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Bedikas Chametz: Principles and Halachos

With the approaching Pesach festival, last week we opened a discussion of bedikas chametz with the laws of making an early bedikas chametz.

This week’s article—the second of a three part series—is dedicated to explaining the principles and laws of the search for chametz.

Is bedikas chametz a Torah mitzvah, or a rabbinic enactment? Does one have to ensure that he possesses chametz before he begins searching for it? What is the halachah concerning checking books for crumbs? We will answer these questions, and others, by elucidating the matter from its primary sources.

The Prohibition of Chametz on Pesach

The Torah prohibits not only consumption of chametz on Pesach, but even keeping chametz in one’s property. In addition to the negative commandment of “bal yera’eh u-bal yematzeh,” the Torah obligates a person to remove all chametz from his property before Pesach: “However, on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses” (Shemos 12:15).

According to Torah law, somebody who performs bittul before Pesach—who annulls his chametz by verbal declaration—will not transgress the prohibition of keeping chametz in his possession. Since in Torah law, bittul suffices, therefore, the Gemara (Pesachim 4b) explains, the additional obligation of bedikas chametz is only rabbinic in nature.

The Sages did not want a person to rely on bittul alone, and they obligated a person to search for chametz and to actively burn (or possibly to otherwise dispose) of it. The opening Mishnah of Pesachim thus states: “On the night of the fourteenth of Nissan, one searches for chametz by candlelight.”

Two distinct reasons are given for this enactment. 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, since we eat chametz throughout the year, there is a greater risk of forgetting the prohibition and eating the chametz.

However, Rashi states that the reason for checking is in order to prevent one from violating the prohibition of owning chametz on Pesach. Tosafos asks that one need not check for chametz in order to avoid this prohibition since one can merely do bitul chametz-declare the chametz null and void since this declaration renders the chametz ownerless. The Ran answers that one can fulfill the Torah law, by either performing bittul or by checking for and destroying any chametz that is found. The Rabbonon, however, did not want one to rely on only one method and required everyone to perform both actions. The reason Chazal did not want a person to rely solely on bittul, is because one might not annul his chametz wholeheartedly, in which case the bittul is ineffective, so he must also check and destroy.

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

The obligation of bedikas chametz is thus rabbinic—for as far as Torah law is concerned, bittul is sufficient. However, checking for chametz nonetheless fulfills the Torah obligation of removing chametz from one’s home. True, this obligation can also be fulfilled by bittul, but the Sages enacted that it should be fulfilled also by means of bedikah and bi’ur.

Performing Bittul after Bedikah

As noted, after properly checking for chametz, one will no longer transgress the Torah prohibition of keeping chametz over Pesach, even if one failed to find some chametz.

Nonetheless, Chazal (Pesachim 6b) state that “one who checks must annul.” Out of the concern that a person will find chametz at home over Pesach, and might not immediately dispose of it, the Sages enacted that a person perform bittul to apply to all unfound chametz, beyond checking for and burning his chametz.

At night, after completing the search, one must annul all chametz that he did not see. It is important that one understand the text of the bittul: although the Aramaic declaration should preferably be used, if one does not understand the words one may make the declaration in any language.

The declaration of bittul at night (after the search is complete) applies only to chametz that is unknown to its owner. For chametz that is known, and which will be burned the next morning, no bittul is declared, because one wishes to burn one’s own chametz—after bittul, the chametz is no longer one’s own and the mitzvah to burn one’s own chametz will not be performed.

Searching for Crumbs

Does one have to check only for significant pieces of bread, or is there an obligation to search even for small crumbs?

This question appears to depend on the rationale for the enactment of bedikas chametz. If the rationale, as Tosafos writes, is out of concern that a person might come to eat chametz, the enactment may apply even to crumbs, to which the prohibition of eating chametz applies (though it is possible that because the full stringency of eating chametz applies only to a kezayis, the enactment may not apply to crumbs).

If, however, the rationale for the enactment is based on the prohibition against keeping chametz in one’s property, the enactment may not apply to crumbs—for the prohibition of keeping chametz in one’s property only applies tone who owns a kezayis.

The Gemara (Pesachim 6b) writes that bedikas chametz does not require searching for small crumbs because they lack any importance. This suggests that we need not search for crumbs. Many poskim in fact rule that there is no obligation to check for crumbs (Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 446, K.A. 1; Magen Avraham 460:2; Biur Ha-Gra 1—among others; see also Shaar Ha-Zion 442:60).

The Chayei Adam (119:6), however, writes that one must search for edible crumbs (not for dirty or inedible crumbs), due to the concern that he may come to eat them. This is also the opinion of the Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 13:6, 18).

In practice, many are careful to search even for crumbs (see Siddur Pesach Ke-Hilchaso 13, note 39; Bedikas Chametz U-Bi’uro 2:1)—a search that can take a significant amount of time. However, for houses that have already been cleaned thoroughly, there is room to be lenient concerning a search for crumbs, provided the actual search is serious, and not merely a symbolic or casual bedikah. Note that one can sometimes find chametz in certain forgotten places, and moreover, a berachah is made over the bedikah and it must therefore be performed as a real search.

