[Note: The following is, as is everything on this site, for information purposes only. The decision to act on any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
As I said in the introductory post, the goal of this series is not to deal with the halakhoth in depth, but to briefly address certain myths and misunderstandings regarding the laws of Pesah in an effort to help people change their Pesah experience. As such, the following is brief, but the information contained in it is enough to re-frame the common [mid]conceptions of hamess.
Definition of Hamess
I decided to begin with this topic because many mistaken ideas and myths have cropped up about what hamess actually is and where it comes from. The definition, as related by the halakhah, is surprisingly simple:
אין אסור משום חמץ בפסח אלא חמשת מיני הדגן בלבד והם שני מיני החיטים שהן החיטה והכוסמת ושלושת מיני השעורים שהן השעורה ושיבולת שועל והשיפון
“There is no prohibition of hamess on Pesah except in regard to the five species of grain alone, and they are: two species of wheat, which are wheat and wild wheat, and three species of barley, which are six-rowed barley, two-rowed barley, and wild barley.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:1a)
And, in our modern era when so many hybrids of wheat and barley have been created (to the point that the original “heirloom” varieties are all but lost), it is good to simply say that the prohibition of involves any species of wheat or barley. But does this mean that if someone keeps dry wheat berries or barley corns in bulk that they must get rid of them on Pesah? No. It is only when they are either soaked in water or ground into flour and kneaded with water do they become hamess.
ואם נתערב בהן מים כל שהוא הרי אלו מחמיצין
“…And if any amount of water is mixed with [their flour – i.e. of the five grains listed above], behold they become hamess.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:2)
In order to avoid the prohibition of hamess with regard to these grains, it is absolutely forbidden to make any kind of noodle or dumpling on Pesah, to soak grains in water until they crack open (the Rambam mentions that it has become the general practice not to do so for any length of time, even if they have not cracked open), chew whole kernels, to put flour as an ingredient into anything not baked into massoth, or to knead a large amount of dough at one time (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5 – read entire chapter).
Essentially, anything with wheat or barley that is not baked carefully into massoth is forbidden – this is hamess, nothing else. This includes all derivatives, liquid or solid, from such a mixture, e.g. beer, kutah, some types of vinegar, brewers’ yeasts, etc.
Qitniyoth and “Levels” of Hamess
The issue of qitniyoth has become one of contention among poseqim and religious Jews in the last decade or so, but has been a source of dispute ever since the practice was introduced in France during the Middle Ages. Much has been written on this subject, so I will not write about it extensively here. However, the Rambam succinctly rules on the subject and, as he usually does, leaves no doubt as to how qitniyoth are viewed halakhically on Pesah.
אבל הקטנייות כגון אורז ודוחן ופולים ועדשים וכיוצא בהן אין בהן משום חמץ; אלא אפילו לש קמח אורז וכיוצא בו ברותחין וכיסהו בבגדים עד שנתפח כמו בצק שהחמיץ הרי זה מותר באכילה שאין זה חימוץ אלא סירחון
“But qitniyoth, such as rice, millet, beans, lentils, and other such species like them – there is no prohibition of hamess with regard to them at all. Rather, even if one were to knead rice flour, or any other kind of qitniyoth flour, with hot water, cover it with a cloth until it rises like a dough that has become hamess – behold this is permitted to be eaten on Pesah since it is not hamess, but is rather decay (sirahon).” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:1b)
The halakhah is very clear – there is absolutely no prohibition of hamess with regard to qitniyoth. The overwhelming amount of evidence that this practice was based on misconceptions about the nature of hamess is almost incontrovertible, and it was also likely due to Karaite influences whose definition of “hamess” included anything fermented, such as yogurts, cheeses, etc.
Yeast – of the variety NOT derived from flour and water mixtures – is also not hamess and may be used on Pesah. In fact, there are Sefaradim that use baking soda and yeast with rice flour to make bread, rolls, or cookies during Pesah.
There is no such thing as a “secondary form” or “rabbinic level” of hamess – it is either hamess or it isn’t.
Conclusion: Beware of the Bubbe-Meisios
To conclude, I would like to relate a Hasidic story that I – almost without fail – hear every year at Pesah from either a Haredi figure, publication, or in the mouth of some poor shmoe who has been unwittingly taken in by their nonsense.
The story is told about a certain chasid that brought a gift of large, prize-winning sized carrots to the Belzer Rebbe on the morning of `Erev Pesah to be used for karpas during the seder. The chasid returned home, happy with himself that he had given the rebbe such a gift. Upon returning home, his gardener makes mention to him that the secret to such large, beautiful carrots is watering them with beer. A sense of horror overtakes the chasid because he thinks that he has just gifted chametz to his rebbe, and for use the seder no less. He then races back to the home of the Belzer Rebbe to inform him that the carrots are chametz and should not be used. Upon his arrival, the rebbe informs him that the carrots were already burned with the rest of the chametz that morning because the rebbe knew that since it was not the “minig” to use carrots for karpas, he perceived that something must be wrong and decided to destroy them. At this point, the one telling the story expects those listening to be struck with awe at the piety of chassidus and the mystical insight of the Belzer Rebbe.
What a crock! There are so many things wrong with this story, it is difficult to know where to begin. Carrots, or anything else, watered with beer (or any other type of hamess) do not become hamess! Vegetables are regularly fertilized with animal fecal matter and they are not thereby considered tamey as is fecal matter! The whole idea that the carrots were hamess is patently ridiculous. And carrots are perfectly fine for use at karpas during the seder – they are a vegetable which has a berakhah of Borei feri ha-adhamah. And the rebbe has an excuse to rudely destroy a perfectly kosher gift of food because he supposedly felt a “disturbance in the force”? The prohibition of bal tash’hith doesn’t apply to Jedis I guess. The entire story is ludicrous and contrary to all mesorah and halakhah found in Hazal.
This, as well as many other supposedly “inspiring” Hasidic stories, only serve to show how false and empty the “piety” of Hasidism really is. In future posts, I will address other Pesah inventions of Hasidism, such as the entirely baseless practice of “gebrokts.” Until then, however, beware of bubbe-meisios and settle yourself in the halakhic directives of Hazal and their faithful expositors.
More to come.