Thursday, March 29, 2007

Why is this Kosher Different?

If you’ve walked into the kosher section in Molly Stones or Albertsons recently then you know that “Kosher for Passover” is a whole new ballgame. It’s not just a matter of raising standards for the holiday. On Monday night the laws of Kashrut will change.

Foods that were perfectly kosher all year round will suddenly become non-kosher when Passover begins. For all eight days of the holiday, the consumption of “Chometz” is strictly forbidden. Chometz is leavened dough, so bread, crackers, cookies, doughnuts, cereal, pretzels, etc., are all removed from the Jewish diet.

Beyond the familiar restrictions on eating, there is another law about Chometz that is virtually without parallel. A Jew may not even possess Chometz on Passover. With the exception of an idol, there is no other biblical restriction on Jewish ownership. You can keep a pet pig, but not Chometz on Passover. Why not? For the answer to this basic question about Chometz we must first understand a thing or two about Matzah.

On the first night of Passover, at the same time that Chometz is forbidden, it becomes a mitzvah to eat “Matzah.” What is Matzah? Flour and water – the exact same ingredients as Chometz! If Chometz and Matzah have the same ingredients, what is the difference between the two?

The difference is time. Chometz is dough that has been given time to rise; Matzah is dough that was baked before it had the chance to rise. This is the only distinction between the two items, but this little distinction makes all the difference in the world. Chometz is a sin and Matzah is a mitzvah.

What is the meaning of this? Why is the Torah making such a big deal differentiating between two virtually identical things? And what does any of this have to do with the Exodus from Egypt?

In the Haggadah we read the following:

Why are we eating this Matzah? Because the dough of our ancestors did not have a chance to rise before the King of Kings, the Holy One (may He be blessed), revealed Himself to them and redeemed them. The Torah states: “They baked the dough that they had brought out of Egypt into Matzah cakes, since it had not risen. They had been driven from Egypt and they could not delay…” (Shemot 12:39)
This explains where the idea of Matzah comes from and what it commemorates, but it does not suffice to answer our question. It’s sad that the Jews were rushed out of Egypt and didn’t have a chance to bake some proper bread or cake for the trip, but how much significance does this really have? Why does Matzah become an eternal mitzvah? Why does Chometz become taboo? We cannot know the mind of G-d, but there has got to be some point here that we can comprehend.

What is the difference between a freeman and a slave? What does a freeman have that a slave does not? The answer, in a word, is time. A freeman owns his time; a slave does not. A slave cannot choose how to spend his time, for his time does not belong to him – it belongs to his master. When a slave gains freedom then the question of how to spend his life becomes his own responsibility.

The ultimate crime of the freeman, or the freed slave, is to waste the precious time that G-d has granted them on this earth. Wasted time transforms Matzah into Chometz and Mitzvah into Sin. Time allows latent bacteria to fester in dough. It leavens and ferments, eating away at the starch and sugars, and punching holes in the dough with its carbon dioxide byproduct. It might taste great, but when you think about it, it’s disgusting. The dough is rotting! This is exactly what happens to the slave who does not put his newly acquired freedom to productive use.

A Jew has no right to squander or misuse time. Why did G-d take us out of Egypt? Why did He free the Jewish slaves? So they could smoke marijuana and sleep on a beach? Watch movies and play video games? Drink martinis and shoot pool? Sit around and let the dough rise? No. G-d took the Jews out of Egypt in order to bring them to Sinai and give them Torah and Mitzvot. To waste time, to waste a Jewish life – for this we were never granted freedom. Our freedom, the ownership of our time, is sanctified and limited to the sphere of Torah.

On Passover, not only don’t we eat Chometz; we don’t even possess it. Freedom is not ours to waste.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! R' Soloveichik has a similar discussion on why the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people is Kiddush Hachodesh. Now that they are about to be redeemed, it is up to them to calculate time and create a calendrical cycle for other Mitzvos and Chagim.