Monday, March 21, 2011

What is Leaven?

"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. Indeed on the first day you cause leaven to cease from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that being shall be cut off from Yisra’ĕl." (Shemot/Exodus 12:15)
So how do we cause leaven to cease from our homes during this pre-Pesach season? What is involved here? I will try to answer from a Biblical perspective rather than a Jewish one, for I do see some differences which I feel are either incomplete or somewhat loophole-ish (is that a word?).
From the text we can see that we need to do something about yeast and other types of leavening that exist within our homes. Time for a good spring cleaning, an examination of the pantry, and a subsequent removing of the physical leavening. Of course, as we do all this, we should be reminded of the deeper spiritual truth of the season - namely, examining our own internal “cupboards” and removing from us the sin that so easily besets us, and ingesting only that which is unleavened. Both of these activities involve decisions and commitment to those decisions. The labor involved in spring cleaning is just a picture of the kind of “work” regularly required to keep our spirits “clean.”
Enough preaching. So what is physical leavening? For our purposes, there is leaven and there is leavened bread. There is the thing that causes leavening, and there is the thing that is leavened. There is quite an interesting discussion of this subject here.
Biblically speaking, let’s look at these verses:
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. Indeed on the first day you cause leaven to cease from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that being shall be cut off from Yisra’ĕl. (Shemot/Exodus 12:15)
For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, that same being shall be cut off from the congregation of Yisra’ĕl, whether sojourner or native of the land. (Shemot/Exodus 12:19)
In verse 15, two words we need to examine: leaven, and leavened bread. Leaven is Strong’s H7603, שְׂאֹר, a shin, an aleph, and a resh. Two front teeth, the head of an ox, and the head of a man. Somehow from this we get to the meaning of “ferment.” It will have to be left up to greater minds than mine to explain that! But sa’or, or leaven, in this context was wild yeast. And “what is leavened,” or chametz, is in this context anything containing yeast.
During this season, many restrict the definition of leaven just to yeast, but I believe we have additional leaven in our pantries that needs to be addressed that our ancestors did not have to deal with. Here is a short but not comprehensive list of leaven that typically can be found in a cupboard or refrigerator/freezer:

Baking yeast, cake or dry
Baking powder
Cream of tartar
Tartaric acid
Calcium acid phosphate
Sodium acid phosphate
Sodium aluminum phosphate
Baking soda
Sodium bicarbonate
Ammonium carbonate
Powdered baking ammonia
Carbonate of ammonia
Egg whites, when whipped stiff, act as leavening

As I said, this is not a comprehensive list, but if your food labels indicate a chemical that you can barely pronounce, you may want to look it up to see what it is. Even if it's NOT leaven, you may not want to eat it! My general rule is, "When in doubt, leave it out." Of course, that's an equally applicable rule in technical writing, but I digress ;-)
Where does leavening hide? This is an interesting question. When I first started keeping the moedim, I researched the subject, and came up with this:

Prepared foods
Breads, crackers, cereals
Baked goods
Soups and gravies
Liquid seasonings
Toothpaste and deodorant
Cleaning products
Bath salts and body products
Detergents and soaps
Septic tank products

