The Rambam on Hametz
In the first chapter of his Laws of Hametz and Matzah, the Rambam presents the various leaven-related prohibitions that apply during Passover. The Torah instructs us that we may not consume, benefit, or even possess hametz for the duration of the Pesah holiday.
I believe that the Rambam's formulation of the basic principles of these laws reveals a unique approach to the area of Hametz and Matzah that is worthy of recognition and reflection. In this regard, at least to my knowledge, the Rambam differed from many if not all other rabbinic thinkers, blazing an intellectual trail all his own. In this post, I hope to begin to demonstrate the creativity and depth of the Rambam's analysis of the nature of the hametz prohibition.
The second law in the first chapter of the Laws of Hametz and Matzah reads as follows:
"Hametz on Passover is prohibited to be a source of any benefit, as it is stated in the Torah, 'hametz shall not be eaten' (i.e., the verb is in the passive form)."
As the Aruch Hashulhan points out, the fact that Maimonides feels the need to bring a "prooftext" for the prohibition of benefiting from hametz poses a serious difficulty. After all, the Rambam himself rules in the Laws of Forbidden Foods that anytime a food is prohibited by the Torah it is automatically assumed to be prohibited for any kind of physical benefit unless proven otherwise. So, ostensibly, we would presume that hametz, by virtue of its being forbidden for consumption during Passover, is also forbidden for any benefit, since there is no indication to the contrary. Why does the Rambam bother citing a separate verse to establish that we are not allowed to benefit from hametz, when this would have been implicit in the statement that we may not eat it?
Similar problems abound in the first chapter in quick succession. For example, in Law #6, the Rambam writes:
"One is not liable for the penalty of excision [from the Jewish people] unless he consumes actual hametz. A mixture containing hametz, however, such as Babylonian dip, Median beer or anything else that has hametz mixed into it, if one eats them on Passover he receives lashes but not excision, as it is stated in the Torah, 'you shall not eat any leaven.' When is the law [that one is lashed for eating a hametz mixture] applicable? Only when, in the course of eating three egg-measures worth of the mixture he consumes an olive's bulk of hametz. However, if the mixture does not have a ratio of one olive's worth of hametz to every three eggs worth of mixture, then even though it is prohibited for consumption, if he eats it he only receives Rabbinically mandated lashes."
Furthermore, in Halakha #7 the Rambam adds:
"One who eats actual hametz on Passover of even the slightest quantity is violating a Torah prohibition, as it is stated in the Torah, 'hametz shall not be eaten'."
The Aruch Hashulhan objects to the Rambam's formulation of these halakhot for the same reason that he found fault with Halakha #2: namely, because these rules - the prohibition of benefit, the 'one olive for every three eggs' condition, and the notion that even the slightest quantity of hametz may not be eaten - are all explicitly laid out in the Rambam's general treatment of forbidden foods, and should not require separate Scriptural "prooftexts" related to hametz to support them.
Stated succinctly, then:
1) It is not because of any unique property of hametz that it is forbidden for benefit - this would be equally true of any non-kosher food that the Torah does not specifically exempt from that restriction.
2) Similarly, it is not because of some particular feature of hametz that it must be present in a mixture in certain quantities (i.e., an olive's worth in every three eggs-worth of foodstuff) in order to retain its identity - this is again true of all non-kosher substances that become intermingled with kosher foods.
3) Finally, it is not because of any special quality of hametz that the consumption of the slightest quantity thereof is considered a Torah violation - this is simply another application of a broad halachic principle known as 'hatzi shiur asur min haTorah', i.e., the consumption of less than the requisite amount (e.g., less than an olive's bulk) of any forbidden item is still considered a Torah offense, albeit not a Biblically punishable one.
Apparently, these three halakhic rulings of the Rambam are superfluous, since they are nothing more than applications of the general principles governing all Forbidden Foods. Why does the Rambam present these halakhot as if they are novel ideas only relevant to Passover?
Before we attempt to answer this problem, there is yet another anomaly in the halakhot that we should note. Let us return to Halakhot #2 and #7 once more:
(#2) "Hametz on Passover is prohibited to be a source of any benefit, as it is stated in the Torah, 'hametz shall not be eaten'."
(#7) "One who eats actual hametz on Passover of even the slightest quantity is violating a Torah prohibition, as it is stated in the Torah, 'hametz shall not be eaten'."
As the Aruch Hashulhan points out, the Rambam utilizes the same phrase - 'hametz shall not be eaten' - to derive two different halachot: the prohibition of benefiting from any hametz, as well as the prohibition of consuming even a minute amount of hametz.
Under normal circumstances, a separate verse would be adduced for each novel teaching; one for the prohibition of benefiting from hametz, and one for the prohibition of consuming even the slightest quantity of hametz. Assuming that the Rambam maintains that these laws need a special Scriptural source - a position about which we have already raised questions above - how can the Rambam justify learning both halakhot from the same source?
In the final analysis, then, we must deal with two fundamental problems in the Rambam's formulation of the basic "building blocks" of the prohibitions of hametz:
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 a follow-up post, I will present what I believe to be a compelling resolution to these difficulties. Stay tuned.