Checking for Chametz Before the Fourteenth of Nisan
As the month of Nisan approaches, and with it the festival of Pesach, we will discuss a timely mitzvah that can be of practical interest these days: The mitzvah of bedikas chametz, and in particular, the mitzvah of checking for chametz for somebody leaving his house before Pesach.
During Pesach, many go away from their homes either to family or to a hotel for the duration of the festival. Because they are not at home during Pesach, some think that they are exempt from checking the house for chametz.
This is a mistake. As we will see, even those who are away from home for all of Pesach remain obligated (in many cases) to check for chametz. We will seek to elucidate the subject of doing an “early bedikas chametz,” and clarify its halachic details.
The Obligation of an Early Bedikas Chametz
The Gemara states, citing Rabbi Yehuda in the name of Rav (Pesachim 6a): “Somebody who sets sail or journeys with a caravan: [if it is] before thirty days, he is not obligated to burn; [if it is] within thirty days, he is obligated to burn.”
The period of “thirty days” mentioned here and in additional halachos, defines a connection with the approaching festival. The Gemara itself explains: “As we find (in a baraisa): One should question and expound on the laws of Pesach thirty days before the festival.”
We, thus, learn that within thirty days of Pesach, even somebody who is leaving his home for Pesach is obligated to check his house for chametz.
The Gemara continues, citing a dispute among amora’im concerning the application of this halachah. According to Abaye, the obligation to check for chametz early is contingent on the fulfillment of two conditions. One is that the person leaves his house within thirty days of the festival. The second condition is that he is planning to come home during Pesach.
Rava maintains that there is no need for both conditions to be fulfilled, and either one is sufficient to require a search for chametz. Somebody who leaves his house within thirty days of the festival is thus obligated, according to Rava, to check for chametz, even if he won’t be returning home during Pesach. In addition, even if somebody leaves his home more than thirty days before Pesach, he must 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 halachah of checking for chametz within thirty days of Pesach raises a patent question. There is a Torah prohibition against having chametz in one’s possession during Pesach—the prohibition of bal yera’eh u-bal yematzeh. In view of this prohibition, how does leaving home more than thirty days before Pesach help? Surely one cannot have chametz in one’s possession at home, however early one leaves.
Rashi, according to one way of understanding (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 to come home during Pesach, whereupon he might find the chametz left behind at home, is there an obligation to check for chametz (see also Maharsha and Bach 436, who understand the opinion of Rashi differently).
According to the mainstream opinion of rishonim, however, the solution to the question of leaving chametz at home if one leaves before thirty days is the assumption that the owner of the chametz will perform bittul. According to the Torah law, it is enough for a person to annul his chametz. By declaring it null and void, he escapes the Torah prohibition of bal yera’eh with respect to that chametz.
Rather than the Torah issue of having chametz in one’s possession, the Talmudic discussion thus relates to the rabbinic obligation of bedikas chametz: The Sages did not wish a person to rely on annulment of his chametz, and therefore they said that a person must check for chametz, and actively remove it from his possession before Pesach. This Rabbinic obligation applies on the eve of Pesach, and extends to thirty days before the festival.
According to Rava, there is an additional obligation to check for chametz on somebody who leaves his 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 new precaution, for fear that a person will come to eat chametz he finds at home.
Making a Berachah on Checking for Chametz
The Ritva (s.v. lo amran) elucidates a practical ramification of the distinct obligations to check for 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 to check for chametz only out of the concern that he might come to eat chametz upon returning. In this case, his checking is only a precaution against the concern for eating chametz, and the original enactment of bedikas chametz is not being fulfilled. 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 the day before Pesach, and is never recited for any early bedikah. This opinion is cited by the Rema (Orach Chaim 436:1). The Vilna Gaon explains 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 that according to several authorities a berachah is recited even for an early bedikas chametz (within thirty days), and leaves open the question whether one should recite a brocho since each opinion has the support of many authorities.
A Personal Obligation of Bedikas Chametz
Authorities dispute the halachic ruling for somebody who leaves his house within thirty days of Pesach if a non-Jew takes his place.
The Ra’avyah (426, as 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’avyah, 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 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 on this matter in favor of the Ra’avyah. The Rema, however, rules that there is no obligation to check a house into which a non-Jew is moving. The Mishnah Berurah (32) mentions further opinions, and rules that where a non-Jew is actually moving in, one can be lenient (and not check the house).
In our times, it is fairly common for people who leave their 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 regular sale 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 some part of his house out of 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 to check for chametz, even if he is not planning to come home during Pesach. In addition, somebody who leaves home earlier than thirty days before Pesach is, nonetheless obligated to check for chametz, if he is planning to come home for Pesach.
The Shulchan Aruch also rules like the Rambam, who states that even if the 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 late, and be unable to check for 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 to come 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.
Nowadays, modern methods of transportation ensure that it is generally possible to return home, from virtually any point in the world, in a number of hours.
For this reason, there are stronger grounds for leniency today, and the obligation to check for chametz before leaving home (with intention of returning before Pesach) can be confined to somebody who intends to return shortly before the time for bedikas chametz (or to somebody sailing out to sea), where there is a realistic concern that a delay could prevent him from checking the house.
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 check reliably for chametz, he has no obligation to check for chametz before leaving, and one of the members of the household should be appointed to check for chametz at the proper time on the eve of Pesach.