The Real Meaning of Chametz: Passover...or the Tabernacle? | Aleph Beta

Is Chametz About Passover...Or The Tabernacle?

The Real Meaning Of Chametz

Rivky Stern

Executive Producer

The Torah tells us that on Passover we must refrain from owning or eating chametz. But for some reason, in Parshat Tzav, we're told an additional wrinkle about chametz.

Tzav brings us deeper into offerings, the Tabernacle, the role of the priests... and we're given laws about chametz. Wait, what? For some reason, the Torah prohibits us from bringing chametz with offerings on the altar. And that’s bizarre. Isn't chametz about Passover?

Apparently this isn't a law about Passover; chametz has always prohibited from being on the alter. What could chametz possibly have to do with offerings? Join Rivky for this video, as she dives deeper into the laws of chametz and sacrifices, and in doing so, helps us understand how we can possibly relate to the minutiae of Mishkan offerings today.

For related videos, see: Tzav Parsha Lab podcast

For more on sacrifices, click here.

For Bikkurim, click here to see this video on Parshat Ki Tavo.

For understanding milk and meat click here and to see this epilogue to Mishpatim click here.


Hi, I’m Rivky Stern, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Tzav.

Parshat Tzav continues the themes of the book of Vayikra. We’re given laws of the korbanot, the offerings, we’re given laws about the roles of the priests in the mishkan, the Tabernacle. Therefore, of course, it makes complete sense, that one of the things we’re told about in this week’s parsha is, the prohibition of...chametz.

Wait, whattttt? Rivky, you must be mistaken.

What Is Chametz Doing Here?

There’s nothing about chametz here. Chametz, the prohibition on leavened bread, is a Passover law, not a law about the offerings. That's taught in the book of Exodus, where we learn all about the laws of Passover!

No, guys, it’s true. This week’s parsha reviews the laws of the korban mincha, the mincha offering. We’re told that the priests were to take flour and oil, and some frankincense for the scent, and offer it to God on the mizbeach, the altar. But here’s what’s odd. We’re also told:

מצות תאכל

They [The mincha] should be eaten as matzot.

לא תאפה חמץ

Don’t bake the bread with chametz

Why would that be? And it’s not just this verse. Earlier in Vayikra in chapter 2, the prohibition of chametz is applied to any offering brought on the altar... לא תעשה, חמץ... and that's not all. If we go even further back, the roots of this prohibition extend even before there's any mention of a mishkan at all, way back at Sinai. Look at the law that God brings to the people in Exodus, chapter 23:

לא-תזבח על-חמץ, דם-זבחי

Don’t offer the blood of a sacrifice to me, with chametz.

Why Is Chametz Forbidden?

So look at this! It seems like the prohibition on bringing chametz is critical to all offerings on the altar. And that’s bizarre. Because, we know what chametz is about, right? Chametz is about Passover. Not the sacrifices brought any old day to the mishkan! And indeed, some commentaries do argue that this verse in Exodus is specifically about not bringing chametz with the Passover offering, presumably because the previous section of text had been talking about the Biblical holidays, including Passover. And that might make sense right? On Passover, you can’t eat chametz, you can’t own chametz, and of course, you can’t bring the Passover offering with chametz!

But... there are also several midrashim that actually agree with the peshat, the straightforward reading of the text, that this law, not to bring offerings with chametz, refers to all offerings brought on the altar, not just the Passover offering. And Maimonides, the Rambam, also seems to read the verse that way.

So maybe we have to rethink our entire idea of what chametz really is.

What Is Chametz Really About?

We had always thought that chametz is about the unleavened bread the Israelites had on their backs as they fled Egypt… but if that’s the case, why does the Torah also tell us, over and over, that we shouldn’t bring chametz with our offerings, don’t bring to them God on the altar?

I’d like to offer a theory, based on a conversation Imu and I had in the Parsha Lab podcast about Tzav. My theory – or really, Imu’s theory – is that we’ll actually find the answer to this question through the wider context of the verse we just quoted, in Exodus 23. You see, generally, when when are told not to bring chametz in offerings, it’s told in the context of, well, offerings – which makes sense. But Exodus 23 brings this law in the context of a few other laws. Maybe, when we read these laws together, a pattern will begin to emerge, and that will shed light as to why God doesn’t want chametz offered up on the altar.

