Actions Over Words- Passover 5782

D'var Torah | Holidays

In its discussion about preparing for Passover, the Talmud (Pesahim 4b) concludes that according to the Torah a verbal renunciation of all leaven in a Jew’s possession is all that is required in order to fulfill the Scriptural requirement to destroy all hametz. Maimonides, however, is not convinced. Renunciation, says the Talmud (Nedarim 43b), is tantamount to gift-giving and a gift remains in the possession of the giver until the recipient actually takes hold of it, which is not the case with leaven.  Besides, Maimonides points out, the standard Talmudic view is that a mere expression of thought has no legal standing.


In his 1905 code, the Arukh HaShulhan, Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein (Orah Hayyim 431:13) explains that Maimonides is technically correct, but hametz is qualitatively different from any other possession an owner may wish to renounce. It is the Torah that actually “removes” hametz from a Jew’s possession (by renunciation) but nonetheless commands each Jew to physically remove leaven lest it be seen in a Jewish home.


Conceptually, authorities like RaShI and the Tosafists who support the view that verbal renunciation is sufficient, are saying that good feelings, the right attitude, and proper sentiment is all that is needed to fulfill religious obligations. In contrast, Maimonides argues that feelings and sentiment are insufficient. Dr. Jonathan Miller, in his brilliant and original history of the development of medicine, The Body in Question, identifies three major categories of pathological experience: feelings, findings, and failings. The latter two are easily quantifiable but feelings are not. Feelings – like those of phantom limbs – are indeterminate, often misleading, fleeting, and unreliable indices of reality.


When judging the value of those who claim that they are non-practicing Jews but “religious at heart,” Maimonides is saying that without concrete actions, claims of sentiment or feelings are empty. It is a case of sentimentality devoid of commitment. As laborious a business it is to scour and clean and prepare our homes for Passover, it is a necessary way to demonstrate commitment. Passover, and all the effort it entails, teaches that there is more to being Jewish than paying it lip service.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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