Friday, April 25, 2008

Rambam on Hametz III

We left off in our last post with the following difficulty:

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?

As I mentioned in the conclusion of that post, this question is ultimately linked to another one:

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?

All of this confusion revolves around the peculiarities of a single phrase, "hametz shall not be eaten".What is the significance of this verse in the Rambam's treatment of the prohibition of hametz?

We have already established that, unlike other forbidden foods whose prohibition is designed to regulate or restrict the instinctual drives in human beings, hametz serves a totally different function - abstention from leaven is intended to remind us of the themes and lessons of the Exodus. While we understand the role of a prohibition on benefit or on consuming even minute quantities of forbidden foods when the goal is placing limitations on bodily impulse, it is harder to see the objective of these rules when we are dealing with hametz, which is prohibited not because it is enjoyable but because it represents a certain concept or idea.

The answer lies in the nuance of the verse, "it shall not be eaten". The Torah is teaching us that a prohibition of benefit need not be limited to cases in which physical enjoyment is the focus. Deriving benefit from a food is not only about the experience of sensual pleasure had by the beneficiary; it is also an activity that lends value and significance to the food itself.

When we utilize an object for a beneficial purpose, we demonstrate that the object is important to us, that we perceive it as a worthwhile possession. Hence, on Pesah, when we are commanded to repudiate and nullify hametz altogether, benefiting from it must also be prohibited. 'It shall not be eaten', written in the passive form, means that hametz as an object should not be related to as a source of pleasure, as an entity of value.

For the same reason, the Torah prohibits even the slightest amount of hametz from being consumed. True, from the perspective of the individual, eating such a small quantity of hametz would hardly interfere with his adoption of the "matzah framework" of Passover. Intellectually and emotionally, abstaining from the consumption of hametz in its most obvious forms might be sufficient to keep him engaged in the Pesah experience.

However, from the standpoint of totally rejecting hametz as an object of importance, it is necessary to avoid even a trace of the substance for the duration of the holiday. Anything less than an absolute withdrawal from hametz would, in this regard, be insufficient, since an attribution of any value the hametz whatsoever would thwart the ultimate purpose of the law. This is not about limiting enjoyment as per the laws of kashrut; it is about highlighting the essential principles of the Passover holiday through the repudiation of hametz.

Why does proper observance of Pesah hinge upon denying any significance to hametz? Why does the Torah formulate our commemoration of the Exodus in this unusual manner?

At the time that our ancestors first tasted freedom, the potential existed that the Jewish people might lapse into self-indulgent luxuriating and become yet another materialistic culture. Departing from Egypt in haste reminded the Jews that their liberation had a purpose - to transform them into a nation consecrated not to the pursuit of luxury and the worship of human power, but to the recognition and service of a transcendent God.

We work to internalize this lesson each year by adopting matzah, the bread of affliction and servitude, as our staple food, precisely as we reflect upon and express our gratitude for the blessing of freedom. By so doing, we demonstrate our desire to utilize our resources not for selfish gratification but in the service of the noble spiritual mission for which Hashem selected us.

In order to accomplish the transition to matzah, we must systematically rid ourselves and our domains of all hametz, separating ourselves from the bread of wealth and comfort that represents the central focus of the materialistic culture from which we struggle to be liberated. For matzah to become our staple food for the week, its arch competitor for our affections, hametz, must be put out of commission altogether. Withdrawing ourselves from any involvement with hametz is our way of preventing it from making its alluring presence felt throughout the holiday and compromising the relationship we establish with matzah.

If we truly mean to reject hametz for the duration of Pesah, it is not sufficient to abstain from consuming and owning it in its fully constituted form. We must also restrain ourselves from attributing any significance to it whatsoever. Halakhically, we accomplish this feat by disallowing the derivation of any benefit from hametz, and by prohibiting the consumption of even the slightest quantity of it on Passover. All of this is learned, as the Rambam teaches, from the words "hametz shall not be eaten".

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