Pesah is approaching and all the cleaning works have begun – there are those who actually do it, those who think of doing it and those who are aware of those who clean for Pesah. In any case, the issue of hametz, the fermentation of cereal, is one of the central themes of this festival, since “Unleavened bread will be eaten these seven days, but no cereal ferment shall be seen, nor any sourdough shall be seen within all your borders” (Exod. 13:7)
Why getting rid of the hametz is so central in a festival that reminds us of liberty, of our freedom from slavery in Egypt?
Cereal ferment symbolizes two essential principles related to freedom. So essential they are that it is not enough to recall them in our minds, but a practical action must be taken to strongly root them in our souls.
Firstly, the hametz represents the Egyptian culture. Egypt was known in ancient times as the land of the leavened bread and the beer. The fermentation process of cereal grains or of dough requires a specific expertise to get a refined product. The process must be controlled to avoid ruining the dough by letting it become rotten. The Egyptians were masters in it and there are some scholars who think they even invented the technique. Dr. Tova Dickstein reminds us that the Greek historian Herodotus called the Egyptians “bread eaters” (“A new look at Hametz, Matza and everything in between”, Ne’ot Kedumim website). It seems to be that this was a widespread nickname for the Egyptians in the ancient world (H.E. Jacob, “Six thousand years of bread”).
The hametz, the cereal ferment, has a very close relation with Egypt and is even a mark of identification of the ancient Egyptian culture. So more so, Egypt was known because of its bread, and not because o its pyramids!
Avoiding hametz means to disengage from the Egyptian culture to earn freedom, to become independent, to establish and develop a different culture.
If so, why don’t we avoid the hametz completely, instead of only during seven days a year? Because it is a symbol and not the thing in itself. It reminds us of something that has to be recalled once in a while to avoid the indifference created by the routine.
Moreover, freedom does not mean the denial of the other culture, but the independence from it. The Egyptian culture had many positive assets, as well as negative elements like the slavery they imposed on us. We take the positive and reject the negative. Accepting the hametz during the year, while rejecting it during Pesah, during the festival of freedom, teaches us in a very strong way both the emancipation from the alien oppressing culture and the reinforcement of its positive aspects.
Secondly, the hametz symbolizes waiting. Sometimes it is important to wait, but in other instances it may mean to miss the opportunity. If our ancestors would have waited instead of leaving Egypt when God gave them the opportunity, we would have never been liberated. In Hebrew there is a single verb to express “missing an opportunity”: l’hachmitz. It derives from “hametz” and Rabbi Yoshia says: “The same as you don’t leaven the matzah, you don’t leaven [=miss] a mitzvah, but you fulfill it as soon as you have the opportunity” (Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael – Bo, Masekhta d’Pis’cha 9). This is a negative waiting that causes loss and destruction. Refraining from hametz during the seven days of the Festival of freedom reminds us that there are certain instances in which we risk to lose everything if we just hold and wait.
Disengaging from the alien culture so as to emancipate from it and grasping the right moment so as not to miss the opportunity – these are two foundational and essential concepts of the Jewish civilization. Both are related to hametz, the ferment of cereal, and our separating from it in Pesah.