By Talia Davis
So let's start from the top and clean our way down...
Getting Rid of Chometz
We must fulfill the mitzvah of biur chometz -- getting rid of chometz. This isn't as hard as you are thinking... The Torah tells us: "tashbisu se'or mibateichem" -- make all your sour dough rest. So the commandment is that you can have chometz in your presence, but you must believe it is without an owner or value.
Because this idea is fairly vague, our Sages decided to require us to physically destroy chometz. This mitzvah is known as bedikat chometz. They tell us it is not enough to emotionally dismiss the chometz because we still crave it. Therefore we must actively seek out any chometz and truly destroy it.
To truly fulfill the mitzvah of bedikat chometz, we should do the search on the night of the 14th of Nissan, which is the evening prior to the first Seder. Now this seems silly -- if we are looking for crumbs, why do it at night? Well, to see in the crevices and corners well, particularly at night, we need to use candles or flashlights.
Why on this specific night? Well, this process is a communal process. If we all do it on the 14 of Nissan, we all are doing it together, across the world.
As our homesteads have grown larger and larger, the job of bedikat chometz has grown bigger and bigger. We would be up all night if we did our pesach cleaning on one night. So, the tradition has developed to collect and clean our homes prior to the 14th and do a symbolic bedikat chometz that evening with bags of chometz to be found by children.
Let's talk about some rules about bedikat chometz.
Day and Night Cleaning
One rule is that anything that is movable or visible in natural light can be cleaned during the day as long as you have sufficient daylight. However, anything like cabinets or closets that can't be seen in the natural light must be inspected and cleaned at night. The only time that you can't compete the mitzvah is at twilight... it is not light enough to see and not dark enough to use artificial light. You can clean at twilight but you must inspect it again in the dark or daylight to be sure you captured everything!
What Is Chometz Anyway?
The Torah says: Lo yera'eh lecha chometz, velo year'eh lecha se'or bechol gevulecha -- "neither chometz nor se'or shall be visible to you in all your boundaries."
Chometz = any result of a grain that has fermented and is edible by humans.
Se'or = sourdough that is highly fermented and can ferment other dough and inedible fermented grain.
We have to get rid of both of these items and anything made from either of these. Additionally, there is one more segment, the inedible chometz that cannot ferment other dough. There is a very serious halachic term for this... garbage. And since it is garbage, we don't have to get rid of it.
Here's where it gets a little tricky. What about crumbs? Now, if you drop crumbs on your floor, would you eat them? No! That's gross and therefore, it's halachic garbage. Now, if you drop crumbs on the table, would you eat them? Even if it is a delicious cake? You wouldn't stick your finger in them and lick it off? Aha! Gotcha! That makes it chometz.
Didn't think this would come up in this conversation, did you? Well this isn't common outside of the Orthodox movement, but there was a lot of conversation about this because many items can contain grain products in them. However, you don't eat it so it isn't chometz and you can't use it to ferment dough so it isn't se'or.
Well, this got complicated, and many years ago a very smart rabbi named Rabbi Moshe Feinstein came up with an idea on how to deal with this. He stated that even if something isn't currently edible, if it could be distilled and made into something edible, it is chometz. What?! Yup. Anything with ethyl alcohol (grain alcohol) can be considered chometz. Now, I can't imagine that anyone would drink aftershave, but if you tried and succeeded in distilling it, it would be drinkable (gross but drinkable, poisonous but drinkable). This means that anything liquid with grain alcohol must be a part of the chometz cleaning. Please note that I said liquids. Any solids like soap can't be distilled or eaten and you don't have to worry about it for Passover.
I know some of this sounds a bit extreme but just remember that we are showing you the whole picture. Don't throw away your perfume...