The Torah prohibits keeping any edible chametz item in one’s house or possession over Pesach. Even an item containing only a small mixture of chametz is prohibited (see Rema, Orach Chaim 447:4; Mishnah Berura 35; Chazon Ish 119:12). One must either dispose of it before Pesach or sell it to a non-Jew.
Some of the most common chametz issues have to do with alcohol. Whereas we might not feel so bad throwing the last bag of noodles into the pre-Pesach bonfires, this is often not the case for our bottle of single-malt whiskey!
Moreover, the chametz nature of some alcohol compounds leads to questions concerning many alcohol products, including of course pure alcohol, and ranging from perfumes and deodorant through common vinegar.
In the present article we will discuss some of the halachic issues relevant to the question of alcohol over Pesach. Why is it that alcoholic products are problematic for Pesach? Which products should be sold to a non-Jew or discarded before Pesach, and which can be kept but not used? How inedible must a product be to be permitted? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Beer and whiskey
If barley is soaked in water under proper conditions, it ferments into beer. Because the barley was immersed in water for more than 18 minutes, beer is chametz (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 442:5).
Beer contains approximately 5% alcohol, making it a relatively mild alcoholic beverage. Drinks with higher alcohol content are made by separating the alcohol from some of the water using a process of distillation. This produces whiskey containing 30-95% alcohol.
The consensus of halachic authorities is that whiskey produced from one of the five grains is considered chametz, despite the process of distillation which changes its basic nature (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 92:8, 123:24; Mishnah Berurah 442:4). Although the Shaarei Teshuva (442:3) notes dissenting authorities, this is the accepted ruling and custom.
Even whiskey made from corn or other non-chametz grains can be chametz. One reason is that the water remaining after distillation (“backset”) is often used in creating another batch of whiskey. Thus, even if the grain used in creating the whiskey is kitniyos (say, corn), the water might be from a chametz whiskey.
Another reason is that before fermentation, the grain’s starch is broken-down into individual glucose molecules, a process traditionally carried out by barley malt. Since the chametz barley malt plays a crucial role in the creation of the whiskey, it is considered a davar hama’amid (a foundation), rendering the product chametz (see Shulchan Aruch 442:5 and Mishnah Berurah 442:25).
As such, all types of whiskey should be considered chametz unless they are certified as kosher for Pesach.
An important byproduct of alcohol is vinegar, which is itself used for many foods (such as pickles, olives, salad dressings, and so on). Vinegar is created from alcohol by a process of re-fermentation, and the primary concern is thus the source of the alcohol.
Malt vinegar is of course prohibited as chametz, for it derives from malt or beer. By contrast, wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar are made from wine and apple cider, and don’t involve any chametz issue. Yet, Pesach certification is required if the vinegar is to be used in food, because of concern for the use of chametz equipment in the production.
The question of white distilled vinegar is more complex, because it is derived from distilled alcohol, the origins of which are hard to discern. There is also concern for the use of a chametz product in initiating the fermentation process. Distilled vinegar is used for many foods (such as the foods mentioned above), and these require special Pesach certification.
The majority of vinegar products do not use chametz-based alcohol, and therefore many rabbinic authorities advise that although uncertified vinegar cannot be used on Pesach, there is no need to destroy the vinegar. Even those who are careful to destroy all items of “chametz gamur” (“absolute chametz,” including beer and whiskey) rather than sell them, can rely on the sale of chametz for vinegar.
“Fixing Up” the Chametz
What is the status of pure grain-based alcohol? On the one hand, pure alcohol is not fit for consumption. Being inedible – to the degree that it is unfit even for canine consumption – it seems that no chametz prohibition will apply. However, by undergoing a physical change – the process of distillation – the alcohol will become fit for consumption. Is such alcohol permitted over Pesach?
Poskim debate the status of items that are unfit for consumption but can be “fixed” and made fit for consumption by means of cooking (distillation) or by adding certain ingredients to them.
