Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rambam on Hametz II

In the previous post, we identified several difficulties with the Rambam's formulation of the basic prohibitions of hametz on Pesah. At the conclusion of that post, we summarized our problems as follows:

1) Why does the Rambam treat the halakhot of hametz independently of the laws of Forbidden Foods in general, deriving the details of the laws of Passover from Torah verses rather than simply applying the preexistent laws of kashrut to the special case of hametz?

2) If the Rambam indeed believes that the halakhot governing hametz on Passover require their own separate derivations from Scripture, why does he then see fit to learn two of these laws from the same verse?

In this post, we will address the first of these challenges. Why doesn't the Rambam utilize the principles of the laws of kashrut with respect to hametz, rather than feeling compelled to derive the rules of hametz independently of other Forbidden Foods?

It would seem that the answer to this conundrum lies in a fundamental distinction between hametz and other non-kosher food items. The majority of prohibited foods are discussed in Sefer Qedusha, the Book of Holiness, which includes a section devoted to sexual prohibitions as well. The theme of the Book of Qedusha is the regulation and sublimation of instinctual forces to the higher purpose of serving Hashem and seeking knowledge of Him. This core principle is expressed in the Rambam's choice of "crowning verse" for the Book of Holiness:

"Guide my footsteps by Your word, and do not allow any wickedness to rule me."

Placing limitations on our physical gratification is the Torah's way of teaching us that instinctual pleasure should not be the ultimate objective of human life. The desire for physical satisfaction should not be allowed to dominate our psyches, shape our value systems or guide our actions. Enjoyment of the material world must be had in moderation, and appreciated as a means to more significant ends rather than as an end in itself. Our sense of purpose and the vision of good that we strive to realize must be drawn from our apprehension of God's wisdom and design and not from the ignoble recesses of our biological drives.

By contrast, the prohibition of hametz is found in Sefer Zemanim, the Book of Times, which deals days set aside - either by the Torah or the Rabbis - for reflection on important themes in Judaism. Once again, the verse chosen by the Rambam as the heading for this book speaks volumes:

"I shall inherit Your testimonies forever, for they are the joy of my heart."

In the case of Pesah, the emphasis is on recalling the event of the Exodus (Your testimonies) and the relevance of its lessons for the manner in which we conduct our lives (i.e., pursuit of true joy through the eschewing of materialism and the dedication of our resources to the service of Hashem). Abstaining from hametz is commanded not for the purpose of restricting our involvement in the instinctual, but for the purpose of highlighting key dimensions of the Exodus and its implications for our relationship to creature comforts and luxury.

With this in mind, we can appreciate why laws that hold in the context of Sefer Qedusha would not automatically be transferable to the context of Sefer Zemanim.

The notion that any prohibited food is also forbidden for benefit unless the Torah indicates otherwise makes perfect sense in the Book of Holiness. Since the goal of the mitsvot treated Sefer Qedusha is restricting our physical gratification, when an item is prohibited for consumption it stands to reason that all manner of deriving pleasure from the item should be similarly forbidden.

On the other hand, in the framework of Sefer Zemanim the logic of applying this rule is not immediately apparent. We abstain from hametz during Passover because of certain concepts that it represents, not because we are seeking to restrain our instincts to a greater degree. Thus, one might have quite rationally concluded that only eating and not benefiting from hametz would be prohibited.

Similarly, in the context of the Book of Holiness it is eminently reasonable to assume that even the slightest derivation of enjoyment from a forbidden food should be disallowed; hence the principle that forbidden food mixed into permitted food retains its prohibition as long as it is present in a certain of the final product, and the principle of "hatzi shiur", that the consumption of any quantity of a forbidden food item is prohibited.

However, in the context of Sefer Zemanim, we are not concerned with raw pleasure but with the philosophical significance of the entity of hametz. Thus, we might have easily assumed that only a legally substantial amount of hametz - hametz that exists independently of any mixture, and fully partakes of the form of bread and its properties both quantitatively and qualitatively - comes under the radar of halakha.

Because of the fundamental distinction between the thematic objectives of the Books of Times and Holiness, respectively, laws that are clearly established in one framework cannot necessarily be generalized and applied to the other. Thus, the Rambam saw fit to derive the prohibitions of benefiting from hametz, eating hametz in a mixture and consuming even a minute amount of hametz from verses in the Torah that deal with Pesah directly, and did not base these laws on the laws of kashrut.

One salient problem that remains is as follows:

We have offered reasons why the prohibition of hametz should be understood as starkly different from other Forbidden Food prohibitions, and why its regulations cannot be derived from the rules that apply to non-kosher items in general. We emphasized the distinctive nature of the hametz laws and explained that, without the special Scriptural derivations, we would have likely assumed that abstention from hametz did not involve restrictions on benefit, etc. So why is it that the Torah decided to impose such restrictions anyway? What insight can we glean from the ultimate inclusion of these additional rules in the context of hametz and matzah, despite compelling reasons to assume otherwise?

In a subsequent post, we will tackle the resolution of question #2 above and hopefully, in the course of discussing that issue, we will offer a response to this difficulty as well.


David Guttmann said...

Interesting chiluk. I understand the need for a passuk for issur hana'ah but re shiurim once there is an issur why is there a hava amina that different shiurim would apply? I think your explanation that minimal benefit would not be prohibited without a special limud is a little strained.

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