As Passover approaches, observant Jews spend time removing chametz, or leavened foods, from their homes. This is done in accordance with Jewish law, which prohibits the consumption and possession of chametz during the Passover holiday. But when exactly must chametz be eliminated before the holiday begins?
The biblical prohibition
The Torah states in Exodus 12:15: “Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” This establishes the biblical prohibition against possessing and eating chametz during the seven days of Passover.
To ensure that Jewish communities are aware of the prohibition well in advance, the sages of the Talmud instituted that Jews begin removing chametz from their homes before Passover. This process of cleansing the home of leavened foods is known as bedikat chametz, or “the search for chametz.”
The day before Passover
The practice recorded in the Talmud is to carry out a ceremonial search for chametz on the night before Passover. On the morning before Passover, any remaining chametz is burned. This represents the definitive removal of leavened foods from the home before the holiday begins that evening.
The fast of the firstborn
In some communities, the firstborn child fasts on the day before Passover until the search for chametz at night. This commemorates the salvation of the Israelite firstborns during the 10th plague in Egypt. The fast also ensures firstborns do not eat chametz on the day it must be eliminated.
When the prohibition takes effect
According to most rabbinic opinions, the Torah’s prohibition against eating chametz takes effect at the end of the fourth halachic hour on the day before Passover. This corresponds to late morning. At this time, ownership of chametz must be renounced and its consumption becomes biblically forbidden.
While the exact time varies, the deadline for eating chametz on the day before Passover falls sometime between 10-11am, depending on various calculations. Here is an overview of the timing:
|4th Halachic Hour
|Burning of Chametz
As the table shows, chametz may not be eaten after late morning on the day preceding Passover. The exact cutoff time depends on several factors, including the location and time of sunrise. But as a general rule, chametz should not be consumed after 10 or 11am.
Why stop eating chametz in the morning?
Ending consumption of chametz in late morning rather than in the evening may seem unusual. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that they set this earlier time to prevent inadvertent violation of the Torah prohibition:
“Since the prohibition does not take effect until the fourth hour, I might come to eat [chametz] after that time claiming that it is still permitted” (Pesachim 5a).
By instituting an earlier deadline, the sages built in a safeguard to eliminate the risk of accidentally consuming chametz after it became biblically prohibited. This was part of their broader strategy of creating fences around the Torah to help Jews follow its laws.
A Spiritual Preparation
Ending chametz consumption in the morning is also understood as beginning the process of spiritual preparation for the holiday. Just as time is needed to physically remove chametz from the home, an inner process of clarification from leavened foods is needed too. The earlier deadline ensures this takes place.
What about the night before?
In addition to the morning deadline, there are customs that apply the night before Passover as well:
- The final meal before the holiday should take place in the early afternoon.
- A festive search for chametz is performed after nightfall.
- The head of the household formally nullifies any chametz that may remain.
These practices symbolize the completion of the chametz removal process. They provide additional spiritual preparation to enter the holiday of Passover.
There are some variations in customs regarding how long chametz may be eaten the night before Passover:
- Some eat chametz until the start of the 4th halachic hour.
- Others stop at the beginning of the night.
- Some follow the custom of not eating chametz the entire day before.
These differences reflect the historical traditions of various Jewish communities. But the nearly universal custom is to not consume chametz at some point before the morning of the day preceding Passover.
What about chametz derivatives?
In addition to leavened breads and foods, the prohibition on chametz includes derivatives that contain leavened grains. These include:
- Alcohol distilled from grains
- Vinegar derived from grain fermentation
- Certain oils that may contain fermented grains
These chametz derivatives follow the same timeline for prohibition. Even if permitted to be eaten in the morning, they must be disposed of before Passover begins.
Medications that contain chametz derivatives may be permitted for use on Passover, depending on various health and religious factors. Consulting with a rabbi is advisable in such cases.
Selling the chametz
To avoid needing to wastefully destroy or dispose of chametz products, a customary option is to symbolically sell one’s chametz to a non-Jewish person. This temporarily transfers ownership of the products so they may be consumed rather than eliminated.
This sale traditionally takes place in the morning on the day before Passover. The chametz is purchased back immediately after the end of the holiday. During Passover, Jews may not benefit from or use the sold chametz even though they technically do not own it.
Appointing an agent
To facilitate the sale of chametz for a community, a rabbi often serves as an agent or broker. Community members authorize the rabbi to sell their chametz on their behalf.
Without such an arrangement, prohibitions on conducting business with non-Jews during holidays would prevent most people from personally arranging a chametz sale before Passover.
Starting the holiday chametz-free
The culmination of properly putting away chametz before Passover is a household cleansed of leavened substances as the holiday begins. Starting Passover completely chametz-free enables concentration on the unique mitzvot and themes of the festival without distraction or complication.
Through careful adherence to the relevant laws and customs, Jewish families transition smoothly into the holiday and celebrate to the fullest.
On a symbolic level, eliminating chametz represents removing the yetzer hara, the evil inclination or selfish drives. Just as chametz becomes inflated, the ego too can swell and spread through the person. Passover is the opportunity for clarity and freedom from negative impulses.
In summary, Jewish law prohibits the possession and consumption of chametz for the full seven days of Passover. To prevent inadvertent violation of this rule, rabbinic tradition established that the eating of chametz must cease sometime during late morning of the day preceding the holiday. Exact times vary based on calendar and geolocation calculations. Customs connected with searching for chametz the night before complement the morning deadline.
By clearing their homes and possessions of all leavened substances before Passover, observant Jews uphold the biblical prohibition against chametz during this holiday. This enables full reflection on the powerful themes and rituals of Passover without distraction from prohibited foods.