For the week ending 20 April 2024 / 12 Nissan 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - Matzah and Chametz

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: Matzah and Chametz

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

Mitzvos #9-12; #19-20


The Torah clearly explains several times that we must eat matzah on Pesach to recall how, when the time for the Exodus arrived, Hashem led us to freedom in a hurry before our dough could rise. According to this, matzah is a celebratory symbol. In one place, though, the Torah indicates a seemingly opposite idea. The verse states, “eat along with [the Pesach offering] bread of affliction” (Devarim 16:3), which Rashi explains to mean, “bread that reminds us of our affliction in the Egyptian bondage.” As is well-known, matzah is the type of simple bread prepared by a pauper who lacks the tools, the ingredients, and the time to bake anything more substantial. It thus reminds us of our slavery in Egypt when we endured destitution and affliction, and in fact, according to several Commentators, we ate matzos during that time. The verse that calls matzah “bread of affliction” proceeds to mention the other idea, “because you left Egypt in a hurry.” But is there any connection between our hurry to leave Egypt and our affliction as slaves?

It would appear that the idea behind leaving Egypt in a hurry is twofold: Firstly, Hashem demonstrated His might by hurrying the Egyptians to release His people. Secondly, one of the main reasons we had to undergo the Egyptian bondage was to train us how to be slaves to Hashem (see Devarim 4:20). We served Pharaoh for generations, serving him every waking hour with backbreaking labor building cities that immediately collapsed and left us feeling bitterly empty. The rights to that unconditional slavery — symbolized by the “bread of affliction” — would now pass over to our Redeemer, Master, and eternal God, Hashem. He did not just hurry the Egyptians when He redeemed us, He also hurried us, similar to how a slave driver makes his charges move. He thereby indicated that He was not granting us total independence, but rather He was redeeming us for Himself (see Berachos 9a). This may be what the Torah means when it commands us to eat “bread of affliction because you left Egypt in a hurry.” In stark contrast, after experiencing the lowly and bitter subjugation under the Egyptians, we can appreciate our servitude to Hashem as an exalted privilege and everlasting pleasure.


One of the questions of the Mah Nishtanah is why we eat only matzah and no chametz.If it is the wise son who is asking this question, he means as follows: Was it not enough for Hashem to command us to each matzah so that we remember the Exodus? Why did He also have to command us not to eat chametz? The wise son may also mean to ask why Hashem commanded us with the time-consuming task of removing any hint of chametz from our property.

On a simple level of understanding, if not for the prohibition against eating chametz,people would prefer to eat it as usual instead of eating matzah (Chizkuni).The prohibition of retaining chametz in our possession is a safeguard for the prohibition against eating chametz. If we would not remove chametz from our possession, it would be difficult to avoid eating it during Pesach, especially since we are used to eating it throughout the year.

On a deeper level of understanding, chametz symbolizes the yetzer hara, which manifests in puffed-up arrogance (see Berachos 17a). At the time of the year that we recall our subjugation to Hashem, it is imperative to also take to heart that we cannot compromise an inch with the yetzer hara — or it will take a mile. Sly as the primeval Serpent that tricked Adam and Eve into forfeiting their Divinity, the yetzer hara encourages people to maximize permitted pleasures. Once it has worn out their spiritual sensitivities, it leads them a step further to commit minor transgressions, thereby whetting their appetite for greater transgressions, and so on. We have to stop the enemy by the border. If we can avoid chametz-like feelings of arrogance and remain humbly satisfied with our lots, we can succeed in keeping focused on spiritual pursuits that bring lasting satisfaction. Then we will not feel compelled to follow the yetzer hara in hot pursuit after physical satisfaction that invariably ends in some measure of sin and, ironically, dissatisfaction.

With regard to the prohibition against retaining chametz in our possession on Pesach, we may note that there is a similar prohibition against keeping an idol in one’s possession, which applies throughout the year. By treating chametz on Pesach with the same stringency, the Torah indicates that arrogance is abominable like idol worship (see Sotah 4b). The prohibition against keeping the slightest bit of chametz in sight reminds us that we cannot “see,” or consider, the yetzer hara’s twisted perspectivein the slightest.

The obvious question that follows is that if chametz symbolizes the yetzer hara, why is there no prohibition against eating chametz throughout the year? The answer is straightforward: we need the yetzer hara. Without it, people would not feel driven to engage in the essential earthly pursuits of commerce and marriage, and the world would lie desolate. However, we have to remember the dictum of the Sages, “Draw the yetzer hara near with your right hand, but push it back with your left hand.” In other words, make use of it but exercise moderation. If we start at Pesach chametz-free, with a firm, uncompromising resolve to serve Hashem with humble alacrity, we can hope to stay on course until the following Pesach, next year in Yerushalayim.

Based on Taamei HaMitzvos by Rav Menachem HaBavli

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