent on the fulfillment of two concurrent conditions. One condition is that the person leaves his house within thirty days of the festival. The second condition is that he is planning on coming home during the days of Pesach.

However, Rava maintains that there is no need for both conditions to be fulfilled, and either one of them is sufficient to obligate the search for chametz. Somebody who leaves his house within thirty days of the festival is thus obligated in checking for chametz, even if he will not be returning home during Pesach. In addition, even if somebody leaves his home more than thirty days before Pesach, he remains obligated to check for chametz if he plans to come home for Pesach.

The halachah, as we will clarify below, follows the opinion of Rava.

Leaving Chametz at Home

The halacha of checking for chametz within thirty days of Pesach raises a patent question. Surely, there is a Torah prohibition against having chametz in one’s possession over Pesach—the prohibition of bal year’eh u-bal yematzeh. In view of this prohibition, how does leaving home more than thirty days before Pesach help? Surely one cannot leave chametz in one’s possession, however early one leaves home?

Rashi (see the explanation given by the Maharshal) understands that one does not transgress the prohibition of bal yera’eh for “unknown chametz.” Therefore, only if he plans on coming home during Pesach, whereupon he might find the chametz left behind at home, is there an obligation of checking for chametz (see also Maharsha and Bach 436, who understand the opinion of Rashi in a different light).

According to the mainstream opinion of rishonim, however, the solution to the question of leaving chametz at home is the assumption that the owner of the chametz will perform bittul. As noted above, for Torah law it is enough for a person to annul chametz by declaring it null and void. By so doing, the Torah prohibition of bal yera’eh is not transgressed. Yet, the Sages (according to these opinions) enacted that a person fulfill his obligation of ridding himself of chametz by actually finding and burning it, and not merely annulling it. This obligation applies on Pesach eve, and extends to thirty days before the festival.

According to Rava, there is an additional obligation of checking for chametz for somebody who leaves home more than thirty days before the festival, yet plans to come home for Pesach. This obligation is not related to the regular rabbinic obligation of checking for chametz, but is rather a precaution for fear that a person will come to eat chametz he finds at home.

Making a Berachah over Early Checking

The Ritva (s.v. lo amran) elucidates a practical ramification of the distinct obligations to check one’s chametz.

One who leaves home within thirty days of Pesach is obligated in the basic mitzvah of bedikas chametz, and he must therefore make a blessing over checking for chametz (like all rabbinic enactments, over which a berachah is recited).

However, somebody who leaves home more than thirty days before Pesach, yet intends to come home during the festival, is obligated in checking for chametz only out of the concern that he might come to eat chametz on returning. In this case, the original enactment of bedikas chametz is not being fulfilled, and the act of checking is only a precaution against the concern for eating chametz. For this reason, no berachah is recited upon checking for chametz more than thirty days before Pesach.

The Kol-Bo (no. 48, p. 6d) cites a dissenting opinion, which rules that the berachah over checking for chametz is reserved for bedikas chametz on Pesach eve, and is never recited for an early bedikah. This opinion is cited by the Rema (Orach Chaim 436:1), the Vilna Gaon explaining that the berachah was enacted for the burning of the chametz, and not for checking alone, which is why it is only recited when the search for chametz is juxtaposed to its burning (on Pesach eve).

The Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah, s.v. lo) mentions the Ritva a berachah is recited even for an early bedikas chametz (within thirty days), and remains with a doubt how one should conduct himself.

A Personal Obligation of Bedikas Chametz

Authorities dispute the halachic ruling for somebody who leaves his house within thirty days of Pesach, and a non-Jew takes his place.

The Ra’avya (426, cited by the Mordechai, Pesachim 535) writes that in this case, if the Jew is leaving the house for a new domicile, he does not have to check the house he leaves for chametz, because he will fulfill the mitzvah in his new house.

However, if the departing Jew is not moving into a new house, but rather sailing the sea or journeying, he is obligated to check the house he is leaving for chametz, even though a non-Jew is taking his place.

The reason for this is that according to the Ra’avya, there is a personal obligation to check for chametz. If a person has a home within thirty days of Pesach, and he won’t have another home after his departure, he is obligated to check the current home before he leaves—even though the non-Jew will surely bring in his own chametz.

The Tur (436) disputes this ruling, writing that under these circumstances there is no obligation to check for chametz. Even if chametz is left in the house, the chametz will not be in Jewish property, but rather in the property of the non-Jew who is moving in—and there is therefore no obligation to search for it.

The Shulchan Aruch (436:3) rules in favor of the Ra’avyah. The Rema, however, rules that there is no obligation to a house into which a non-Jew is moving. The Mishnah Berurah (32) mentions further opinions, and rules that where a non-Jew is moving in, one can be lenient (not to check the house).

In our times, it is fairly common for people who leave home for Pesach to arrange a sale of the chametz to a non-Jew, thereby exempting them from the obligation of bedikas chametz (see Mishnah Berurah 32 concerning whether a  sale on the morning of Erev Pessach is sufficient, or whether the chametz must be sold before the time of bedikas chametz).

In view of the foregoing discussion, it is preferable for a person to leave out some part of his house from the sale, so that he will be able to perform the mitzvah of checking for chametz in that part of the house.

Coming Home before Pesach

The Shulchan Aruch (436:1) rules in accordance with Rava, meaning that somebody leaving home within thirty days of Pesach is obligated in checking for chametz, even if he is not planning on coming home for Pesach. In addition, somebody who leaves home earlier than thirty days before Pesach is nonetheless obligated to check for chametz, if he is planning on coming home for Pesach.

The Shulchan Aruch also rules like the Rambam, who states that even if a person’s intention is to come home before Pesach, he is obligated to check for chametz before leaving home (even when leaving more than thirty days before the festival). The reason for this is due to the concern that he might come home right before Pesach eve, and be unable to remove his chametz.

Yet, the Shulchan Aruch (2) also mentions the opinion of the Ran (in the name of “some say”), who maintains that there is no obligation for somebody planning on coming home before Pesach to check for chametz before he leaves home. The Mishnah Berurah (23) writes that later authorities side with the former opinion, but adds that under extenuating circumstances one can rely on the lenient opinion.

Leaving Others at Home

The discussion above concerning performing an “early bedikas chametz” for somebody leaving home applies specifically to somebody who will be leaving an empty house.

If a person leaves home, but leaves behind his wife and family members (over bar-mitzvah) who are able to reliably check for chametz, there is no obligation to check for chametz before leaving. One of the members of the household should rather be appointed to check for chametz at the proper time on the eve of Pesach. Similarly, one can ask a neighbor to perform the bedikah if he doesn’t arrive on time.

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