This question was already discussed by authorities of previous generations (see She’arim Metzuyanim Be’halachah 112:8), some of them opining that we follow the current status of the item in question, and others arguing that the ability to restore an edible condition renders the item prohibited. The question has received much attention in recent times, in particular due to technological advances in food engineering.
Most contemporary authorities rule stringently on this question (see Mikraei Kodesh 54; Chazon Ish, Yoreh De’ah 116:3 (see 23:1); Sefer Hilchos Pesach p. 25, citing Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky). Accordingly, pure grain-based alcohol must be sold before Pesach.
Note that not all alcohol is chametz. Methanol and Isopropyl alcohol have no chametz components and even ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is not always derived from grain but is sometimes synthesized from chemicals. Moreover, it is cheaper to produce alcohol from corn or from potatoes than from chametz grains, and therefore most cosmetic and other products do not include actual chametz. This is an important consideration for leniency in many products.
Many products, such as cologne, hair spray, deodorant, cleaning agents, and others, use denatured alcohol as an ingredient. Denatured alcohol is alcohol mixed with small quantities of various chemicals or substances. What is the halachic status of these products?
In this case, it appears that even those authorities who rule stringently concerning chametz that can be reconstituted will concede that there is no need for stringency.
The reason for this is a teaching of the Gemara (Pesachim 45b) whereby “a mass of sourdough that was set aside for the purpose of a chair” (kupas se’or sheyichdo li’yeshiva) before Pesach, is permitted on Pesach. The Gemara adds that the sourdough chair was coated with clay, meaning that it was designated for sitting by a concrete action (Shaar Ha-Zion 442:67). This halachah is ruled by the Rambam (Chametz and Matzah 2:9) and by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 442:10).
Perfume, deodorant, and similar products, have clearly been set aside for purposes other than for eating. Moreover, a concrete action has been performed with these products – adding the extra ingredients – thereby designating them for this purpose.
Therefore, it would seem that these products are permitted on Pesach, and they can be used without the need for special certification. This argument has been raised by Rav Rubin (Moriah Vol. 30, 5-7, p. 171, citing also Rav Nissim Karelitz). These authorities express wonder at the ruling of Shut Divrei Malkiel (Vol. 4, no. 6), who compares perfume to whiskey.
At the same time, it is noteworthy that the Magen Avraham (467:10) writes that one may not benefit on Pesach from scented tobacco if it has been soaked in beer. This ruling is noted by the Mishnah Berurah (467:33), though the Beis Meir (467), as well as Rav Chaim Sanzer (Shut Divrei Chaim, Yoreh De’ah 20) and Rav Shlomo Kluger (Tuv Ta’am Ve-Da’as 3:1:131) dispute the ruling. Although the tobacco has clearly been set aside for smoking, rather than for eating of drinking, the Magen Avraham did not permit its use on Pesach. Many authorities (see Shut Maharam Shick, Orach Chaim 242) are stringent on this matter, explaining that the tobacco’s inedible nature does not affect the use it was designed for–smelling or smoking. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l (See Shevus Yitchak Chapter 10) was also stringent on this matter.
Achshevei: Giving Importance
Even in the case of the sourdough chair it remains forbidden to eat the chair. By eating the item that has been designated for other purposes, a person effectively re-designates it for eating. This concept is referred to as “achshevei.” The chair regains the importance of a food item, and it returns to the full stringency of chametz on Pesach (the obligation to destroy it will return).
The same is true of food that it totally unfit for consumption: it lacks the status of food, but eating it returns its food status, and somebody who intentionally eats foods unfit for consumption therefore transgresses the prohibition against eating chametz.
The question is which acts constitute achshevei. For example, in the case of smoking, the Beis Meir suggests that since the smoke is being ingested, there is special room for stringency on Pesach because this can be construed as achshevei (he therefore distinguished between tobacco for scent and tobacco for smoking).