Understanding Why Chametz Is Forbidden with Sacrifices

The verses begin with our law:

לא-תזבח על-חמץ, דם-זבחי

Don’t offer the blood of a sacrifice to me, with chametz. [Then:]

ולא-ילין חלב-חגי, עד-בקר

Don’t leave the leftover fats from my feast-offering until the morning. [ Next:]

ראשית, בכורי אדמתך, תביא, בּית יהוה אלהיך

Bring the first fruits that you grow, to the house of God. [And one more:]

לא-תבשל גדי, בחלב אמו

Don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

What a random smattering of laws. We recognize some of them – don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk, give your first fruits to God. But leftover fats? Not sure what that is exactly. And don’t offer sacrifices with chametz – well as we established already, we don’t entirely get why this law even exists, let alone why it appears here, with these other laws? What does the law of chametz and sacrifices have to do with these laws about leftover fats, bikkurim, and cooking a kid in its mother’s milk?

So here’s what we’re going to do. To try to understand these four seemingly-disparate laws, we’re going to slow down, and dive into each and every one of them. As we do so, I think we’ll be able to build a theory that explains why they’re all grouped together. And then, hopefully, we’ll finally be able to answer our million dollar question, why don’t we bring chametz on to the altar of God?

So let’s start with bikkurim, that law that teaches us – when you finally arrive in the land of Israel – when the fruit and grain finally sprouts and the land yields its produce; as soon as that happens, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, grab the first fruits, and bring it straight to God’s house.

And, the text tells us, later in Deuteronomy, as you set the fruits down in front of God’s altar, you also give a little speech. You say, God, my ancestor was a wandering Aramean, and he ended up in Egypt and became a great nation there, but then, our people were enslaved. We cried out to God, and God heard us, and saved us, and freed us from Egypt. And then, God brought us to this place, and gave us this land, this land flowing with milk and honey.

It’s definitely a strange speech. Why do we have to recount Biblical history for God, when we bring bikkurim? I think God remembers what happened…

But really, we’re thinking about it wrong. We’re not recounting that history for God. We’re recounting it, for us.

You see, when we were back in the wilderness, God was feeding us, giving us shelter, leading us on a journey – we were so dependent on God, so close with God, there was no possibility of distance between us.

But then...after forty years, we arrived in Israel. Now, we’re living in homes that we built. We’re living off of food that we’ve grown. I look around, at my land, at my family, at the new wing I put into my house – and I feel strong. Look what I’ve accomplished! Look what I did!

And yeah, you did do these things! It’s fair, it’s understandable, to be proud. But, you see, there’s a real spiritual danger here, in taking this idea a little bit...too far. In thinking, I did this. Me. By myself. The danger is, I could forget that I didn’t do these things alone.

So when the farmer grows his new fruit, every year, and the first thing he does is run to give those fruits to God, and he makes a speech saying, I remember. I know I’m only here because You brought me here, You enabled all this, the farmer is recognizing the truth. He didn’t plant these fruits, and grow these fruits, because he’s just an incredible farmer. He was able to do it, because God brought him to this place, to make him able to do these things. Bikkurim helps the farmer recognize, and remind himself, to feel that humility, to see that he is not the center of the world.

So let’s ask: is it possible that this same lesson maybe relates to the other three laws, as well?

Well, let’s go next to the mitzvah not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. Rabbi Fohrman addresses this topic in a different video and explains that milk is the beautiful and important link between mother and child. A mother uses her milk to feed her child, to provide life, and nourishment, for her child. When we take that milk, and use it as just another ingredient in our recipe of cooking the kid, not only do we sever that connection between them, we do it barbarically. We see both the kid, and the milk from its mother, as nothing but ingredients for our own consumption, our own needs.

But when I take a step back, when I make the choice not to eat the kid with its mother’s milk, I’m taking that active step – I see you, and I recognize your relationship. You are a mother who provides for her child – and your milk is not merely an ingredient. You, a kid, are not merely my lunch – you are a child. There’s a humility there, in recognizing that these animals are not merely for me. Again, I am not the center of the world.

So we’re starting to see the theory more fleshed out. let’s keep going; do we see this theme of humility continue in the other two commandments?

Chametz, Laws... and Humility?

