Passover and Leaven

matzot-350x200These days one hears much about the "Holiday" of Passover and even we Karaites refer to it often. But in the Hebrew Bible there is no such holiday! In the Tanach "Passover" is the name of a sacrifice, while the holiday is called Chag HaMatzot ("Feast of Unleavened Bread"). Thus in the verse: "Draw out and take a lamb according to your families, and slaughter (KJV: kill) the passover." (Exodus 12:21). In this verse the "Passover" is the lamb that is to be sacrificed by slaughtering and eating it. Similarly in Exodus 12:26-27:

"...when your children shall say to you, What mean ye by this service? And you shall say, It is the sacrifice of Yehovah's passover"

The service of slaughtering the lamb and eating it is called "the sacrifice of Yehovah's passover". This is also the meaning of Passover in the verse: "In the fourteenth day of the first month between the two evenings is Yehovah's passover" (Leviticus 23:5). And again in Deuteronomy 16,1: "Observe the month of the Aviv, and perform the passover unto Yehovah your God". To "perform" or "keep" the Passover (in Hebrew literally "do the Passover") means to bring the Passover sacrifice and eat it. It is only in post-Biblical times that the word Passover took on the new meaning of referring to the Holiday on which the sacrifice was eaten and not to the sacrifice itself. Today we often hear of the "Passover Holiday" and "Chag Ha-Pessach" both of which are post-Biblical inventions. In the Tanach the Holiday is called Chag HaMatzot which means: "Feast of Unleavened Bread".

What is Leaven?

There is a centuries-old debate among the Karaites themselves about the definition of Hametz (leaven). According to the first opinion Hametz is the process of leavening that occurs to certain grains when they are mixed with water. The test to identify what types of grain can become Hametz is to take the flour of that grain, mix it with water, and leave it for a few hours. If the dough rises, that grain is subject to becoming Hametz (leaven). On the other hand, if the dough spoils, then that grain or plant is not leaven-able and it can be freely used and cooked on Passover.

This seems rather obvious but in the Middle Ages the question arose of whether lentil-flour was permissible on Passover. While lentils are not grains, their flour looks much like wheat-flour. The Rabbanites too puzzled over this issue and to this day Sephardic Rabbanites eat lentils on Passover while Ashkenazic Rabbanites do not. Rather than accept arbitrary rulings the Karaite sages sat down and performed experiments. They concluded that the flour of lentils does not rise but spoils and therefore lentils in all its forms are permissible on Passover. The same with rice which is also permissible in all its forms on Passover. Adherents of this view include most of the medieval Karaite sages including Aharon ben Eliyah and Elijah Baschyatchi (see below) as well as the present author.

Not all Karaites agree with this definition. The second school of thought argues that Hametz is not strictly speaking "leavening" but something like "fermentation". They point out that in biblical Hebrew vinegar is called "Hometz Yayin" meaning "leavened-wine" (others translate: "soured wine"). This is used as proof that Hametz refers not only to the leavening of grains but any fermentation or souring process. Based on this reasoning, they forbid the consumption of anything fermented. Included in their list of forbidden foods on Passover are all forms of alcohol, and all milk products such as yogurts and cheeses. Some, although not all, include lentils and rice in this list of forbidden items. This school also considers wine to be Hametz, which is somewhat surprising given that vinegar is called "leavened-wine" (implying that the difference between wine and vinegar is that the latter is leavened but the former is not!). Adherents of this view include the medieval Karaite sage Samuel al-Maghrebi.

The following are excerpts from the writings of some medieval Karaite sages on Hametz:

"and the sage our teacher Yosef Kirkisani said... only the five types of grain can be made into Hametz, namely wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye. And the sage was correct because whatever experimentation shows to leaven can be used for Matzah, but the flour of the other 'seeds' do not leaven. For example, [the flour of] millet, rice, beans, lentils, and peas do not leaven but spoil [lit. 'stink']." [Aharon ben Eliyahu (14th Century), Gan Eden, pp.45d-46a].

"The sage Yosef Kirkisani said that only the five types of grain can be made into Hametz, namely, wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye. It has also been said that if experimentation shows that a thing can become leaven then it can be used to make Matzah. However, all the other 'seeds' such as bean, lentil, pea, millet, and rice flours do not leaven but spoil [lit. stink]. And the sage our teacher Aharon (author of Etz Hayyim) said that all of these matters can become known through experimentation and he has spoken well for millet flour if left with water for a number of days does leaven. Therefore, in truth, there are six types of grain that can leaven and from which Matzah can be made: the aforementioned five as well as millet. And if Hametz is made from any of these it must be destroyed... and so too any alcohol made from the five types of grain [e.g. beer] or from millet. But some of the fools in our times who pretend to be wise do not eat anything that ferments based on the verse 'no leaven shall you eat' such as fermented milk [i.e. yogurt, etc.] and fruits soaked in water; they also refrain from eating beans and rice and any type of 'seed' and this is because of their foolishness and their lack of knowledge..." [Elijah Baschyatchi (15th century), Aderet Eliyahu, Ramla 1966, pp.133-134]

See also the treatise of Samuel al-Maghrebi in Karaite Anthology.

Have a happy and Kosher Chag HaMatzot!


Related Articles:
Torah Pearls - Passover Special
When is Passover
When was the Passover Sacrifice Brought
Traditional Karaite Matzah Recipe

15 thoughts on “Passover and Leaven

  1. shalom nehemiah, here is my question, from your article the karaite sages point out five grain that will become hamets: if a leavening agent is added to any grain not listed in five does that product then becomes hamets and thus unsuitable for consumtion during chag hamastot.