Checking Books

Based on his above opinion, the Chazon Ish rules that one should check books that are read during the year together with food, since crumbs often fall between the pages (Orach Chaim 116:18).

The Chazon Ish himself used to check books that he planned to use during Pesach, page by page, and sold his other books (that were not in use during Pesach) to a non-Jew and kept them behind a partition (so that there should be no obligation to check them for chametz).

However, as noted above, many authorities rule that there is no obligation to check for crumbs, and according to this opinion there is no obligation to check books. Moreover, the sefer Bedikas Chametz U-Bi’uro (2:1) writes that even those who are generally stringent and check for crumbs, do not have to be stringent concerning checking books, because any crumbs there are extremely small and insignificant.

Although some are particular in this matter, the general custom is not to check books page by page. However, with regard to books one must be careful not to bring unchecked books to the table where crumbs might fall into food. If books are brought to the table, even not during a meal, the table should be carefully checked afterward to ensure that no chametz crumbs are left behind since these crumbs may fall into food etc.

The Berachah on Checking

Before beginning the search one recites the berachahal bi’ur chametz,” rather than “al bedikat chametz.” The reason for this is that the bedikah is ultimately geared towards bi’ur (Rosh, Pesachim 7a). Alternatively, the Bach explains that the term bi’ur includes the search, too, because the word can refer to clearing something from the house.

If one forgot to recite the berachah, it can be recited as long as the search has not been completed (Rema 432:1, citing from the Kol Bo). The Magen Avraham and Taz write that the berachah can be recited even after the search is completed, until one burns the chametz. The Bach, however, rules that one cannot recite the berachah after the search and, in deference to this opinion the Mishna Berurah (432:4) implies that one who has completed his search should not recite the berachah, though he writes that someone in this situation who wishes to recite the berachah at the time when he burns the chametz has authorities upon whom to rely.

One may not speak in between the recitation of the berachah and the start of the search, even in matters related to the search (unless there is no choice).  If one does speak about matters concerning the bedikah, a new berachah is not recited, but if one speaks after the berachah (and before beginning the search) about matters unrelated to the bedikah, a new berachah must be recited (Mishnah Berurah 432:5).

After beginning the search, one may not speak about matters unrelated to the bedikah, but if one does speak a new berachah is not required. It is completely permitted, after beginning the search, to speak about matters concerning the bedikah (Mishnah Berurah 432:6).

Putting out Pieces of Bread before the Search

The berachah recited over bedikas chametz is also the reason for the custom of hiding small pieces of bread before the search begins.

The Mordechai (beginning of Pesachim) cites the Sefer Ha-Pardes (this appears also in Machzor Vitri, beginning of Hilchos Pesach) that the berachah over the search relates to the discovery and destruction of chametz. Because of this interpretation, he rules that one should begin searching without a berachah, and recite the berachah only after finding the first piece of chametz.

On this basis, poskim mention the custom of putting out pieces of chametz before the search, to ensure that some chametz will be found, and that the blessing will not be in vain. However, the berachah is recited when one begins searching and not when the first piece is found. The Beis Yosef (432) writes that the practice in his time was not to put out chametz, but the Rema writes (432:2), “The practice is to put pieces of chametz in a place where the one searching will find them, so that his berachah will not be for naught.”

However, the Rema continues by writing that even if pieces of bread are not laid out, the berachah is not in vain. The reason for this is that the berachah is recited over the search, with the intention of destroying any chametz that is found.

The Vilna Gaon mentions an “irrefutable proof” to the fact that one need not put out pieces of chametz before the search. When a person did not perform bedikas chametz before Pesach, it is clear from the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch that the house is searched with a berachah during chol ha-mo’ed. Of course, one does not put out pieces of chametz before searching on Pesach itself, leading to the conclusion that there is no obligation to lay out pieces before the search.

Another proof mentioned by the Vilna Gaon is from Birkas Ha-mapil, which one recites even though there is no guarantee that he will fall asleep.

The Mishnah Berurah (13) rules that strictly speaking one need not put out pieces of chametz, but mentions the custom of the Arizal to lay out specifically ten pieces of chametz, and adds that “it is not worthwhile to do away with the custom of Israel.”  In the Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun (12) he cites an opinion (the Eimak Halachah) that nowadays, when we thoroughly clean the house ahead of checking, it is possible that one must put out pieces of chametz even according to the strict letter of the law, and not merely by force of custom.

The Chok Yaakov (532:14) explains that the purpose of the custom is so that the person searching will do his job properly, and make an effort to find all hidden chametz. It is important to ensure that putting out the pieces of chametz achieves this purpose, and not the contrary. The pieces should be hidden, and not merely gathered in the middle of the room, which can make the bedikah into a chametz collection session rather than a search (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 111:8).

It is customary to use pieces that are smaller than a kezayis, so that if one of them is not found, there will be no full transgression. Because the pieces are hidden, it is proper for the person hiding them to write down their location, to avoid any chance of losing them.

We have not yet discussed many halachic aspects of the bedikah: What is the time of the search? Which labors are forbidden before it? Which locations must be searched? What about searching a hotel room? Can an envoy be used? We will, please G-d, deal with these and other issues in next week’s article.

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