Bo: Slavery to Freedom

Staying Humble

Why is the punishment so severe for eating leaven on Passover?

Table for Five: Bo

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For seven days, leaven may not be found in your houses, for anyone who eats leavening — that soul shall be cut off from the assembly of Israel, whether a convert or a native of the land

— Ex. 12:19

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

Let’s say one piece of treif meat accidentally became mixed together with two identical pieces of kosher meat, and you can’t tell which is which. What is the law? You might think you should throw all three pieces out since even if you eat just one, it might be the treif piece. Instead, the Torah employs a well-known law, acharei rabbim l’hatos—go after the majority, and since the majority of pieces are kosher, we treat all three as kosher. The rabbis worried that people would intentionally take advantage of this law, and mandated that all three pieces not be eaten (should such a situation occur, a person should consult a competent rabbi). But the principle is still the principle, that even a large amount of forbidden food can become permissible if nullified by the requisite amount of kosher food. The only exception is chometz on Pesach, which isn’t nullified even if outnumbered by a million times its amount. And unlike other forbidden foods, chometz is kosher the rest of the year even on its own! Why the distinction? Chometz represents a person’s evil inclination, their yetzer hara, a person’s own personal Pharaoh in their life. Free will means will free of the yetzer hara’s influence, so for at least one week of the year we try to completely rid ourselves of it, if not actually, then at least symbolically. For this reason, even a mashahu—a little bit of chometz is forbidden even when we can’t see it.

Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Judaic Studies, Shalhevet HS

The Hebrew word for “leaven” used at the start of this verse is “se’or.” Its etymology and origin is unknown and its usage is limited. It is found only 5 times in the entire Tanach and limited to being forbidden on Pesach and for its forbidden usage as part of the Korban Mincha, the Meal Offering.

Bread as we know it and the discovery of sourdough = yeast, that allowed bread to rise and get its taste and consistency, was discovered in Egypt. In the Ancient World it was the pride and prize of Egypt. Egyptian Royalty and the upper echelons of society ate bread. Unleavened bread was eaten by the rest of the population. I am convinced that the word “se’or”   is of Egyptian origin and it means sourdough.

Why would the Torah forbid its usage with such a severe punishment as “being cut off from the Assembly of Israel”?

Pesach represents the physical freedom of the Jewish People from slavery. Inherent in that freedom is the choice to make meaningful decisions. Baking bread with sourdough and allowing to rise to a sophisticated level represents part of the very culture that enslaved the Jewish People. For seven days a year Torah forbids any connection to that culture as it reminds us of our simple beginning of as people, real and raw, with no outside influence, simply flour and water. Now in this state of foundational purity we can choose to be ready to march to Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

It is a most severe violation of Torah law to have chometz in one’s possession on Passover. Sefer Hachinuch explains that this is to remind us of the miracle performed on our behalf in Egypt, culminating in a mad dash to freedom when even bread hadn’t time to rise. We must allow this idea to sink into our hearts – for it is the center of the Torah and its teachings: God chose our people, He and He alone took us from slavery to freedom. We must never forget who we are, and where we come from. We have a remarkable history, special ancestors, and a unique story. Throughout Jewish history, our people have refused to give in to tyrants, have been prepared to die in order to cling to Shabbat and circumcision and all of our precious mitzvas. We learned to be on God’s side, and not to prefer the side of power or popular opinion. We only continue to exist, because like our ancestor Abraham, we would rather be on God’s side in a fiery furnace, than in comfort on the side of wickedness and tyranny. It is for this reason that there are still Jews despite every attempt to eradicate us! Jew: always be bursting with pride! You represent every value of goodness and kindness. One who forgets all of this, will sadly be cut off from his people. Stay on God’s side always. Be proud of your people always, and never forget: God freed you from Egypt.

Gila Muskin Block, Executive Director, Yesh Tikva

Pesach can be one of the loneliest holidays for people in struggle. The Torah itself prescribes a strong focus on children and the holiday is often celebrated intergenerationally. Yet, besides for the social sensitivity, this pasuk also highlights the importance of inclusion as core to its halachic celebration.

The pasuk has an interesting reason for the requirement to remove Chametz, leaven bread, from our homes. It says that we must do so because whoever eats chametz will be cut off from the community of Israel, whether a Ger or a citizen.

I would think that the only reason to remove chametz from my home is so that I or my family don’t come to eat it. But this pasuk gives us a much broader reasoning: It’s so that the Ger does not eat it either. The responsibility for their observance is somehow on me.

Who is a Ger? Chazal generally understands Ger to be either a Ger Tzedek, a convert, or a Ger Toshav, a non-Jewish individual living among Jewish people. Both of these interpretations come from the core meaning of Ger: a stranger. A stranger is someone who does not readily feel included in the community, someone who is likely vulnerable.

I would like to suggest that by including the Ger in our requirement to remove chametz, the pasuk teaches us that at the core of our observance of Pesach is the importance of caring for the vulnerable among us. Even more, it’s about taking responsibility for them.

Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas, Founder and Director of theritual.house 

Judaism is a tradition of questions and when reading this verse from Passover, I am flooded with many questions: What does it mean for a soul to be cut off? How is this determined and implemented? Is this punishment not somewhat harsh? There are textual traditions for how to engage with said questions. I would like to invite us into a relatively new pathway. The Torah is a mirror for our soul and when learning, we are tasked to ask how this ancient wisdom text is relevant to us today. We are living in a world and currently creating communities that are spiritually cutting one another out. If a person does not think exactly like us, they no longer belong to us. In a moment that is as heart-wrenching and traumatic for us all as a people, instead of growing closer, we are segmenting. In the biblical legal world there are three main ways to be spiritually cut off: eating leavened products on Passover, working on Shabbat, not circumcising a male child. Many of us, I imagine have not cut off a Jewish individual for doing any of these transgressions. Yet, we are cutting souls off for merely seeing the world differently. How did we get here? How do we get out? For me, the answer is always to look towards the text and this verse is the call to feel the intensity of this concept, so that we can remember that it is limited and not the answer.

Image: “The Search for Leaven” illustration by Bernard Picart, c. 1735

With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Gila Muskin Block, and Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas

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