  2. Thank you for the insight as to the physical application of this. What is the traditional spiritual interpretation of this? We have always seen the spiritual side of this to be that we need to examine the practices of our house for teachings and practices that have soured or bloated beyond their initial intent. (ie. Maybe a tradition that has evolved into something that is outside of Biblical.) Would this also seem relevant?

  3. I was faced with an awkward situation. How to express accurately the Passover rituals. Is the Torah using slang here too? If we use the word slay, being some derivative of the word slaughter, as in ritual slaughter, to express the Hebrew for shachat, for Ex.12:21, then what of zebach in Ex.12:27? Passover was a completely unique event, being originally performed before the Tabernacle, or the Ark. Then things changed at some point, probably twice. Is Ex.12:27 looking forward in time? Zebach is the same term used again in Lev.17 for the right manner of taking an animal’s life with the altar (Ark in this instance) having been established, shachat for inappropriate, well illegal, actions. In the first instance there was no threat of a future judgment, it was immediate. Do this, or game over for your firstborn men, and beasts. So at the point of Leviticus being established as a section of Law, has Passover become an atoning sacrifice? Then is zebach always pointing to an atoning sacrifice? Is it simply a picture of the past? Later on there is a national lamb selection and offering, yet by whom, and where, was this prescribed?
    Thanks Nehemia for helping me and many others to see how certain things were to be performed. Yet how are we to interpret the instructions for what can no longer be performed? Surely these are the questions we are to ask as we attempt to recreate a shadow of former days, and honour the Word of YHWH.

  4. What did they coming out of Egypt consider leaven? How did they make their bread rise? I use yeast or baking powder, so isn’t it enough to rid my cupboard of yeast and baking powder?

    • They had two ways of making it rise: 1) Let it sit for 2-3 days, 2) Mix it with “leaven”, what we call “starter dough” today. Modern yeast is actually “brewers’ yeast”, a by product of beer production.

      • I have a flat bread recipe I was given while visiting the middle east, that I’d wondered how far back it went. It’s made from wholemeal flour, salt and water sitting 2-3 days to ferment, then cooked on a hot oily surface. If I cook it immediately after mixing, it reminds me of homemade matza. It didn’t make sense to me to assume all flat breads were baked, because while wandering the desert did they really lug around or keep building ovens? It makes more sense if they cooked it on a hot surface because a pan can be easily transported. This bread would fit right in with that environment.

  5. Good food for thought here Nehemia. Have a blessed holydays (holidays)… We had a great meal and awesome lamb and enlightening fellowship last evening here in Oregon….with fellow Jews and Israelites in the diaspora (a.k.a. Joseph’s kin) sharing a Pesach meal together and praising YHWH. Can these dry bones come to life? Ezk 37….. They already have! Shalom. Yehuda Ben-Yosef

  6. We ate of the tree of Life and I am so encouraged as I participate in being added to the people of יהוה. Thank you for this recipe. I used wheat free flour, macadamia nut oil and luke warm water. It was a superior unleavened bread. We loved it!

  7. I am not sure if this post is monitored, but if it is, I have a question. I have read and reread the hebrew on Debarim 16:4. It seems to me it could be stating and even more than likely is stating that “And no leaven should be seen with you in all your border for seven days, neither should any of the meat {remain} which you slaughter in the evening {on} [toward] (before) the first day until morning {dawn} [break of day].”
    If this is not a viable and possibly accurate understanding of this verse, will someone please explain to me ( grammer wise) why?

  8. Thank you for this WONDERFUL recipe! The first time we got it right! Had dinner at the neighbours and rushed over to home to do the proper Passover with the proper bread, Thrown out our vegemite and our dog biscuits and dog roll of wurst and well you know half the contents of our cupboard near enough the week prior., WIshing everyone a safe and blessed Passover and Holy Feast.
    LOVE the Passover.

  9. I have believed for years that it was bread starter that they were to get rid of. You can’t get all the yeast out your home because it is everywhere. I also learned about this when I started making bread for my family. Be blessed and bless Yehovah!

  10. I am not doing Passover or the Feast of Unleavened Bread this year because I just started studying with you and Keith Johnson and I haven’t made this teaching “my own” yet.Coming from outside the Jewish tradition and just now learning this with you and Keith I got to thinking about leaven. I don’t exactly know what leaven is other than something used to make bread rise.Doing a little cursory research on ancient breadmaking the Egyptians mostly had a diet of bread and beer.There are old hard bread fossils placed for the afterlife in Egyptian tombs. Beer can be used as a leavening agent. Yeast found on grape peel can be used as a leavening agent. I was big into breadmaking years ago and I was given an Amish bread starter and I remember keeping it in the fridge and having to feed it daily with sugar. Sourdough bread is also made with a starter that has to be fed daily to keep the starter, or the bread “riser” alive. Grain mixed with water and left on a kitchen counter will ferment over 2-3 days and can be used as a starter.I really am wondering if the commandment to remove leaven and eat unleavened bread is not just the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. Women made the bread for the family, it took time and also the starter had to be cared for and babied. If I were part of the mixed multitude and a woman leaving Egypt and “running for my life” bread starter would be the last thing on my mind. Have a wonderful passover and Feast to all commemerating and remembering the scripture. For me, maybe next year.

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