Being the religious type that I am, I had added the non-food items because sometimes they contain baking soda or yeast. My husband tried to teach me that the leaven was not acting as leaven in these products, so it was permissible. But I just couldn’t help it, I didn’t want any leaven in the house! Never mind that I forgot to clean out the toaster oven that year, and had plenty of leavened crumbs after Pesach! Now I understand this differently, and include only “what is leavened” with the intent of it being leavened, such as food products.
Are there things that sound like leavening, but are not? Perhaps you can consider these. Brewer’s yeast and nutritional yeast are by-products of beer fermentation and rich source of vitamins, especially B-complex. They have no leavening properties. Also, autolyzed yeast extract is yeast that has broken down to release its insides, in this case monosodium glutamate. Found in many prepared foods, it has no leavening properties.
So what do you do with the sa’or and the chametz when you find it? You can start now by eating up all your crackers and breads and such, and you can stop making yeast bread for freezer storage. Of course, we are at that time of year when it is getting warmer, and we want to fit into our "summer clothes," so the additional carbs may not be something you want to take in. Be prudent but not wasteful.
Check your freezer and refrigerator and your pantry and your cupboards, and read all your labels. Set aside all leaven and all leavened products. If you have unopened products that contain leaven which you know you will not eat up before Pesach, you can donate it to a food bank. But I do this only if I think it will be consumed before Pesach, which means I normally do this in late February/early March.
Somehow, and maybe it’s just my own personal eccentricity, I just don’t feel it is appropriate to dump all my leavened products off at the food bank the day before Pesach. Oh, that it would it be that there was no leaven in the food banks during Pesach as well! For the Torah applies to all – the native and the stranger who sojourns with us, as we can see from the passage from Exodus. But not everyone has this conviction, and I'm not prescribing it for you. Pray and seek wisdom if you are perplexed, and He will straighten you out ;-)
Which brings me to religious loopholes. I do not advise “selling” your chametz online and exchanging money but keeping the leaven in your house, then buying it back after Pesach. This seems to me a suspicious legal technicality that would have been the kind of thing Yeshua (my Rabbi) would have taught against when He was teaching in the Temple. There are many who do not follow Exodus 12:19 precisely and who believe that much of the Torah does not apply to non-Jews. Regardless, if we are following Torah, we must remove the sa’or and the chametz from our homes, and not sell them to the “goyim” simply to buy them back at a later time.
Which is why it is important to have rule and reign over your pantry!
Below are two recipes for unleavened bread, though the first involves more ingredients than flour and water. I provide one with those simple ingredients as well.
Not-the-bread-of-affliction Unleavened Bread Recipe
5 c. flour (whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, white whole wheat, unbleached white, or some combination of these)
½ c. cream
1 c. organic extra virgin olive oil OR ½ c. oil and 1 stick salted butter, melted
4 T. sugar OR 4 T. honey
1 c. whole milk
¼ t. salt

Mix dry ingredients. Melt butter and blend with oil, milk, and cream. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and knead well. Let rest 10 minutes. Roll out on floured board, cut into desired shapes, and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 °F until lightly browned. Store in a tightly sealed container.
Good-old-bread-of-affliction Unleavened Bread Recipe
2 c. flour (whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, white whole wheat, unbleached white, or some combination of these)
2/3 c. water

Combine the flour and water and knead 10 minutes. Cut the dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and flatten with a rolling pin on a floured board to form 6-inch (15 mm) circles. Pierce the dough disks with a fork at 1-inch intervals and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in a preheated 425°F (220°C) oven for 7 minutes or until discs are lightly colored, blistered and crisp. Store in a tightly sealed container.
Finally, let us be reminded of the words of Rav Shaul, as he tells us what to do with the leaven once we find it (1 Corinthians 5:7-8):
Get rid of the old chametz, so that you can be a new batch of dough, because in reality you are unleavened. For our Pesach lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed. So let us celebrate the Seder not with leftover chametz, the chametz of wickedness and evil, but with the matzah of purity and truth.
As always, your comments are welcome, and if you have any additional insights, or corrections, or recipes, please post them. Shalom!

1 comment:

  1. Hello. I enjoyed this article. May I submit some comments?

    I also remove dry pets foods because of yeast additives. For the week of unleavened bread our pets enjoy canned food without yeast or table scraps. They think this is really cool.

    I do remove the Brewer's yeast from our house. Even though it may be a by-product, it was still made from yeast. Leavened bread has been baked and it a by product of the action of yeast or bicarbonate, but it was still made with a leavening agent.

    We also remove wine, beer and vinegar products from our home. Why? Because they were made with yeast, just like leavened bread. Some canned foods like sauerkraut contain vinegar and most condiments like salad dressings and mustard.

    Is this over doing it? I don't know, but its not really a problem for us to do this. When I researched the meaning of the Hebrew word for leavening it stated one definition for things that were "fermented."

    In ancient times, removing all of the leaven may not have been as complicated as it is for us today. This is because we have so many processed food items and manufactured products.

    I have put together a list for my own use of all of the weird things in our house that contain leaven or have been fermented. This helps me to find everything. For example, I have the toaster and vacuum cleaner bag listed as sources for bread crumbs. If I didn't check my list, I'd probably forget.

    I have also found that I usually miss something every year no matter how hard I try. Maybe there is a message in this that nobody's perfect no matter how hard we try. So, I just keep on going and try the best I can.

    Have a blessed Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread.


    Sarah Armstrong