Let’s look at the prohibition against leaving over fats on the altar. The Torah tells us, when you’re bringing an offering, and it’s supposed to burn for God, all night, on the altar. Don’t stop the korban when it’s not fully burnt and just leave over the fats. It seems like we can see the theme continuing here as well. When we bring a korban, we’re making a statement – God, here is an animal I raised and toiled for. It's a product of my own hard work, and a staple of my livelihood. But I'm giving it to You, because I know that what I have, even what I work for, truly comes from You. You are the giver of life, the true source of sustenance and livelihood.

But if I truly believe it’s all from God, and I want to show that, I don’t stop in the middle, I don't leave anything behind – not even the last bits of fat. Neglecting to burn all of it, it kind of means: Look! I showed my gratitude, and then turned around and walked away. It's like bringing a fancy gift to someone as a sign of appreciation, but instead of handing it to them and telling them how much they mean to you, you leave it at the doorstep and walk away.

This is that same spiritual danger. We’re forgetting that these offerings, they’re not just ingredients I throw together, dump on the altar, and finish up when it works for me. These fats, this offering, they’re not just for us, to do with them what’s convenient. They’re for God.

So we’ve established that these three laws are about humility, about avoiding this spiritual danger of seeing everything around us as mere ingredients for us, extensions of ourselves. And now, we finally get to chametz. How does this law about chametz and the altar fit with this theme?

Well, what is chametz, really? And, for that matter, what is matza?

The Meaning of Chametz the simplest bread you can imagine. You take natural ingredients – flour made from wheat, combined with water or oil – and you bake it, quickly, simply. But chametz...chametz is more complicated than that. We take the wheat, and we process it...with yeast. Yes, the yeast is natural; but in the time of offerings, they weren’t going to the grocery story and buying it. They were actively growing the yeast themselves, day after day, feeding it, taking care of it. And after weeks of cultivating yeast, once it was finally ready, baking the actual bread is a whole other story!

My husband bakes sourdough, so I’ve seen how slow and painstaking this process is. It takes hours, even days, to form a single loaf, mixing the dough, letting it rise, working it, proofing it, letting it rise again... and when it’s done, what he’s created never ceases to blow me away. Somehow, by literally getting hands dirty, working together flour, water and yeast that he grew himself, it fundamentally alters the bread, makes it a product that is more innovative, sophisticated, processed… more human.

It’s completely different than the simple matza. When I make matza, there’s no question, of course this is from God. There's no great human ingenuity here, no huge technological achievement. Just throw together the ingredients, and cook it in the fire. But with bread, after I put so much of myself into it – after I cultivated this yeast, after I spent hours, days, weeks, creating this bread – I can forget about God’s involvement. I can easily think, I did this. This was all me, by myself.

So when God tells us, no chametz on the altar – God is saying, when you bring a sacrifice to me – be aware of that spiritual danger. Chametz, that human creation, that innovation, it’s not inherently bad, but it’s that’s not what happens here, in the mishkan. In God’s home, we are very careful about that danger, of reminding ourselves, I didn’t do this alone.

I find it interesting that all four of these laws, they’re all about food, all about consumption. And I think there’s a reason for this. Eating is one of the most dominant acts that we do on a daily basis. When I eat, I exercise mastery over each thing on my plate. It’s mine. And so when it comes to the food we eat, and the food that we give to God, it’s so easy to forget that this world is not mine, that God created and enabled everything that I have.

Chametz and Consumption

Through these four laws, the Torah seems to be teaching us how to consume. Consumption isn’t bad, we’re allowed to eat meat, we’re allowed to eat chametz – but, there’s a right and a wrong way. Do it humbly. We have to be careful and conscious, and not think of ourselves as the master of that which we consume. You may be so proud of what you’ve done, you’ve grown crops, you’ve made a more sophisticated bread… There is a danger in seeing everything around you as an ingredient for you, danger in seeing yourself as the center of it all.

When we bring bread on God's altar, we leave the chametz behind. That noble sign of human ingenuity and achievement, we check it at the door. In God's house, we bring our offerings with humility. We recognize that what we have, even what we've made, does not begin and end with us. Only then, can we recognize our Creator, and really connect with God.

Thanks for watching. In this video, we touched on themes that appear in a lot of different Aleph Beta videos – most of all, in the Parsha Lab podcast that I did with Imu, in which he brought these strands together for me. If you’re interested in exploring that podcast, or any other videos that touch on some of these ideas, click on the the links in the description of this video, they’re really worth checking out.

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