Concerning dishwasher liquid from a non-Kosher source, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:30) issued a lenient ruling, explaining that the liquid is unfit for a dog’s consumption. He continues to reflect on whether the use of washing liquid might constitute achshevei, but rules that use of a product for purposes other than eating does not meet the criteria for this.
Rav Moshe proves the point from the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling (Orach Chaim 442:10) permitting the use of ink cooked in barley beer on Chol Hamoed Pesach.
Is Applying a Liquid on the Skin Drinking?
An interesting and pertinent question relates to the application of creams, and perhaps even to perfume and deodorant.
On Yom Kippur, the halacha is that sichah – rubbing on a liquid – is considered as drinking. Could it be that it will be forbidden to use a chametz-based ointment, as well as perfumes and deodorants, because doing so gives the products the importance of food?
First, it is possible that the application of these products does not amount to sichah. Sichah involves rubbing oil into one’s skin – which is distinct from the application of deodorant, perfume, and even soaps. It will apply only to lotion that is applied as a skin moisturizer.
Note that Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3, no. 62) rules it is permitted to use chametz creams on Pesach for purpose of treating a skin condition. His basic distinction is that between purposes of enjoyment and pampering the skin, which is considered like drinking and therefore forbidden, and medicinal purposes which are permitted.
Another possibility is that although sichah is technically considered as drinking on Yom Kippur, this will not confer the importance of food on a cosmetic product. For this purpose, only eating will give the product the importance of food. This argument is raised by Rav Asher Weiss (Darchei Horaa Vol. 1, no. 17). He adds that according to several authorities, the entire concept of sichah being equivalent to drinking applies solely to Yom Kippur, and not to other areas of halacha.
Due to the concern that applying a liquid is considered as drinking, the Biur Halacha (326:10) records that according to the Gra one should avoid non-kosher soaps the year round. The same principle will apply to chametz soaps, and likewise to creams and lotions on Pesach.
However, many authorities, based on the considerations mentioned above, dispute this and rule leniently. The Chazon Ish (Demai 15:1) writes that the entire concept of sicha keshtiya—rubbing on is like drinking—does not apply to non-edible items because there is no prohibition to eat the item. He also rules that for medicines if the active ingredient is not chametz, achshevei does not apply since one desires the active ingredient-which is not chametz(Hilchos Pesach 116:8).
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach too rules that there is no concern for any prohibition concerning soaps and creams (Ma’or Ha-Shabbos Vol. 2, 30:6), because they are completely inedible.
As noted above, Rav Moshe Feinstein likewise ruled leniently concerning the use of creams and soaps for purposes other than pleasure—though some creams are of course applied for pleasure. Rav Moshe is also cited by Rav Shimon Eider as ruling that there is no halachic concern for toothpaste on Pesach, because the toothpaste is inedible. The concern of achshevei does not apply to toothpaste, because there is no intention to swallow it, so that the principle does not apply (Mishnah Berurah 442:45, citing Magen Avraham, as based on Terumas Ha-Deshen).
Nonetheless, Rav Eider reports that Rav Moshe advised using certified toothpaste, since this is readily available.
Concerning mouthwash, Rav Meir Bransdorfer (Teshuvos Knei Bosem 1:25) writes that mouthwash is permitted on Pesach if it has inedible Chametz only if the mouthwash is not intended for eating or to enjoy the taste of it. This implies that where the mouthwash has a pleasant taste, one should not use the mouthwash, even though it is not intended for drinking.
We have seen several reasons for possible leniency on Pesach concerning the use of toiletries and perfumes, and also some potential reasons for stringency.
At the same time, it is common to find virtually any product with Pesach certification—from dishwashing liquid through paper plates and including glue, hair spray and machine oil. When it comes to Pesach, custom and halacha know no limits, and though sometimes unnecessary, certification ensures that one will not go wrong.